- "We need a theoretical base":Cynthia Rich, Women's Studies, and Ageism
Cynthia Rich is an activist who has been exposing ageism against old women for more than 25 years. She co-authored the trailblazing essay collection Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging, and Ageism with her partner Barbara Macdonald in 1983; a second, expanded edition was issued in 1991. Another expansion of that edition was published in 2001 after Macdonald's death at age 86, so that the essays span more than twenty years of analysis and activism, addressing society's pervasive ageism from a feminist perspective. Rich lives in San Diego, where she is a co-founder of The Old Women's Project. According to the project website, the group "works to make visible how old women are directly affected by all issues of social justice, and to combat the ageist attitudes that ignore, trivialize or demean us. We are a group of old women who use actions of various kinds to achieve this goal. We welcome women of all ages who wish to join in our actions" (The Old Women's Project, 2005). During a telephone conversation, Rich commented on relationships between Women's Studies, ageism against old women, and activism. Whenever possible, the interviewer's (VBL) comments were omitted in order to focus on Rich's (CR) views.
VBL: Some of the comments on ageism on The Old Women's Project website are similar to those included in essays and speeches you and Barbara Macdonald wrote twenty years ago. Have perceptions of old age changed in society at large? Is the battle any different now, as the general population ages?
CR: That's an excellent place to start. We're living out the world that Barbara projected for us in 1980 in her essay "Exploitation by Compassion" (Macdonald 1983). There are so many more old women now, and the corporations, the drug companies, the nursing facilities, the retirement homes have moved right in to reap the profits. But it also turns out that they can make money by actively promoting a fear and loathing around women's aging. Now 30-year-olds are just horrified by their first wrinkle, and it's become a major industry to make younger women see my 72-year-old body as hideous. Will it matter that the baby boomers are aging? Well, there may be more of us old women every day, but if numbers translated into power, women and people of color would rule the world. I don't put faith in numbers.
VBL: What direction do you believe academics should take, especially women's studies and age studies scholars? [End Page 3]
CR: I want to say that any change in approach, in attitudes, needs to start in academia; we need a theoretical base. The women who set off the women's movement in the '70s and '80s will be moving into old age in large numbers—they could make a difference—but there's no theoretical analysis, no base for what they're encountering. Without a theoretical foundation that Women's Studies can provide us, women have no idea how to think about our aging and our organizing. They're struggling. Longtime feminists such as Ellen Goodman, Geraldine Ferraro, and Pat Schroeder tried to organize a voters' movement called Granny Voters, around their concern for their grandchildren. Granny Voters? These are strong feminists who never would have called themselves Mommy Voters, who never would have ignored the sexism they encountered or fed the stereotype that all women are mothers.
VBL: The Granny Voters say that they emphasize grandchildren to make politicians aware that older voters are interested in more than Medicare and Social Security. Here's an excerpt from their website:
We started GrannyVoter.org to affect the quality of political discourse in this country and insist that candidates discuss the long-term implications of their policies. Through GrannyVoter.org, we want to get the word out to other grandparents so that they can act, speak, and vote on behalf of their grandchildren's future. On our grandchildren's behalf, GrannyVoters will ask the candidates what they...