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  • Aging:A Feminist Issue
  • Leni Marshall (bio)

When Barbara Macdonald spoke on a plenary at the 1985 NWSA convention, she was angry! A pioneer in feminist aging studies, Macdonald described a four-year fight to get the topic of aging included in a plenary session. She took feminists to task when she asked, "Has it never occurred to those of you in Women's Studies, as you ignore the meaning and the politics of the lives of women beyond our reproductive years, that this is male thinking? Has it never occurred to you as you build feminist theory that ageism is a central feminist issue?" (21).

Twenty years later, aging studies remains an emergent topic for scholars outside Women's Studies. Within NWSA, the topic's progress can be measured by two recent events. First, the NWSA governing council unanimously decided to focus an entire plenary on aging studies. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, Margaret Gullette, and Kathleen Woodward were selected to speak at the 2005 convention. Then, the NWSA Journal agreed to devote a special issue to aging studies. With these actions, the organizations' leadership has acknowledged the importance of aging studies, and its centrality to Women's Studies. As Women's Studies develops, it occurs to more and more of us that aging and ageism are important feminist issues. This is good news not only for those of us working in the field of aging studies, but also for those of us who are aging—that is, all of us. Each of us has confronted, or will eventually have to confront, the physical, psychological, social, and other changes that happen with time; all of us who live will eventually belong to the "Othered" category that is old age.

Each day, more and more of us realize the eventuality of belonging to the "Othered" category that is old age. In the United States, 10,000 people turn 50 each day (Akers 2001). The U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) data show that, in the year 2000, 12.4 percent of the U.S. population was over the age of 65. By 2030, the raw numbers will double, bringing the percentage to a projected 20 percent. People of color, who made up 17.2 percent of the over-65 population in 2002, are projected to be 26.4 percent of that population by 2030 (Administration on Aging 2003). The statistics can be overwhelming, but they are worth knowing. The AoA uses the term "elderly" to denote people over age 65; I could argue the term, but I co-opt it for the sake of brevity. Almost 17 percent of the elderly were near (6.4 percent) or below (10.4 percent) the poverty line: 8.3 percent of elderly whites, 23.8 percent of elderly blacks, and 21.4 percent of elderly Hispanics live below the poverty line (Administration on Aging 2003). That 10.4 percent is more than three and a half million people. Elderly people living alone are more likely to be poor than those living with families. Forty-one [End Page vii] percent of elderly women live alone (versus 18 percent for men). Elderly Hispanic women living alone had the highest poverty rate: 47.1 percent. More than half of the non-institutionalized elderly have some form of disability (Administration on Aging 2003). These data make it abundantly clear: aging is a feminist issue, one that women's studies scholars need to incorporate into their analyses.

In a country in which the demographic bulge of aging continues to expand, the limited size and influence of aging studies' academic repertoire frustrates scholars of aging as much as those texts' contents illuminate and inspire. Since the 1973 publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Coming of Age, reviewers have greeted feminist books on aging with words that emphasize the importance of the topic—and that reflect the larger social amnesia. A few examples: The Coming of Age was hailed as a text that "confronts a subject of universal public anguish and universal public silence" ("Five Significant Books" 1972). The back cover of Barbara Macdonald and Cynthia Rich's own text, Look Me in the Eye: Women, Aging, and Ageism (1983), shows...