Gender and Ageism in the Academy

Universities minimize the influence of older women not only by removing them from positions of power but also in more subtle ways, argues Susan M. Shaw.

March 4, 2020
 
 
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In her essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex,” black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde noted that ageism distorts relationships and encourages people to repeat mistakes of the past. She wrote, “If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community, nor ask the all-important question, ‘Why?’ This gives rise to a historical amnesia that keeps us working to invent the wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread.”

Older women in the university have valuable institutional memory. They remember why the institution had to create a faculty development program in difference, power and discrimination and how the Pride Center came to be. They remember the conversations that led to those decisions, and they remember the price that women and men of color, white women and queer and trans faculty paid to ensure the institution changed. They remember when department relations or resources or facilities were worse -- or better -- than they are now. Younger colleagues can draw on older women’s institutional memory as a tool in their own efforts to transform the institution.

But rather than valuing the experience and expertise of older women, institutions have minimized their influence for years. As early as 1979, feminist Barbara Macdonald identified the problem of ageism in the women’s movement. “All my life in a man’s world, I was a problem,” she wrote, “because I was a woman; now I’m a problem in a woman’s world because I’m a 65-year-old woman. Hearing once more that I was not in the right place and thinking, ‘If not here, where?’”

Almost a decade earlier, Simone de Beauvoir argued that the gaze of the Other constructs old age as an unwelcome condition. Kathleen Woodward calls this “the youthful structure of the look,” “a stigmatizing social judgment, made worse by our internalization of it.”

Macdonald also noted, “To begin to understand ageism is to recognize that it is a point of convergence for many other repressive forces” -- racism, ableism, capitalism and heterosexism. The same practices that undergird those forces -- social and economic dependence, violence, enforced gender and heterosexuality -- play out in ageism across differences of gender, race, class and sexuality.

Now, here we are 40 years later, and the conversation on ageism has barely seemed to progress, even in those circles where some attempt is being made to address issues of difference and power across race and gender. While women in the academy are always a sort of problem, older women face particular issues like barriers to hiring and promotion and the pressure to retire in the face of budget concerns. (Full disclosure: I am an aging woman in academe, and many other aging women in higher education provided input for this piece.) Administrators often look at older faculty members’ salaries as a funding resource rather than as a reward accumulated across decades of productive service. Since women were only reluctantly allowed into the academy anyway, they’re easier to marginalize and discard because they never fully belonged.

In fact, at that moment between achieving tenure and retirement, even as aging women obtain rank and status and maintain productivity, they are pushed aside and sidelined, despite their actual contributions and continuing potential. Such marginalization is rooted in cultural stereotypes about older women. Aging, we assume, makes women more feeble, not just physically but also intellectually. Older women are “little old ladies” -- doddering, addled and incapable. Or worse, yet, they somehow represent the Mother (or perhaps even the Grandmother) to younger colleagues who need to rebel against her and push her to the side to assert their own leadership. Older men, on the other hand, tend to be looked at more fondly and with more respect, like the kind uncle.

Among progressive faculty members, older women are often perceived as less radical in their political commitments. In fact, success within the institution may be perceived as evidence of collusion, and, with little institutional memory among younger colleagues, older women’s history of resistance may well be overlooked.

While older men are often moved from leadership position to leadership position in the university, even after retirement, older women are often moved out of leadership or choose to leave leadership and go back to the faculty because of the toll of sexism, ageism, racism and heterosexism across a career. Again, 40 years ago, Macdonald pointed out the different consequences of aging for women and men. “Men still have power, power to be president, power to be Walter Cronkite, and power to marry younger women. Men are not the servants of youth; older women are.”

Pushed to the Side

Universities minimize the influence of older women not only by removing them from positions of power within the institution but also in more subtle ways, such as ignoring their contributions to discussions or assuming they have little to offer in terms of new directions in academic programs. While it may be true that younger colleagues are the future of a program, a future without attention to institutional histories can produce unintended setbacks.

Some of this pushing aside may actually come from fear of older women’s power. Across an academic career, women have to deal with a lot of abuse, but older women tend to refuse to put up with it anymore. As they age, they become more assertive and confident and less fearful and dependent. An older woman with tenure who no longer cares what anyone thinks is a frightful thing to many people in the academy.

Pushing older women to the side, then, is counterproductive for younger colleagues who want to make serious institutional change. Just imagine how much movements for social justice in universities would be advanced by solidarity among younger colleagues and older tenured women who don’t care what anyone thinks anymore and are not afraid to stand up to institutional power.

As universities strive to address important questions concerning diversity on the campus, they need to ensure they’re also challenging the notions and practices of ageism that are deeply embedded in institutional structures and ideologies of youth and aging as they intersect with gender, race and sexuality.

Universities need to look older women in the eye and see the resource they have in those women, as Macdonald suggests. She wrote that for older women to pass on their knowledge, “We have to break one more barrier of silence, the silence of the old. We have to hear that silence as political, and know that just beneath all imposed silences lies power.”

Bio

Susan M. Shaw is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.

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