Lesbian Wimmin's Views of Older Wimmin

by Beau

While the lesbian community in general may be better than the larger Western culture at confronting its ageist attitudes, there still exists ageism that can make the older lesbian feel invisible. Olderlebians who are out are frequently not acknowledged by younger women, or listened to.
In the amazing progress wimmin have-made in self-acceptance and pride in their gender, they have left an upsetting gap. The patriarchal fear and loathing of old wimmin have stayed within the collective subconscious and are being expressed in ageist attitudes toward each other. The idealization of youth in this culture applies especially to wimmin, although wimmin under 25 are seen as children, and professional success has been added to the list of necessities for "ideal" womanhood.
This ageism is expressed within the lesbian community despite protests of feminism and rejection of patriarchy. The attitudes expressed by wimmin about wimmin when they are also describing sexual attractiveness as a criterion are often blatant reflections of the male stereotype. While most feminists are offended by the objectification of wimmin in contemporary soft-porn publications like Playboy, such magazines are seen passed about in wimmin's bars. The idea of wimmin past "child-bearing" age as sexual beings or as sexually attractive is as foreign to most lesbians as it is to heterosexual men and wimmin in contemporary Western culture. The idea that an "old" womon could even be of any interest is rare. The wisdom of the crone has been attacked through fear and thoroughly devalued by male dominance. The older lesbian, when visible at all, is seen by her younger sisters as a surrogate mother and herstory book.
Symbolic interactionists propose that the ability to use symbols, such as language, was what made it possible for society to exist. If something can be named, then the name becomes the thing, and can be acted upon as a thing in itself. This also makes it possible to imagine it in other environs than here and now, and to consider other possible conditions of it. We are able to leave the immediate, concrete event and internalize the meanings that have been given them through agreement. The naming process in Western culture has thus included the masculinization of power and status and the feminization of weakness and subservience. (This is the reason the author has chosen spellings of womon and wimmin rather than the standard, which infer male possession, creation, and dominance).
In the process of socialization we develop a sense of self by watching and listening to the reactions of others, that is, seeing ourselves as we believe others see us (Charles Cooley's "looking glass self"). We are finally socialized through stepping out of our egocentric state and internalizing the "role of the generalized other". That means we take the values of the group as our own.
Wimmin's sense of self is affected by, in fact is a product of society's view of wimmin. What is taken in as the generalized other's viewpoint is commonly the agreed upon reality of the fathers. The generalized other then, or the ego/superego, or the conscience, which becomes the socialized center of the self, is anti-feminist. The other is internalized as the male view of womon; thus self is a partially or totally deviant being, inconsistant with the ideal, the should-be feminine object. Womon sees womon as "less than" man: therefore a womon sees herself as "less-than". She can have no real self-esteem since only males are esteemed.
Berger and Luckman (1966) discuss "common knowledge" as a construct of intersubjective consensus (built by language through shared or similar experience and agreed upon as real). Everyday life, they say, is concrete reality as interpreted by people to be meaningful to them in maintaining a coherent world. This interpreted image of reality is believed to be reality by individual members of the social group, and is acted upon as real in conducting their lives. It is constructed in our minds, and maintained as reality. In the objectification process, people create the intersubjective commonsense world. The phenomena of life are already arranged for us in patterns set by those who came before us, and passed on (learned) as realities, named, "designated as objects" within language. We share a common world with others, and must interact, communicate, and constantly relate our meanings to other's meanings. Commonsense knowledge is that shared with others in routine living situations. They state that, "social order is a human product, or, more concisely, an ongoing human production. It is produced by man in the course of his ongoing externalization"(p. 52). Berger and Luckman continue that "institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors" (p.54) This typification is the institution. This institution, and the institutionalized world, are seen as objective reality. Their continuum of reality is an interactive three stage dialectic process of externalization, objectiTication, and internalization.
Womon sees her place in the collective herstory, her biography, as part of an objective history, within which the institutionalized world demands "legitimation" (reasons, explanations, justifications). Wimmin's legitimation within Western patriarchal societies is usually based upon their utility and attractiveness to men.
The most insidious aspect of this linguistic caste system is the psychological effect it has on most wimmin. For many it serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, rendering them virtually unfit to assume anything other than the passive, dependent role for which they have been programmed. For countless others it entails perpetual anxiety and guilt over what they are and do versus what they "ought to be," according to society (Chafetz, 1974, p. 151).
The ideal womon, according to Fascinating Womanhood, is "a domestic goddess" who understands men, is feminine, dependent upon and submissive to men, childlike, and has an inner happiness from satisfaction with her role (Andelin, 1972). Betty Friedan described this ideal as the "feminine mystique", and proposed that it made the housewife-mother (who had never had a choice) the model for all wimmin, causing an aching dissatisfaction due to the disparities between the ideal and reality. It is informative to note that the age group thus represented would be approximately 25-45, childbearing age, the ideal age represented by contemporary popular culture for wimmin, although 'housewife' status has been replaced by 'professional'.
Add to the anti-feminism in Western culture its gerontophobia and the picture becomes clearer. Victoria Secunda (1984) describes in detail the age segregation in America which is made so plain to each of us from toddlerhood. The young-old, she says, are put into a generational squeeze, disrespected and devalued but responsible for the wellbeing of themselves, the young, and the elderly. Their economic situation becomes tenuous. They are walled into this age segregate by a categorizing society.
In accepting the labels defined by the dominant patriarchal society, the feminist and the womon identified women may, unwittingly, be accepting its underlying meanings as well. The process is not one of which we are consciously aware. Cynthia Rich watched it happen: "Ageism was branded onto the women's movement with the word 'Sisterhood'. When we accepted Sisterhood we accepted that class system, with all of the mistrust and division the master had instilled between younger and older women. We dismissed mothers and grandmothers as outsiders to the action. We excluded older women from a struggle for freedom just as we had excluded our mothers and grandmothers from our whispered rebellions as daughters in the master's house. Once we had accepted the brand of Sisterhood, we could not even see how we had dismissed and excluded older women (MacDonald & Rich, 1983, p. 104).
Kitzinger (1987) demonstrated that lesbians' identities are shaped by acceptance of the stereotype set up by the majority, and have internalized the dominant group definition of their deviance. This would appear to interact with the internalization of ageism against wimmin to cause the perception of old lesbians as extreme deviants. Old lesbians have been closeted most of their lives out of necessity. Many are just "coming out" in their old age, now that their jobs and families are not at risk. Therefore they have not been visible role models, and, indeed, lesbians see their sisters most obviously during the "ideal" years from 20-60. The fewer there are of a group (that are visible) the more likely the perception of deviance.
Studies have shown for decades that Western wimmin percieve wimmin as inferior to men: less competent, less valued, of lower status, less convincing, less interesting (Goldberg, 1974). A parallel set of perceptions accompanies ageing. When that mirror image of herself is seen, a womon can only develop a negative self-image. Even when her consciousness has been "raised", she must constantly battle her early socialization and the reactions of those around her. The message she is constantly given is that she is not okay, and that she gets "less okay" with every birthday.
Fear of aging begins in youth and is constantly reinforced through the media. A womon is sold "age-control-anti-wrinkle" formulas by teenage models dozens of times a day, in magazines, on billboards, on television (an average of 5,260 messages per year acccording to Downs and Harrison). The 60 year old male romantic lead on teevee and in the movies is slobbered over by fluttering ingenues in their early twenties (or appearing to be that age). The lesbian is exposed to the same media onslaught, and her picture of womon develops the same biases. The media sets the standard by which a womon judges herself. She cannot hope to meet those idealized standards, and her self-image suffers inevitably by comparison.
Although ageism is an equal opportunity prejudice, the older womon suffers much greater devaluation than the older man. Western society is more ageist toward wimmin than toward men. Wimmin therefore internalize ageism toward other wimmin. "The stereotype of the older woman is that the aging woman is not the equal of a younger woman--neither in power, nor in beauty, nor in any of the other feminine attributes. It is all right for a woman to be chronologically old, if she looks younger than her years. It is also alright for her to be sexual and old, if her skin and body give the illusion of youth" (Lesnoff-Caravaglia).
The lesbian may have unconsciously accepted these societal definitions, and may make her choices of sexual partners, if not friends in general, on the basis of this prescribed ideal. A cursory inspection of places where lesbians gather might reveal age-heirarchical cliques and generational separation. That is consistant with the author's experience and expectation.
Buffy Dunker, however, disagrees: "One aspect of aging that's hard for many women is the way the body changes. Skin loses its elasticity, and wrinkles, bulges, and flab appear. Hair goes white, and muscles and joints get stiff. The conventionalwomen (sic) often accepts the male stereotypes of beauty and youth, and either mourns or fights the change. She can feel bitter, anxious, and self-conscious in the attempt to keep her good looks. Lesbians can reject the male standards. We can appreciate the quality of our own changes as we see what's happening to the faces and figures of the women we love. Our ideas of beauty aren't necessarily subject to male fantasies".
Can we really appreciate those changes in ourselves and those we love? Is a fortyish lesbian without a partner any less panicky about her looks and her ability to attract a new partner than her heterosexual counterpart? Does she have any less reason to be? There is a question whether we can totally control our early socialization by conscious effort. While our standards of beauty and status aren't necessarily the stuff that male dreams are made of, they have been socially constructed, and thus are subject to the dominant culture's patriarchal ideals.
Baba Copper would respond: "Women of all ages have a deep investment in denying age hatred. To those lesbians who point out that they have friends whose lovers are twenty years older I say: "But how often is that lover a woman in her sixties? How many women in their seventies are your intimates? Do you know anyone who has a close friend in her eighties? Since there are so few from my side of the hill making demands or even expressing dissatisfaction, there are many who challenge me by demanding concrete examples of ageism! I find that I can say how it feels, or describe whom it serves, or speculate about its roots. But there is no way for me to tell stories which will illustrate the complex circumstances surrounding my losses because of ageism (Copper, 1988).
Monica Kehoe published a study of 100 lesbians over 60 years of age. This study dealt with many aspects of lesbian aging, but it also touched on experiences of ageism. While most of her respondents said they felt "very positive" attitudes toward their lesbianism, fewer felt as positive about aging. Most did not relate experiences of discrimination against their lesbian lifesyle, but many have experienced age discrimination from both heterosexuals and homosexuals. She quotes her respondents: "These women, along with their nongay peers, also know discrimination because of their age, even from those in their own lesbian community. One attempted to explain it by writing, 'Almost all known younger lesbians feel they will become aged and do not want to face it.' Others express their disappointment differently: 'I would like to see younger women working to change negative images of old age among other young women and more effort given to older women running older women's programs'; 'Younger lesbians talk a good one about how bad ageism is, but socially they want nothing to do with older women; There is a degree of ageism in the lesbian community here--a certain amount of patronizing.' One woman summed it up: 'The lesbian community thinks young.'(Kehoe).
Whether we admit it or not, there is a certain degree of ageism in the lesbian community. Whether we admit it or not, each womon who has been raised in our culture has a portion of her self-image tarnished by internalized societal gerontophobia. Despite her fervent desire to be free from bias, and despite seeing her political stance as free of discrimination, she harbors within her unconscious the whispers of the collective partriarchal mind.
The special needs of elderly lesbians, who may find themselves alone, without social or family support, are such that they deserve special attention and superhuman effort to meet these needs. To ignore these wimmin and perpetuate their invisibility is inhuman and criminal. Wimmin must consider that their womonhood dooes not end at 60, or 70, or 80, and that they will be old wimmin themselves. Wimmin must relearn societal definitions and meanings and replace them with truly feminist, humanist lexicons. Each generation of wimmin must learn to accept and adapt to aging as a natural part of life, and to respond to and within all age groups with respect and dignity.
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