We are pleased to welcome to the blog today a guest post from Corinne T. Field, author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America. In the fight for equality, early feminists often cited the infantilization of women and men of color as a method used to keep them out of power. Field argues that attaining adulthood–and the associated political rights, economic opportunities, and sexual power that come with it–became a common goal for both white and African American feminists between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The idea that black men and all women were more like children than adult white men proved difficult to overcome, however, and continued to serve as a foundation for racial and sexual inequality for generations.
In a previous guest blog post, Field addresses the phenomenon of “boomerang kids,” namely, recent college graduates who move back home with their parents. In today’s post, Field considers first-wave feminism’s hallmark defense of the value of aging.
Old age was once a feminist issue. From Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century to Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the early twentieth, feminists argued that women could only be free if they were willing to proudly grow old. These early feminists believed that men subordinated women by praising youthful beauty and denigrating mature wisdom. Girls consented to their own subjection because, as Mary Wollstonecraft put it, “the adoration comes first and the scorn is not anticipated.” Wollstonecraft and others urged women to stop trying to look or act young and instead demand respect for female maturity.
This vital link between feminism and aging was severed in the 1910s as American feminists embraced a spirit of youthful rebellion. A century later, despite the many opportunities women now enjoy, unrealistic beauty standards remain firmly in place and few women manage to climb to the most senior positions in business, politics, or cultural affairs. Perhaps it is time for young women as well as old to reconsider their foremothers’ most vital insight—to gain sexual equality, women must demand respect for female elders.
Winning respect for female elders was an issue that cut across the color line separating black and white feminists in nineteenth-century America. The white transcendentalist Margaret Fuller urged women to cast aside their fear of becoming “old maids” and cultivate talents rather than youthful beauty. Sharing the same goal, the black abolitionist Frances Harper crafted poetry and fiction centered on a new type of heroine, one “not vainly striving to keep her appearance of girlishness,” who dedicated herself to growing old in the service of antislavery and women’s rights.
American feminists continued to focus on old age through the turn of the twentieth century. In 1915, when Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined a feminist utopia, she focused on what older women could become in a society without men—”majestic, grey-haired” women who governed with wisdom and grace. By the 1910s, however, Gilman was fighting an uphill battle. Most feminists, along with most Americans, began to celebrate youth as the most interesting and innovative stage of life. The notion that young women could only become free by rebelling against their elders took deep hold in the feminist imagination where it remained firmly lodged through the women’s movement of the 1970s and the so-called “third wave” of the 1990s.
To be sure, some dissenters urged feminists to confront ageism along with other forms of oppression. In 1972, white cultural critic Susan Sontag protested “The Double Standard of Aging,” by which she meant, “the social convention that aging enhances a man but progressively destroys a woman.” In the 1980s, black feminist Audre Lorde urged attention to the intersections of “Age, Race, Class, and Sex” while white activists Barbara MacDonald and Cynthia Rich steadily criticized feminists for failing to confront their own ageism. Today, feminists are somewhat more likely to consider the needs of old women thanks to activist networks such as the Raging Grannies and the Older Women’s League, as well as scholarly organizations promoting research in feminist age studies.
Despite these gains, American feminists have not acknowledged the force of ageism. Many seem to think that aging is an issue to be confronted only by the old. But this is not what women thought a century ago. One of the great insights of first-wave feminists was that all women—not just old women—needed to demand respect for female maturity, because sexual equality could only be achieved when women gained respect for talents developed over the course of life.
Corinne T. Field is a lecturer in the Corcoran Department of History and the Women, Gender, Sexuality Program at the University of Virginia. Her book The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America is now available.