I regard fighting ageism as a critical feminist challenge

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I’d love to see older women form consciousness-raising groups similar to what we had in the ’70s and dismantle the stereotype that, when a woman loses her youthful appearance, her value diminishes

Pat Taub, family therapist, life-long feminist and the author of the blog Women’s Older Wisdom

I know exactly the coffee shop in Milan where Pat and I could sit down, watch the world goes by and talk for hours. She would be surprised that we could go from a cappuccino in the morning to an appetizer in the evening without leaving the same tree-lined street. On my hand, just as it happens when we “talk” online, I would get the invaluable feeling of reading an interesting book

A thought-provoking woman, Pat is a family therapist, activist and author. She wrote a mother-daughter memoir about her mother and created the blog Women’s Older Wisdom  four years ago. Currently, she teaches “Women and Aging” at the University of Southern Maine and engages in actions with local peace and justice groups. 

Pat has plenty to share and I’m fascinated to note how, with every new interview, my perception of aging broadens.

Your blog states that you took part in the first feminist march 40 years ago. Do you remember what march? Why did you decide to join?

My first feminist march was closer to 45 years ago. I was working in Baltimore, Maryland as a social worker when I gave over my lunch hour to join a small group of women who were protesting the Miss America pageant for its exploitation of women as sex objects. This was during the heady times of social change when everyone seemed to be taking on the establishment. Anti-war factions, Black Power, and Feminism dominated politics. I was captured by the energy and ideas advanced by the women’s movement, known at the time as “women’s liberation.”

Do you notice any common denominator between the feminism movement and the contemporary awareness for ageism?

Yes, both movements seek to empower women and dismantle the cultural stereotypes that limit them. The Second Wave of Feminism took on abortion rights; equal pay, advocating that a woman receive the same salary as a man for the same job; government sponsored childcare; shared parenting and household chores. Regrettably, these challenges remain, particularly the right to abortions, which are newly under assault. I think married women have made progress in sharing parenting and household chores, although in many cases they still do the lion’s share of the work.

I regard fighting ageism as a critical feminist challenge for older women. It’s the force that restricts them from enjoying their later years by telling them that once past a certain age, like 60, they are too old to have legitimate social standing. I think this is why so many older women feel invisible.

I’d love to see older women form consciousness-raising groups similar to what we had in the ‘70s. Consciousness-raising groups, or CRs, focused on deconstructing all the cultural ways women were put down. In my first CR group I woke up to how I had been socially programed, like taking my husband’s name when I married. CR groups frequently spawned protest actions, marching for abortion rights and for just, humane treatment of rape victims. 

A CR group for older women would support members to recognize and resist ageism and sexism, like fighting the stereotype that when a woman loses her youthful appearance her value diminishes. 

One of the books that gave me the idea to start The Age Buster is The Feminine Mystique. The myth of youth is an effective substitute for the suburban life Betty Friedan described. I thought Friedan would have explored this concept (actually, she wrote something about aging, too). What do you think: is this socially induced feeling old another “problem that has no name?”

I think there is a similarity in that until ageism and sexism were written about as forces that demean and limit the older woman, she often didn’t understand why she became depressed as she aged. Thankfully we now have a framework for examining ageism and sexism towards liberating the older woman from negative cultural messages.

According to Wikipedia, “ageism” was first used in 1969 by the sociologist Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism. Butler didn’t consider that women have a very different experience aging than men. While there are similarities, society tends to be far more accepting of the older man whose gray hairs make him distinguished or whose accumulated knowledge earns him the label of the elder statesman. 

Older women are rebelling against the aging double standards for men and women where men’s contributions in the arts and politics aren’t disputed as they age while women frequently age out of the public domain.

What sparked your curiosity/interest for aging?

My own aging. Once I was in my ’70s, I searched for ways to make my later years positive and meaningful. I saw too many women around me depressed at being older. I wanted to avoid feeling like this. For inspiration, I read memoirs of older women who celebrated their later years—May Sarton, Diana Athill, Ursula LeGuin.

When and why did you decide to launch the WOW blog?

In 2015, as part of my preparation for teaching my first class of “Women and Aging,” I googled “older women” and was appalled at what surfaced. Typical references were on the order of how to dress younger, make-up tips for older women, how to attract a younger man, or mother-in-law advice.  

I couldn’t find a single blog that validated the older woman, supporting her efforts to age in a meaningful way rather than championing superficial ways to stay young, as in plastic surgery. Everywhere I turned I encountered “anti-aging” advice—a cultural refusal to recognize that aging is inevitable and not a stage to be feared. Modestly, I decided I would try to fill this void. Hence WOW was born.

Why did you choose to stress the concept of "wisdom" in particular?

I regard the later years for both women and men as the wisdom years. This is the time in our lives where we can hone our life experiences to enrich our souls, to give back to our communities through service or mentoring. The Native Americans celebrate the wisdom of their elders. I try to employ this model to encourage all women to own their wisdom as they age by tapping into their inner resources. Without fail whenever I teach a class or lead a workshop for older women I come away moved by the wisdom each woman holds. Aging is so much more than how you look. It’s what’s inside and needs to be valued and brought to light.  

Thanks to blogging and your experience as a lecturer, what have you learned so far? I mean: what do women need, complain about, would like to change, experience? Can you draw a big picture?

Women need to feel valued as they age and stop obsessing about their wrinkles, soft bellies and gray hair. They need to find ways to gather with other older women to combat the loneliness that can accompany the widowed and those with a solo lifestyle. Women draw strength from the community of like-minded women.

In her groundbreaking book, The New Psychology of Women, Jean Baker Miller describes how women are relational by nature and are empowered through the collective experience with other women. In a group, women support one another and find their voice. A woman once told me, “I do my best thinking aloud.”

Older women want to be appreciated for their minds, for their imaginations and for all the different ways they contribute to society. Older women don’t want to be invisible or discounted. Their life experiences hold a rich resource deserving of respect. Their legacy has been forgotten for too long. It’s time to honor women’s lifelong achievements.

I know we still have a long way to go, but do you think that the growing awareness for the discrimination about aging is closing the circle on the seeds planted by the feminist movement?

Not yet. We’re just getting started, but we’re making progress. A small step like going gray is being embraced by more women all the time. Books addressed to ageism have only been in bookstores for the last 5-8 years. 

I recognize signs of the new older women in their growing tendency to challenge the medical profession, which has a history of dismissing the concerns of the older female patient. Older women are forming action groups for shared housing to address the isolation and solo living expenses many older women face. They are also visible in movements like climate rebellion or supporting female candidates for office.

In my interview with Priya Ramassuban, we talked about the role of the family in building barriers between generations. As a family therapist, do you think that ageism should be taken into account when we talk about family dynamics?

A resounding “Yes!” Families have to be educated to recognize that just because a parent has retired or developed physical issues, they are not ready to be put out to pasture. Families need to recognize that the twilight years still hold the capacity for creativity and a full life, although what is full when one is middle-aged takes on a different meaning later. 

While physical exercise is modified late in life, one can still have a modified exercise routine. I can no longer do the complicated Pilates moves I did ten years ago but I remain committed to Pilates and exercise in a scaled down format. My love of reading and films hasn’t diminished with age. My thirst for knowledge hasn’t decreased in the slightest.

On the plus side families are increasingly viewing grandparents as a valuable family resource. Grandparents can provide grandchildren the undivided attention their busy parents can’t always manage. I know several grandmothers who share in the infant care when a daughter or daughter-in-law returns to work. Grandparents can offer cultural enrichment by taking their grandkids to local museums or on an overseas trip. A grandparent’s unconditional love and understanding can be a solace for a grandchild feeling misunderstood.

You are the author of a book about your relationship with your mother. In retrospect, how has your mother contributed to your approach to aging?

I wrote the mother-daughter memoir, The Mother of My Invention, after my mother died. Because writing often opens new doors, I was hoping that writing about my life with my mother would allow me to heal from our fractured relationship. Thankfully this was the result. Sitting with my mother’s story over time allowed me to stop seeing her through my wounded memories but through her perspective, imagining what it was like to be a victim of abuse, to marry a womanizer and to have her dreams for art school thwarted. In spite of these misfortunes my mother led an admirable life, using her artistry to run an art gallery and create beautiful homes and gardens. Using my mother as an example I try to not let obstacles keep me from doing what’s important to me.

My mother’s generation didn’t talk openly about death and dying. My mother seemed to be at peace with her decline and the prospect of death, but we never discussed this. I’m trying to reverse this pattern by talking openly with my sons about how I want to die—no heroic efforts to keep me alive, engaging Hospice, along with a green burial. This is still a difficult topic for all of us, but I will keep bringing it up from time to time since incremental death discussions seem easier than prolonged ones.

Can we extend the same question to the previous generations, too? Do you think we have some sort of family script for aging?

Yes, there’s a family script for aging, which is largely influenced by the culture and the family’s religious values. As death becomes less of a closed topic, families are beginning to talk about it with less discomfort.

It appears that Americans have more discomfort around death than many European cultures. I have a friend from Amsterdam. When her mother died in Holland, her body was kept in her bed for several days until members of her large family could make the trip to say goodbye. Not too many American families can embrace the same comfort-level with the dead.

What is the most surprising thing you have discovered about aging since you launched the WOW blog? Both regarding other women and yourself?

I’ve been delighted to discover all the positives that accompany aging. As a younger woman I regarded aging as pretty much all downhill. While my body is not as strong or flexible, my mind seems just as sharp, sometimes even clearer. I wonder if this is because aging has allowed me to shed the inessentials like getting upset easily or caring about other people’s opinions.  

I feel more confident and content than my younger self. I value my solitude for the opportunity to clear my head and enjoy the stillness, which centers me in a world bombarded with stimuli.

My connections to family and friends have deepened with the awareness I’m facing the light at the end of the tunnel. These deeper connections make our time together less stressful, less filled with petty disagreements and more fun. There seems to be more laughter.

My observations of other older women through the classes I teach, my friendships and blog readers lead me to conclude that they share my personal affirmations re: aging.

I first started WOW in September 2015. While I still write most of the weekly posts, I now employ more guest writers—a trend I want to build on. Diverse personal experiences with aging have greatly enhanced the blog. I love being a vehicle for this sharing of our collective wisdom.

How has your approach to aging changed from one decade to the next?

Each decade brings me closer to the end of my life, so each decade means a more direct encounter with aging. At my present age of 75 I’m already old, although my youthful spirit remains intact. I’m very aware that my time is running out. This awareness is what fuels my greater contentment.

What are the things you're more grateful for in this time of your life? And what are the unexpected ones?

I have so much to be grateful for. I lead a life of privilege as a First World woman who is economically secure, in good health and with a loving family. I never expected to enjoy so completely teaching the class and writing the blog. Knowing that I’ve been able to offer older women community through my classes, the WOW blog and the WOW Facebook page is immensely gratifying. I want to continue to do my small part to help both older women and younger women discover community. This is the road to empowerment for women of all ages. Once you find your tribe there’s almost nothing you can’t take on!