Senior Power: Women and Aging

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Monday August 09, 2010 - 09:56:00 PM

Age discrimination is a real and growing problem. ... Age discrimination attacks a person’s sense of self-worth in much the same fashion as race or sex discrimination.” (August 3, 1998 letter) --Dion Louise Aroner ( 1944 - ) 

August 26th is designated as Women's Equality Day to commemorate passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provided American women with full voting rights. Women’s Equality Day was instituted by Congressional Representative Bella Abzug when she was 60 years old. (She died of breast cancer and heart disease in 1998.) Fifty years after all American men were enabled to vote, women finally got a piece of the action in 1920. 

Women’s Equality Day is officially proclaimed in some locales. A “celebration of woman suffrage and a protest of Meg Whitman whose voting record dishonors that tradition” will be held on Thursday, August 26th on the Capitol West Steps, Sacramento, from 4-6 P.M. (For more information contact Bonnie Castillo, RN (916)-446-5019.) 

There will be no international Women’s Equality Day celebration. Not this year or next. As of May 2010, the CEDAW Women’s Rights Treaty, formally known as the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, has been ratified by 185 nations, including all industrialized nations except the United States. Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, it has been described as an international bill of rights for women.  

CEDAW was signed by President Carter. Thirty years later, the Senate continues to drag its feet. Apparently, they actually believe that CEDAW would impose policies on the U.S. that would legalize prostitution, force abortions, harm families. President Obama supports CEDAW but has not thrown the weight of his presidency behind it. Many cities, including San Francisco, have adopted resolutions calling on the Senate to ratify CEDAW. A coalition of over 190 U.S. religious, civic, and community organizations remains committed to supporting ratification. They include AARP, American Nurses Association, National Education Association, National Coalition of Catholic Nuns, the American Bar Association, the United Methodist Church, YWCA, and Amnesty International. 


What’s all this got to do with senior citizens and senior power? An amendment is defined as a change for the better; improvement. A correction. A revision or change. Former National Institute on Aging director Robert N. Butler, M.D. believes that “the problems of old age in America are largely the problems of women.” Most senior citizens are women. Most low-income seniors are women. Females are perceived by society to age at a differential rate than men.  

We are all aging, all of the time. I am on the defensive about this euphemistic older woman business. To the “older than what?” question, Ti-Grace Atkinson (1938- ) responded “The older woman is all of us.” Why not healthily and forthrightly refer to an “old woman” and to an “old man” and to “old people?”  

When I was young, assumptive students referred to Miss Wheeler; when I became middle-aged, they shifted to Mrs. Wheeler. Throughout, they referred to and addressed men faculty as Professor (an academic rank) or Doctor (an academic degree), regardless of vintage. 

The double double standard requires that a woman should be (1) young, and (2) younger than a man. My favorite reading on the subject is Susan Sontag’s classic "The Double Standard of Aging." (September 23, 1972 Saturday Review.) Sontag, who died of cancer at the age of 71, declared that "Getting older is less profoundly wounding for a man, for in addition to the propaganda for youth that puts both men and women on the defensive as they age, there is a double standard about aging that denounces women with special severity." 


The 2005 White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA) was the fifth in history. It takes place each decade to make aging policy recommendations to the President, who did not attend the 2005 Conference, and Congress and to assist the public and private sectors in promoting dignity, health, independence and economic security of current and future generations of older persons. The next one may take place in 2015; its theme is “The Shape of Things to Come.” 

Consideration of women in plans for the 1981 WHCoA had been rejected, which led to a White House Mini-Conference on Older Women, attended by 400 delegates. Two hundred stayed on to form the Older Women’s League (OWL). “Growing Numbers, Growing Force: A Report from the White House Mini-Conference on Older Women” was published by the OWL Educational Fund and the Western Gerontological Society, coordinated by Tish Sommers (1914-1985), with cartoons by Bulbul. It is in the library collections of San Jose and San Diego State Universities and can be borrowed without charge by your public library for you through the LINK system. 

Sommers and Laurie Shields (1922-1989) recognized and defined the need for older women to organize nationally and become advocates for change in public policy. Their 1987 book, “Women take care; The consequences of caregiving in today’s society,” was published with the OWL Task Force on Caregivers. Sommers, who had regularized the disabled housewife term, and Shields spent their final years together in the grand old Oakland house which they regarded as OWL headquarters. Both died of cancer.  

The national office of OWL - The Voice of Midlife and Older Women is located in Washington, D.C., and the state office is in Sacramento. California chapters include Ohlone/East Bay. OWL’s Gray Paper series and Mother’s Day Reports have been notable. 

Do you enjoy fiction that relies on humor at women’s expense and unnecessary references to “old”? Two fictional, seventy-year old nuns attend an “Older Women’s League convention” and attempt to solve the mystery of an old friend’s disappearance. The San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle avoided critiquing “The missing madonna (1988) by resorting to cuteness – it’s about “a nun with an unusual habit of solving murders.” Chuckle chuckle. Carol Anne O’Marie’s mysteries are in the collection of the Berkeley Public library in standard and large print versions.  



The California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA) is holding its 7th Annual Convention, “Taking Back the State in 2010”, October 12-13, in Oakland. 





Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at . 

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