When I think about strong cultural representations of older women, it is Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale that I turn to. Atwood’s writing has spoken to generations of women for its ability to portray us realistically. Her women are not one-dimensional silhouettes for male characters to project their fantasies upon; rather, they are fully-formed, their messy and wonderful traits presented simultaneously. They do not sit meekly in the margins of the novel, but are able to live, their mistakes and achievements rippling through the pages to create a story. And The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception. Readers are presented with the narrator’s mother, an unapologetically outspoken character defined by her candid feminism. “You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get where you are.” Through the character, Atwood shows that activism can continue as we age, and that, as women grow older, they are just as sharp, witty and brilliant as they were in youth.
Sadly, society does not always see older women in this way. Lazy stereotypes related to women’s age and gender can intersect to create a two-fold discrimination. Much of this is enacted within the workplace. Whilst ageism directed towards men begins at 45, research by David Neumark shows that for women it begins 5 years earlier at 40: from this point onwards, they will not be considered for promotion or training. Further to this, older women are also more likely to be rejected for jobs than older men. Employers seem determined to undermine older women in the workplace, despite them possessing decades of professional expertise. Studies also show that older employees positively contribute to companies, both financially and culturally. It is clear, therefore, that pervading outdated and discriminatory attitudes mean that everybody misses out.
Outside of the workplace, there is a worrying phenomenon that is largely invisible: the violence and abuse that older women suffer. HelpAge International refers to this as ‘elder abuse,’ noting that violence towards older women is driven by a combination of ageism and sexism. Sadly, there are considerable data gaps, with many studies only surveying women up to the age of 49. The data that does exist is shocking: a 2011 survey across five European countries showed that 28% of women had experienced violence or abuse in the past 12 months. However, WHO estimates that only 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse are reported. An anonymous UK woman summed up the reasons many older women don’t report violence against them: “women have often faced a lifetime of coercion, bullying and violence. In older age, women are often afraid to talk about what has happened to them and have learnt to accept this ‘silent’ form of punishment.”
What can we do to combat these problems? Firstly, it is vital that we bring discussions of ageism and sexism into the mainstream. By making invisible phenomena visible, we can not only raise awareness, but also empower older women to speak out. To enact change, agency and awareness go hand in hand. Also, this month we celebrate International Women’s Day: let’s use it to celebrate older women. Atwood was able to do this so well in The Handmaid’s Tale, so let’s build upon the foundations she built nearly 30 years ago and keep pushing for older women’s stories to be celebrated. We still have so far to go to combat ageism and sexism, but by slowly chipping away at society’s stereotypes, it can be achieved.
I’m Caitlin, an intersectional feminist based between Yorkshire and the North East. I’m passionate about using education to raise awareness about Public Sexual Harassment, and I’m working on the Our Schools Now project to help achieve this. I’m particularly interested in accessibility in feminism, making sure that our campaign includes and reaches a diverse group of people.