Interest and research in gender and aging have progressed through a variety of different phases, each spurred by developments in both feminist scholarship and aging studies. While each stage has emerged from the previous, all can be found in contemporary theory and research.
The first stage, which can be further subdivided into two approaches, involved a focus on women. Spurred by the 1970s women’s movement, in the early 1980s some scholars of aging began to question the lack of explicit attention paid to aging women. This was obvious in such topic areas as retirement, where women were routinely excluded from research. Even national, large scale data sets, such as the longitudinal retirement study undertaken by the Social Security Administration in the 1970s, only included women as primary respondents after their husbands had died. The presumed split between private and public spheres fostered a belief that paid labor was central only to men’s identities and that, for women, retirement was either irrelevant or unimportant.
Two attempts to address the neglect of women in aging research ensued, each representing a somewhat different approach. The first simply added women to research. Similar to what had occurred in other areas of sociology, scholars began to include women in studies or investigate them on their own. However, this ‘‘add women and stir’’ tactic simply placed women into models and theories that derived from men’s experiences. Conceptually, gender remained an individual attribute, a demographic characteristic with no structural properties. For example, noting differences between men and women’s labor force participation histories led to the conclusion that women’s intermittent work histories result in lower retirement benefits. Why and how women’s work histories differed, or why policies such as Social Security or defined benefit plans rewarded stable labor force participation were neither questioned nor explored. Similarly, the equation of workforce participation with adequate retirement finances assumed a gender neutral workplace in which women and men reap similar rewards.
As important as this movement toward inclusion was, using men as the explicit or implicit reference group ultimately rendered women deviant. Results and subsequent theorizing viewed women in terms of how closely they did or did not approximate male models, but revealed little about women themselves. In addition, the ways in which subsequent ‘‘differences’’ could be interpreted and used were problematic. Gibson (1996) pointed to the bias in the ways scholars typically discuss gender differences in old age, noting that men are used as the implicit standard and women are described as deviating from it. This has critical implications for future theory, research, and policies.
The realization that simply adding women into preexisting studies and theories rendered them as the ‘‘other’’ spawned a movement to examine women on their own terms. Spurred by developments in feminist scholarship, scholars undertook a second response to the neglect of women, that of centering on women’s experiences from their own standpoint. More com mon in the 1990s, research that has centered on women has allowed for a reformulation of methods and theories that incorporate women’s experiences as well as men’s.
For example, in contrast to the model intended to discern if women were more or less satisfied with retirement than men, research beginning with women’s experiences revealed that, for most women, leaving the labor force meant leaving only one job, a paid job. For the most part, women retained their domestic labor responsibilities. This does not necessarily diminish their satisfaction with retirement, but certainly shapes their experiences of this time of life in a different way from men’s. Indeed, the notion of being ‘‘free’’ in retirement does not mean the cessation of work for women, but instead a reduced work load (for which they may well be grateful). The heightened focus on unpaid labor that resulted from centering on retired women also refocused attention on the productive activities of old people, both men and women. While unpaid, the varieties of domestic and volunteer activities (to use just two examples) in which old people engage are vital to the economy. In particular, their unpaid labor is called upon to compensate for the increasing retraction of the state from social reproduction, and the formation of policies that continue to leave such activities as care giving, for young and old, to ‘‘families’’ (i.e., women). The lack of state help and inadequate policies mean that, for instance, grandparents (particularly grandmothers) play an increasingly important role in child rearing, not only in a custodial role but also as day care providers for children who work. Without this important labor, state coffers would be strained and the economic activities of younger generations would be con strained. Thus, the focus on women in this instance has led to transformations in concepts about work, productivity, and retirement.
Continued evolution of the feminist approach in sociology and in aging studies has led to a movement away from a focus on women and aging to the second stage, with its focus on gender and aging. This implies not so much a movement away from examining women as a refinement of the theoretical lens. Centering on women’s experiences leads to more explicit theories regarding power in gender relations. Further, it recognizes explicitly that both women and men have gender: ‘‘gender and aging’’ refers to everyone, and not just to women. From this standpoint, gender is taken to be characteristic of both social organizations and identities, embedded in social relationships at all levels, from individual interactions to institutional processes. Men and women gain identities and power in relation to one another with important ramifications for life chances (Hess 1992). As a power relation, gender describes a hierarchical system wherein men’s privileges are intimately tied to women’s disadvantages. This relational quality means that the situation of one gender cannot be understood without at least implicit reference to the position of the other. As a social organizing principle, then, gender shapes individual interactions as well as policy formation.
The theoretical shift toward viewing gender relations can be seen in many areas of aging research. Depicting both work and family as playing roles in both men’s and women’s lives in old age is but one example. To push our example of retirement further still, a focus on gender relations over the life course sees women’s and men’s experiences of retirement as an outcome of the ways in which each is advantaged or disadvantaged in relation to one another in paid labor, unpaid (domestic) labor, and retirement. The presence and absence of family ties, or domestic labor, paid labor, and the like, are expressions of gender relations. It is not simply that women are constrained by families when they work for pay, or that this domestic labor shapes their retirement by lowering pensions and maintaining their burdens of housework. Both domestic and paid labor realms also influence men’s higher retirement finances and relative freedom. That is, husbands’ abilities to have successful careers rest on the unpaid work of their wives just as surely as this domestic responsibility constrains women’s paid labor. Similarly, women’s continued responsibility for domestic labor in later life underlies (some) men’s ability to be ‘‘free’’ in retirement.
A newer, more sophisticated reformulation of theory results from the greater emphasis on gender relations. Attending to women and men in relation to one another also stimulates greater research interest in masculinity and men. Understanding the processes by which disadvantage occurs necessitates a similar comprehension of privileging processes and struggles. Implicit when we acknowledge that men’s freedom in retirement links to women’s unpaid labor, this becomes explicit in the next step when we explore the processes that privilege men in the workplace and home. Similarly, we would also investigate the relationship between privilege and widowers’ risk for institutionalization or loneliness in later life. In this instance, husbands’ more dominant household position also means that women are generally the ones to do the work of daily life and maintain networks. Viewing gender relations in relation to aging thus requires seeing privilege (just as we would disadvantage) as a dynamic, one that must be constantly reasserted and that this in itself has consequences for aging as well. Similarly, some of the same aspects of gender relations that are part and parcel of women’s disadvantage may also emerge as sources of strength in later life.
The focus on power relations, and greater recognition of the dynamics of oppression and privilege, have led many to an emerging third stage, which emphasizes intersections of in equalities. Just as gender shapes aging, so other social hierarchies, such as those based on race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, influence both gender and aging. From this vantage point, to speak of ‘‘gender and aging’’ becomes less apt. Old men and women do not exist outside their racial, sexual, and class based locations. For example, when we look only at old men and women, we see a much higher incidence of poverty among the latter. But when we look at race, for example, we find that, as a group, black men have lower Social Security incomes than do white women. Similarly, black women who live alone have a much higher incidence of poverty than their male or white counterparts despite longer labor force histories. How then can we discuss gender and poverty in old age? As a result, scholars working in this nuanced area increasingly focus on diversity and intersecting hierarchies, and not simply on gender.
As the example of retirement shows, the focus on gender and aging – in all three phases – has led to many insights that have advanced, and often redirected, scholarship. One of the first insights was the existence of a ‘‘double standard of aging’’ that not only devalues women at an earlier age than men, but also leads to age discrimination in the workforce earlier in women’s lives. Since then, scholars of gender and aging have continued transforming a wide array of research areas. In relation to health, for instance, researchers go beyond noting gender differences in life expectancies and health conditions to ask why these variations prevail, and how they relate to power relations. They point to such things as how men’s attempts to achieve dominant ideals of masculinity lead them to take physical risks that women do not take; they also seek out and follow doctors’ advice less frequently, actions that will adversely influence their health in later life. Similarly, scholars seek to understand how women’s social location makes them more vulnerable to particular health conditions and forms a context in which such ailments will play out in old age. Thus, among other issues, analysts might point to the gender bias in Medicare that provides coverage for acute illnesses, to which men are more prone, rather than chronic conditions, which more frequently plague women, and the ramifications this might have for such things as nursing home utilization. Going further still, the diversity approach explores racial and ethnic disparities in health over the life course as this relates to occupational conditions, access to health care, and a greater reliance on Medicaid to fund nursing home placement.
Looking at other areas of research, we see that the kinds of grand parenting roles under taken are closely related to race, ethnicity, class, and gender; those with full time care of grandchildren are more likely to be black or Hispanic women with lower incomes. We cannot simply speak of the ways that aging influences sexuality in later life, or even women’s relationships with their bodies, as it appears that old black women, for instance, are far more accepting of diverse body types and also more likely to see themselves in sexual terms than are their white counterparts. Finally, the particular historical and economic conditions under which many contemporary, working class black men have labored means that along with dissolution of first marriages, earlier family ties often become strained as well. As a result, they are especially vulnerable to isolation and institutionalization should they become widowed or divorced in later life. The importance of these and similar findings lies in terms of the recognition that practice and policy interventions, for example, must take into account the differences among the concerns and issues of various old people.
The gender and aging scholarship has advanced tremendously, especially in recent years. However, it is still a one-way relationship, with gender scholars often influencing aging research but not vice versa. Still to come, then, is gender scholars’ recognition of age relations and the ways in which they intersect and influence gender. The limited discussion of how gender might change over the life course among some aging scholars is not the same as viewing age itself as a power relation that shapes people’s interactions, resources, and life chances. Recognition of age relations suggests an array of promising directions for future studies. We should ask how men, even those with the most privilege, lose status with age and struggle with younger men for power, and how this might shape their aging. Greater attention to age inequality will, in turn, allow researchers and practitioners more fully to view people in a life course context. Recognizing that ageism permeates the lives of all old people, regardless of their level of privilege in earlier life, also has tremendous emancipatory potential. The realization that ageism is the one oppression all will face could provide a bridge across many groups defined by power relations, and spur those with greater privilege to think about and understand disadvantage.
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