The terms ageism and sexism were coined about the same time (1969 and 1970, respectively), but sexism has become more widely used than ageism (Schick, 2006:7). Almost everyone has heard of sexism. Until recently, few people had heard of ageism. Both concepts refer to prejudice or discrimination against a category of people: sexism is usually directed against women, and ageism is usually directed against the aged. However, sometimes sexism is directed against men (by some extreme feminists), and ageism is sometimes directed against younger people (“positive ageism,” Palmore, 1990: 44).
Prejudice is a negative attitude toward a category of people that is inaccurate and resistant to change. Discrimination is an inappropriate treatment of a category of people, usually based on prejudice (Atchley, 2001:17). Sexism and ageism combine in all possible ways: a few areas show neither one, more areas are affected by one but not the other, but most areas are affected by both. There may be some areas with neither ageism nor sexism, although it is hard to think of any area completely free of such prejudice.
In some areas there is sexism with little or no ageism. For example, it is generally believed that women of any age should not marry men younger than themselves, but it is all right for men to marry women younger than themselves. This is a main reason why there are over five times as many widows as widowers over 65. On the other hand, in some areas there is ageism but little or no sexism. For example, many people believe that most old people are feeble or senile, regardless of gender. The fact is that the majority of people over 65 are neither feeble nor senile.
In most areas both ageism and sexism combine to intensify the problems of older women. For example, women of all ages tend to have lower incomes than men (sexism), but older women also tend to have even lower incomes than younger women (ageism). This situation is often called “double jeopardy” because of the combined effects (Schick, 2006: 99). Sontag (1972) coined the term “double standard of aging. ” This refers to the combination of sexism and ageism that multiplies the effects of both, more than would be expected on the basis of simply adding the two effects.
For example, being physically attractive is more important in most women’s lives than in men’s (sexism); and there is a common belief that older persons are generally not as attractive as young people (ageism). However, women’s grey hair, wrinkles, bulges, and stooped bodies receive harsher judgment than those of men. For many women, aging means a “humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification” (Sontag, 1972: 30-35), while many men enjoy more romantic success later in life because they have more status, money, and power than they had earlier.
As a result, being a “spinster” or “old maid” is considered a pitiful status, while being an older bachelor is not so bad. Notice that there is no male equivalent of “old maid. ” It may be objected that many older women do not mind this “sexual disqualification” and adjust to it by renouncing all interest in sexual activities or by becoming lesbians. This is true, but beside the point. The point is that sexism combined with ageism tends to enforce this “sexual disqualification” whether or not the woman likes it (Levin and Levin, 2000:210).
There are many sources of ageism: individual, social, and cultural (Palmore, 1990:51). The individual sources include authoritarian personalities, frustration and aggression, selective perception, rationalization, and death anxiety. The social sources include modernization, competition, obsolescence, segregation, and selffulfilling prophecies. The cultural sources include the process of blaming the victim, differing value orientations, language, humor, songs, art, literature, television, and cultural lag.
There are probably just as many sources of sexism that have been documented and analyzed elsewhere (Friedan, 1963: 107). The most popular sources of sexism that seem to increase in old age are humor and language. Negative jokes about women of all ages are common. However, jokes about old women seem to be relatively more frequent and more negative than those about younger women (Palmore, 1990:53). As any student of racism or sexism knows, negative humor is one of the most common and effective ways to perpetuate negative stereotypes about a minority group.
One reason negative humor about a group is so common and effective is that it is passed off as “just a joke” or “harmless humor. ” In fact, negative humor is rarely harmless and is especially insidious because its viciousness is masked by its overt “funniness. ” Thus the age-concealment jokes reinforce the stereotype that all older women are ashamed of their age, while older men are not. It may well be that somewhat more old women are ashamed of their age than are old men (because of the “double standard of aging”), but that is beside the point.
Similarly, the status of old maid is generally considered more negative than that of old bachelor, but that too is beside the point. The point is that such negative humor reinforces prejudice against older women. One of the most subtle but pervasive influences of culture on our attitudes is our language: the words we use to identify or describe a person or group; the derivations, definitions, and connotations of the words; their synonyms and antonyms; and the context in which they are used. Our language often supports ageism in all of these ways (Palmore, 1990:57).
In addition, two analyses of words for elders have found that many of them also reflect sexism. Covey (1998) found that terms for old women have a much longer history of negative connotations than those for old men, because women not only faced a long history of ageism, but also sexism and religious persecution (as in witch hunts) (Covey, 1998:291). How can this malevolent combination of sexism and ageism be combatted? In general, most of the strategies that have been successful in reducing racism and sexism in general could be used to reduce the combination of sexism and ageism.
Individuals can take the following actions to reduce prejudice and discrimination against older women: 1. Inform yourself so you have the facts to combat the misconceptions and stereotypes. 2. Examine your own attitudes and actions and try to eliminate those that reflect sexism and ageism. 3. Inform your relatives, friends, and colleagues about the facts, especially when some prejudice is expressed or implied. 4. Do not tell ageist or sexist jokes and refuse to laugh when you hear one. (Try converting the joke to an age- and sex-neutral joke by not specifying age or sex.
) References Atchley R. 2001. Social forces and aging. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Covey H. 1998. “Historical terminology used to represent older people”. Gerontologist, 28. Friedan B. 1963. The feminine mystique. New York: Norton. Levin J. , & Levin W. 2000. Ageism: Prejudice and discrimination against the elderly. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Palmore E. 1990. Ageism: Negative and positive. New York: Springer. Schick F. (Ed. ) 2006. Statistical handbook on aging Americans. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press. Sontag S. 1972. “The double standard of aging”. Saturday Review, 55 (39).