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America’s Bias Against Older Women Must Stop

To fight ageism, focus on their talents and wisdom

Like much of the rest of the world, I’ve delighted in the media lovefest around Caitlyn Jenner, a sign that we’re breaking through one more destructive social stigma. And yet, amidst the opening of hearts and minds regarding transgendered persons, I’ve been reminded of another old and ugly prejudice: the bias against older women.

When I tuned into the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore a few nights ago, I looked forward to a lively conversation about transgendered persons. I was sadly disappointed.

I listened with dismay as panelists expressed disgust at older women’s bodies. Even under the guise of comedy, it was hurtful to hear them talk about Ms. Jenner, that “65-year-old woman,” how she was baring her body and how we would now be subject to increasing numbers of old women parading their “chicken necks and baggy knees.” These comments were met with giggles and claps from the audience and panelists.

Why are we so complacent? Why are women laughing along with men? Why are older women such easy targets?

Would these panelists have displayed such sophomoric behavior if Caitlyn was opening up as Bruce? Would it be tolerated? I think not. Such public and private vitriol is saved for women who are at the age where society deems good looks and fecundity have come and gone. So it wasn’t so much that Bruce emerged as Caitlyn; it’s that she is now an old woman.

Ageism is Pervasive

Thinking back on this episode later, I wondered why I had been so surprised. As a geriatrician for the past 25 years, I continually confront ageism within the health care system and have recognized its pervasiveness in society.

I use my position to try to engender respect for persons who are aging and I know what I am up against. I used to count the number of jokes that late night television hosts would make at the expense of old people. They were frequent and unchallenged.

But more and more, I’ve come to see that the bias against older women is especially strong.  As I started paying closer attention, I found that the ratio of old women to old men jokes was easily 10:1. Checking Google Image cartoons about old people, the same is true.

Moreover, the occurrence of derisive old women remarks in mainstream media has been increasing of late, even as the fastest growing segment of our society is women over the age of 85. Comments about Hillary Clinton are peppered with pejorative references to her age and her looks, and followed by chortles. These remarks are absent when discussing her male counterparts in politics.

Older women actors continue to be judged by comparing them to their younger selves. Even my colleagues in the field of aging, those who should be the most sensitive, use the term “granny bashing” and not “ grandpa bashing” to describe the disparaging comments made about old people.

Where Is The Outrage?

So why aren’t we outraged about this? Why is it so acceptable for comedians and pundits to continue their assault?  Why are we so complacent? Why are women laughing along with men? Why are older women such easy targets?

I have concluded that it is because society looks at older women as “other,” something they will do anything not to become. Society still defines a woman most frequently by her looks. We know there is no shortage of new anti-aging procedures and that articles about youth enhancement continue to proliferate. The inescapable fact is that with aging comes change in our appearance; with increasing age comes inevitable death. Older women, then, are the personification of what our culture fears most.

In addition to being pernicious, this is absurd, as older women have tremendous gifts to offer the larger world, with Hillary Clinton being, of course, one standout example. Older women from Betty White to Toni Morrison to Oprah Winfrey to Gloria Steinem continue to make us richer as a society through their work.

Research suggests that women leaders are more assertive and persuasive and have stronger interpersonal skills than their male counterparts. But we need to go no further than our own families. To whom do we usually go for advice, for solace and for consolation? Our mothers, aunts and grandmothers; women we know who have experienced the world and who have grown stronger and wiser through their journey.

More than half of the population will become an older woman. Will Caitlyn and Hillary and the rest of us ever be judged for the substance of who we are? Not until we confront the fact that there is a serious, pervasive and destructive prejudice. Not until we stop laughing at the caricature of this population and focus on making the most of their considerable gifts and contributions to all of us.

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