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Joan Ditzion of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' Fame Says 'We Can All Be Aging Activists'

The feminist trailblazer continues to tackle sexism and ageism

By Liz Seegert

Feminist pioneer Joan Ditzion may be best known as one of the authors of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." After all, the seminal book has been a staple on the shelves of women around the world, ever since publication of the first commercial edition in 1973.

Joan Ditzion standing in front of several of her artworks. Next Avenue, Our Bodies Ourselves
Joan Ditzion has returned to her pursuit of art; here she is with some of her work  |  Credit: Joan Ditzion

However, that was only the beginning of Ditzion's journey into tackling the dual issues of feminism and aging. Now 78, the former art educator-turned-clinical geriatric social worker who lives with her husband Bruce in Cambridge, Mass., spoke with Next Avenue about the latter half of life, the women's movement, ageism and staying relevant.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Next Avenue: What did you learn from the early women's movement that has carried forward to your current fight against ageism?

Joan Ditzion: I define myself as an aging activist, and having a sense of agency fuels my purpose in life in many ways. One of the things that profoundly affected my attitude was that my values and visions were my feminist values, having been part of the successful social liberation movement in the "Our Bodies Ourselves" project. 

A core lesson I learned fifty years ago, in the early days of the women's movement, is that sexism is a social construction. I had grown up as everyone did in those days, with my sense of myself as a woman in a patriarchal view of society; that women are inferior to men. I was very well loved in my family, but nonetheless, these were the cultural attitudes I was raised on.

"I define myself as an aging activist, and having a sense of agency fuels my purpose in life in many ways."

I was the other sex, a sex object to please men. A male-centered view of reality was the reality of the world. When I began to realize that there was nothing biologically pre-determined about this, but it's really just a social construction based on a patriarchal view of the world and sexist attitudes, I began to change my sense of myself, and embraced my identity as a woman and a woman-centric view of the world.

This was probably one of the most formative experiences of my life. Now, more than fifty years later, I fully embrace my identity as a woman in the second half of life.

And over the last ten or twenty years, I have been dealing with changes in my body and my place in the generational hierarchy, this new stage of life and having less time.

I also have had to deal with ageist responses to me as an aging woman. I was immersed in the aging field for many years and I understood it well, but began to really integrate it personally as I aged myself.

What specifically strikes you about people's attitudes towards older adults?

More problematic than the normal aspects of aging, were the ageist, demeaning attitudes that I was bumping up against. I kept bumping into ageism and my anxiety rose and I feared 'I was over the hill, I'm less than, I'm in decline, I'm more marginal, I'm a sexually invisible' and all of that.

Old book cover of "Our Bodies Ourselves" by Joan Joan Ditzion. Next Avenue
Early cover of the seminal "Our Bodies, Ourselves."  |  Credit: Joan Ditzion

But, in my late fifties and sixtiess, this light went off. I was struggling with internalized — and in turn, institutionalized — ageist attitudes, just as I did decades before when I was struggling with sexism. In the early days, I kept thinking, sexism is a social construction. So, I just kept repeating, ageism is a social construction, and it's our cultural attitudes towards aging, and it doesn't have to be that way.

Many of us, aging women and men, are asking: How do we balance the affirming positive attitudes of aging with recognizing the realities and problems of aging?

How do you think older women in particular need to navigate this tightrope?

We know that each stage of this life is much more complicated and much more complex than many of our cultural stereotypes or myths or stories. And if we all age consciously and feel, not 'less than' because we are aging, we can individually and collectively transform attitudes in ourselves, in society.

It's a huge, social, cultural problem. It requires collective action, so we should find ways to shift from an age-segregated to an age-integrated society.

Basic research even shows that there's much lower rates for any kind of mental health, or psychiatric conditions, for people who resist ageist attitudes.

How can older people, and older women in particular, take action, or push back against ageism?

This is such a timely and important topic for everyone. We can all be aging activists.

"So, I just kept repeating, ageism is a social construction, and it's our cultural attitudes towards aging, and it doesn't have to be that way. "

Pre-COVID, I used to look for opportunities. I would try to find things I could do to change attitudes.

For example, when I turned seventy-five, I decided to stop dyeing my hair. So, I went to the local pharmacy looking for some gray tint and was told there's no such thing, that no woman ever wants to go gray. So I started pushing back — insisting it's part of my natural aging process.

There are moments like this in everyday life, where we can really change attitudes. And my fantasy is if everyone looks for moments like these, we can really begin to address this kind of thing, and listen to ways people demean or put themselves down or diminish themselves or feel 'less than' because we're aging.

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Do you feel like you're fighting the same battles all over again, in a way?

Ageism is as important as sexism, and our society hasn't even recognized it because, in all definitions of intersectionality, sexism and gender, racism and classism and all the inequities which are very prevalent, ageism is never even mentioned. It's an invisible kind of discrimination that people aren't even totally aware of.

So, it's more of a consciousness-raising process. It's on both levels. I keep both values front and center.

"Every person needs to feel like they can age well and it's not limited to a few people."

For women, it's even harder.

You can't show your wrinkles, you can't show your age, you're supposed to be young and vital and sexually vibrant and all this stuff and that's the life cycle that's used in values of youth.

Another problem, for better or worse, is women tend to outlive men, so the burdens of ageism really fall more on women's shoulders than men. So, I think women, even more than men, have a stake in combating ageism.

Do we need a mass movement against ageism, like the women's movement in the '60s and '70s or the current 'Me Too' movement?

I think we really do. We do need a resurgence of the Gray Panthers movement.

One of my take-homes from the panel I participated in at the [American Society on Aging] conference was we really need a new grassroots organization that both combats ageism and sees the value of a non-ageist, integrated, interdependent, totally inclusive society. It would be so phenomenal if there was a grassroots effort working on changing these attitudes.

So how do we get going on this?

I haven't yet come up with the plan. But that is really what we need to do, and it has to go beyond professional organizations. It really has to get into the grassroots communities.

New book cover of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" by Joan Ditzion. Next Avenue
The latest edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves."  |  Credit: Our Bodies Ourselves

Maybe as we emerge from COVID-19, it will be clearer. If we all creatively think about it, maybe we can come up with one — because it's needed desperately, for us and for future generations. Every person needs to feel like they can age well, and it's not limited to a few people.

Do you have any advice for women who are just starting to encounter ageist attitudes, who are now feeling marginalized or ignored or trivialized? Are there strategies for pushing back?

Aging is a political process. And you can't age without encountering it, and you have to push back when you begin to feel as a person 'less than' or devalued. We have to find ways to push back and talk to ourselves and talk to one another and get support from each other.

We learn from each other, and we have to have safe places to talk about these issues, and at least acknowledge that it's an issue that we all have to deal with.

It's so important just to remember that it's a political process in our country and many others, that you begin to feel devalued because you're aging. That's a lousy value, which we certainly don't want to support.  We have to have these conversations, and if we could get it, have a grassroots march.

Liz Seegert
Liz Seegert New York-based journalist Liz Seegert has spent more than 30 years reporting and writing about health and general news topics for print, digital and broadcast media. Her primary beats currently include aging, boomers, social determinants of health and health policy. She is topic editor on aging for the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including Consumer Reports, AARP.com, Medical Economics, The Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant.  Read More
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