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Invisibilised old women: gender discrimination in old age

In my work, when I want to do a discussion group with older people or accompany a group promoting older people, it is common to hear someone ask: but where are the women?

The fact is that, as women make up the majority of the older population, their presence in these groups is always smaller, or at most equal, to that of men, which usually leads us to actively seek to incorporate them into these spaces.

So what happens? Where can we find them?

The answer is simple: everywhere. Activism and advocacy through citizen participation and demonstrations; caring for different generations of their family, thus supporting the personal and work development of others; continuing their own life development, through participation in retirement homes or other spaces and their activities, among many other places.

But if they are everywhere, why don't we see them?

In two words: "SOCIAL INVISIBILISATION". The multiple age and gender discriminations, among others, that older women currently face overlook their contribution to society.

In this regard, it is important not to forget how the traditional roles associated with women have been linked to the family sphere, both in the domestic sphere and in caring for people in situations of dependency, disability or vulnerability. These jobs, as we all know, have little social recognition and a high degree of invisibility and undervaluation.

Nowadays, and despite the social changes that have taken place over the decades, it is still mostly women who carry out this work, both in the public and private spheres.

Thus, they are an important agent of care, under whose responsibility falls the accompaniment and well-being of different generations.

However, women's work cannot be limited to the private and care sphere.

Older women contribute much more to society. If we look at the most common profile of volunteers, we can see that a large percentage of volunteers are women over the age of 50, especially in social intervention associations. Older women work for social transformation, being the structure of a large part of the associations and voluntary work. Even so, the different management bodies of the associative fabric are occupied by men, showing the difficulties faced by women in reaching positions of responsibility and power, largely due to gender socialisation.

On the other hand, how are women represented in the media and in culture?

In terms of the media, the presence of older women is often linked to news about loss, loneliness, fragility and the dangers they face, as well as economic and social burdens. This gives a very negative and erroneous view, which feeds back into the ageism already present. In contrast, the latest studies by Monica Ramos, an anthropologist specialising in ageing and gender, show that, up to the age of 80, women give more care than they receive.

In the field of culture, there is an abundance of ageist and homogenous narratives in which older women appear as secondary characters, through the figure of the grandmother or the widow, always oriented towards others and with stories closely linked to sadness, loss and deterioration.

Invisibilisation is not only social, but is also present in the sciences, which drag along the androcentric bias, assuming the male experience as representative of all people, ignoring and ignoring the experiences of women, especially in old age.

Likewise, the very term gerontology. The science that deals with old age, etymologically its origin is Greek, from the word Geron, meaning old man. A symbolic fact that reflects the reality of our field, where it is not common to find analyses and interventions with a gender perspective and where, for some people, talking about feminist gerontology leads them to think that this implies a political position, as if not including the gender perspective were not a political position in itself.

This happens in many other sciences, which, when studying the group of older people, do so in a global way, analysing the data with differences between sexes, but without going deeper into the inequalities and discriminations that lie behind these data, which results in a lack of political, social and health responses to the various specific needs of older women.

This is why it is more common to find specific communication initiatives for women, without taking into account the particularities of old age, or for older people, without taking into account the particularities of ageing women.

 A good example of the latter are the traditionally called "retirement homes" or social centres for the elderly. We are talking about places where, despite the fact that the vast majority of people attending are women, the presence of men on the boards of directors is in the majority. The few cases are those that have strategies for the empowerment of women or a gender perspective in their forms of management and uses.

How to turn this situation around?

Towards new and diverse narratives

To begin with, we need new and diverse narratives about older women. Cinema, literature and other agents of socialisation are key to constructing a more realistic and positive narrative and social imaginary of this population group.

Fortunately, times and views have been changing, and we are enjoying more and more films that focus on them and talk about very different experiences, far from the negative and stereotyped visions to which we were accustomed. Good examples are films such as "80 egunean", "Gloria" or "Nomadland", or books such as Mari Luz Esteban's poetry book "El manifiesto de las mujeres viejas".

Let's give a voice to the protagonists, the old women.  Let's show their diverse realities and their fundamental roles in our society.

Mujeres mayores participan en una manifestación por el derecho al aborto

Older women take part in a demonstration in favour of abortion rights. Photo: Juan Carlos Mejía 

Occupying spaces

We also need to occupy spaces, as the Lideresas de Villaverde, a collective made up of women over 65 years old, have been doing since 2014, developing feminist activities and various initiatives in this district of Madrid. I strongly invite you to listen to a weekly radio programme that they host, in which they share their experiences, reflections and demands from the perspective of the diversity that characterises them.

Research and intervention with a gender perspective

All these cultural and social advances must go hand in hand with research and public administrations. Two fields where we need to put on our purple glasses, as society does.

It will be difficult to make progress in policies or programmes for older women if we start from an approach that neglects the gender perspective.

For this, the fundamental step is in gerontology, where it is necessary to start working on this line of analysis in order to base the needs that facilitate public policies that correspond to the needs and interests of this vital stage.

As gerontologists, and from each of our disciplines, we have a great responsibility to alleviate the situations of aggravation and discrimination with which so many older women coexist.

Studies such as those carried out by the Navarre Institute for Equality on situations of gender-based violence among older women in Navarre are a firm commitment in this sense, and contribute to analysing the particularities of gender-based violence, detecting clear differences from when it occurs in other age groups. An example of this is the identification of certain aggravating factors of gender violence, such as fear of loneliness, economic dependence and age.

Carrying out this type of study favours the promotion and generation of services and resources which, from the different public administrations, respond to these particularities and meet the needs of the majority of the elderly population.

For all of the above reasons, it is time to stop asking ourselves where they are and to see them. It is essential to do so hand in hand with them, the elderly, who generate so much good in the community, as well as in science itself. Transformation is on its way, and they are facilitating and promoting it.


If you are interested in the subject, enrich yourselves and enjoy reading: Yo vieja: apuntes de superviviencia para seres libres or Abuelas, madres, hijas. La transmisión sociocultural del arte de envejecer, both by Anna Freixas Farré; the poetry book El manifiesto de las mujeres viejas by Mari Luz Esteban Galarza, or the book Envejecer siendo mujer. Dificultades, oportunidades y retos by Mónica Ramos Toro.

Enjoying great films such as: Gloria by Sebastián Lelio (2013); 80 egunean by José Mari Goenaga and Jon Garaño (2010); Nomadland by Chloé Zhao (2020).


Researcher at Matia Instituto

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