HomeBlogWho are you calling "old woman"?

Who are you calling "old woman"?

On a day like today, International Women's Day, it seemed appropriate to reflect on our approach to the binomial age and gender, and how language and the meanings we attribute to certain concepts can perpetuate an imaginary full of stereotypes. Is it a question of redefining terms or life stages, or both? Allow me to share my point of view with you.

I remember perfectly well the first time when, walking down the street, a girl, bumping into me, decided to mortally wound me by saying: "I'm sorry, madam".

Who was she calling ma'am? Me, who has just entered my thirties, moves in alternative environments, which make me feel very modern and I am totally up to date with the latest trends.

This unforgivable insult opened Pandora's box, who I'm sure was also another lady, and a lot of questions about "being a lady" emerged.

Did being a lady mean having an archaic personality and living oblivious to social progress? Was that what the girl had meant, or was I simply identifying myself as someone older than her? If the girl used it because of her age, what made me identify it with other things? Who had taught me that? And the worst question of all, if "being a lady" wasn't that, what is it really?

Once the questions about ladies started to come, other questions about older women started to come to me. Another concept that was going round in my head in this ping-pong between the beliefs acquired and naturalised in the ageist and misogynist culture that surrounds us, and the learnings that I have been able to make in my work with older people.

Who are older women? When do we become older women? Is it simply a number, a defined boundary that changes our identity and roles once we have passed?

If it is not an age, what is it that makes us an older woman? Going through milestones such as retirement or the onset of menopause?

Is being old the same as being an older woman? What do some terms hurt us and what do we achieve by changing words?

Luckily for me and for that little girl, whom I forgave for my own mental confusion on the subject, these questions had already been asked by other great women (maybe they were ladies too?), such as Anna Freixas and Mónica Ramos, and all their reflections and discoveries served as a treasure map for me.

Let's talk about AGES

Socially, old age is often understood as something exclusively biological, linked to the body and age.

But, if we stop to think about it a little, this falls under its own weight. And if you have any doubts, ask yourselves... did the people over 60-65 years old who are reading this identify themselves as an older person when they reached that age range? and the rest? do you identify every person over 60-65 years old that you know as an "older person"?

Most probably the answer is no, because, in reality, ageing is a multifactorial process.

By this I mean that it is not only the product of the passage of time, but that there are different dimensions to the concept of age, and when we get to know them we will see that there is a large social construct behind it, which also involves major gender differences.

On the one hand, we have chronological age. The one we know. The years completed since our birth. In this dimension, the first gender inequalities appear: are the years lived perceived in the same way in our society if you are a man or a woman?

If we stick to the "popular wisdom" that states that "While men mature, women get older", we could say no. And the fact is that, despite the fact that, despite the fact that men are older, women are older, women are older. Despite the fact that we live in an ageist society, in which old age is frowned upon neither for men nor for women, we are doubly punished for it. The archetypal beauty canon, inextricably linked to eternal youth, is one of the dimensions by which women are most valued and judged.

On the other hand, there is biological age, something we could translate as our state of health and our levels of autonomy and dependence. In our society, we often associate old age with illness, which is wrong and very discriminatory in itself. It is the state of our health and our level of autonomy and dependence that often makes us feel old or identify other people as old.

Common expressions such as "You look very old" when we see that someone has suffered some deterioration or advance in their illness, are proof of this.

Biological age also shows signs of gender inequality, as shown by data pointing to poorer health in older women than in men, not only because of longer life expectancy, but also as a consequence of the overload of work and care work.

The menopause is also key, because although it is a natural process, it is totally denigrated in our culture, always linked to loss and even to illness, impacting on our own vision of ourselves and in some cases even making us question our gender identity, making us feel less of a woman.

And returning to gender, we see that while retirement is the main social milestone by which men begin to be read as older, in the case of women who have worked outside the home and paid contributions, this is also the case, but, in general, the social milestone most related to them is widowhood or being grandmothers.

In other words, once again, what socially defines our identity is once again not related to ourselves, but to what happens to others. Being once again beings for others, and not beings in themselves.

Finally, we have the psychological age, translated into our intellectual capacities and our personality.

At this age we find that there are big differences between the social image of older women, as depressed and mentally rigid people, and the scientific evidence, which shows that at this stage of life women tend to be more daring, to adapt better to changes than men and to feel more self-confident than in previous stages.

In short, being an older woman is a social construct, full of prejudices towards us, where the gaze of others (understood as men and society) tends to define us.

Disputed terms

At this point, I think it is time to talk about the terms: old women, ladies, old women, elderly women....

As a result of the negative and stereotypical view, it is not uncommon to see the pejorative use of the concept of old woman, lady or old woman, terms that are used as throwing weapons to brand someone as archaic or traditional in the sense of obsolete or even worthless.

Is the problem the terms or the social image of older women as a stereotypical homogeneous group with all the social prejudices we were talking about?

While nowadays the word old may be hurtful and offensive to some (in my head I keep hearing my grandmother repeat to me: "old are the rags"), many years ago it did not have such a negative connotation. It was born as something descriptive, in adulthood you are an adult, in old age you are old. However, nowadays we link it to all the prejudices I have pointed out so far, as well as many others.

As Eulàlia Lledó, writer and specialist in research on sexism and language, points out in her "Eulàlia Lledó, Eulàlia Lledó, in her "Elogio a la vejez" (In praise of old age):

"No hay que tener miedo de palabras como «vieja» o «anciano». [...] Podemos ir sustituyéndolas pero no hay nada que hacer. Las palabras, los eufemismos que suplantan términos que nos suenan mal tienen una vida limitada porque rápidamente absorben la carga peyorativa de la palabra que sustituyen. Lo que molesta no es la palabra, es el concepto, es la vejez. Y ninguna palabra puede esconderlo."

In my opinion, each person has to use the terms that most identify him or her when talking about him or herself, but I think that by not using the term "old women", we run the risk of discriminating against others, unintentionally. But I think that, by not using the term old women, we run the risk of discriminating against others, unintentionally. Who are the old women I don't identify with? Perhaps those who do look their age, those who do have a situation of dependency, or those who have exercised more traditional roles. 

Currently, many feminist activists are appropriating the term, redefining the word old and revaluing it. A good example is Anna Freixas, who has titled her latest book directly: Yo, vieja.

So I would like to ask you, who do you call old, who do you want to differentiate yourself from, why do you need to, and what do you think the consequences of doing so might be?

And, above all, what look do we want to cultivate in our society, that of the girl who simply describes the difference in the stage of life, or that of the lady who is wounded by the ageism and machismo of society and wants to be recognised as something else? It is clear to me, today I am a lady, who hopes to be old.

If you are interested in the subject, enrich yourselves and enjoy reading the many articles and books by the magnificent ladies Mónica Ramos Toro, Eulàlia Lledó and Anna Freixas Farré, or soak up their words in any of their lectures:

It is always interesting to read the various articles on the subject, which are increasingly finding their way into the media:

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • You may use [block:module=delta] tags to display the contents of block delta for module module.
  • You may use [view:name=display=args] tags to display views.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.