You’d think there were only two inevitable experiences for women over the course of their adult lives.
I can’t recall when I first saw the iconic picture taken by American photographer Ruth Orkin in 1951. I just remember –– vividly –– how I felt. Maybe you've seen it, too. It shows a young American woman walking down an Italian city street, clearly disturbed by the catcalls of men standing on the corner, watching her go by.
My reaction to the photo was a visceral one combining fear, dread, and anger. As a young woman in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s, I was often subjected to that same unsolicited attention. If I saw a group of male workers along my path, I’d unconsciously hunch my shoulders to minimize my chest as I passed them, staring straight ahead.
Those were the moments I could prepare for, but there were many other times I was surprised by an individual sneaking up behind me to whisper in my ear. Whatever comfortable sense of solitude I had was immediately interrupted. Violated, is how I now see it.
It’s been decades since I’ve had such experiences, and I’m grateful for that. But there’s a reason for the difference: It’s not because those kinds of men are no longer around. Nor is it because they have changed. I have. I’m now 70, wrinkled, 30 pounds heavier, and with gray hair. I now walk blissfully upright on my way with nary a turned head, shout, or whisper to disturb me.
Yet this experience has its dark side. As an old person, in many things that matter, I’m basically invisible to the powers that be. I’ve written about invisibility before, the kind that’s based on widespread cultural ageism. But there are subsets to ageism that incorporate racism, ableism, classism, or homophobia.
The discrimination I’m talking about, gendered ageism, involves sexism and is based on misogyny, which considers women as inferior beings with only two uses: as sexual objects to be ogled or far worse, or as aides to serve families, businesses, and organizations. And when those in power determine that we women lose our ability to be sexual or nurturing beings (which, by the way, we never do), then it’s time to move us away from daily life, entombing us in a cultural catacomb.
Even now, in 2022, you’d think these were the only two inevitable experiences for women over the course of their adult lives.
In her insightful book Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It, Tracey Gendron explains the strange dichotomy women experience because of gendered ageism:
Femininity is susceptible to multiple marginalizations, including ageism, sexism, lookism (appearance), sizeism, fitnessism, healthism, and sexual objectification. Ironically, the vulnerability that older women face due to these layered forms of prejudice translates into being simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. Hyper-visibility results from the exaggerated focus on appearance promoted and enabled by media by the anti-aging industry and those who have been influenced by it. It is also fostered by the rhetoric of successful aging, which posits that aging successfully essentially translates into not aging, and that objectively looking younger provides a shield against appearance-based age shaming. For example, telling someone “You look old” is considered an insult and is tied to implications of ugliness, failure, and inadequacy. Invisibility is a counter-effect of ageism, especially in the workplace, where older women often find their contributions dismissed or ignored and are objectively less likely to get hired or promoted.
A recent infamous example of Gendron’s argument is the case of Canadian journalist and CTV National News anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who found herself suddenly terminated (“blindsided” was the word she used) for reasons that appear to be based on her gender and willingness to let her hair go gray.
Needless to say, LaFlamme’s story has aroused the indignation of pro-aging and feminist advocates alike, and rightfully so. It’s yet again another instance –– which I’m now calling “catacombing” –– of relegating to the sidelines and out of view a competent, productive woman who has consciously decided to let her personal appearance reflect her individual biological age. Interestingly, there have been some surprising corporate responses, such as Dove Canada launching a #KeepTheGrey campaign and the Canadian branch of Wendy’s changing its namesake’s hair color in its logo.
Serendipitously, the LaFlamme termination occurred five days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that overturned the longstanding Roe v. Wade decision. The reactions to this ruling have been swift and substantial. The most surprising came from Kansas, in which voters rejected a state constitution amendment banning abortion by a nearly 20-point difference. Moreover, a recent Washington Post article described a sudden huge increase in female voter registration in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and it's likely such a trend is happening in other states as well.
The mainstream media, in its infinite myopia, has been describing this surge of dissatisfaction and determination as "the waking of a sleeping giant," as if women and their male allies have been dozing all along. Have they forgotten all those stories that ran covering the MeToo movement? Such egregious oversight is itself a form of sexism and misogyny, which we can’t seem to avoid, like a sudden whisper or blatant catcall confronting us along our path toward achieving women’s rights.
Women have been fighting for equal rights all along, sometimes coming together in massive groups and other times acting in smaller ones or on their own. No giant has been sleeping, I assure you. But the latest tide of activism may be women’s largest yet, because it now involves life and death situations on a national scale.
The female response to the LaFlamme and Dobbs events isn’t determined solely by our gender. It also includes our age. Women like me who became adults in the ’60s and ’70s, marched for women’s rights, and were thrilled by the Roe decision in 1973 are not about to leave our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren –– male as well as female –– vulnerable to decisions that affect their families’ health, financial security, and opportunities for self-fulfillment. We won’t allow ourselves to be blindsided or sidelined at the expense of future generations.
All our lives we’ve played a role that defies both catcalls and catacombs. We’ve been –– and continue to be –– catalysts for change. And we’re injecting our potential energy into the cultural chemical reaction set to take place on November 8.
Invisibility? No way.
Hyper-visibility? You ain’t seen nothin' yet.