The Old Women's Project

“We need a theoretical base”:
Cynthia Rich, Women’s Studies, and Ageism

An Interview by Valerie Barnes Lipscomb

published in NWSA Journal, Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring)
©2006 NWSA Journal*

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Cynthia Rich is an activist who has been exposing ageism against old women for more than 25 years. She co-authored the trailblazing essay collection Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging, and Ageism with her partner Barbara Macdonald in 1983; a second, expanded edition was issued in 1991. Another expansion of that edition was published in 2001 after Macdonald’s death at age 86, so that the essays span more than twenty years of analysis and activism, addressing society’s pervasive ageism from a feminist perspective. Rich lives in San Diego, where she is a co-founder of The Old Women’s Project. According to the project website, the group “works to make visible how old women are directly affected by all issues of social justice, and to combat the ageist attitudes that ignore, trivialize or demean us. We are a group of old women who use actions of various kinds to achieve this goal. We welcome women of all ages who wish to join in our actions” (The Old Women’s Project, 2005). During a telephone conversation, Rich commented on relationships between Women’s Studies, ageism against old women, and activism. Whenever possible, the interviewer’s (VBL) comments were omitted in order to focus on Rich’s (CR) views.

VBL: Some of the comments on ageism on The Old Women’s Project website are similar to those included in essays and speeches you and Barbara Macdonald wrote twenty years ago. Have perceptions of old age changed in society at large? Is the battle any different now, as the general population ages?

CR: That’s an excellent place to start. We’re living out the world that Barbara projected for us in 1980 in her essay “Exploitation by Compassion” (Macdonald 1983). There are so many more old women now, and the corporations, the drug companies, the nursing facilities, the retirement homes have moved right in to reap the profits. But it also turns out that they can make money by actively promoting a fear and loathing around women’s aging. Now 30-year-olds are just horrified by their first wrinkle, and it’s become a major industry to make younger women see my 72-yearold body as hideous. Will it matter that the baby boomers are aging? Well, there may be more of us old women every day, but if numbers translated into power, women and people of color would rule the world. I don’t put faith in numbers

VBL: What direction do you believe academics should take, especially women’s studies and age studies scholars?

CR: I want to say that any change in approach, in attitudes, needs to start in academia; we need a theoretical base. The women who set off the women’s movement in the ’70s and ’80s will be moving into old age in large numbers—they could make a difference—but there’s no theoretical analysis, no base for what they’re encountering. Without a theoretical foundation that Women’s Studies can provide us, women have no idea how to think about our aging and our organizing. They’re struggling. Longtime feminists such as Ellen Goodman, Geraldine Ferraro, and Pat Schroeder tried to organize a voters’ movement called Granny Voters, around their concern for their grandchildren. Granny Voters? These are strong feminists who never would have called themselves Mommy Voters, who never would have ignored the sexism they encountered or fed the stereotype that all women are mothers.

VBL: The Granny Voters say that they emphasize grandchildren to make politicians aware that older voters are interested in more than Medicare and Social Security. Here’s an excerpt from their website:

  We started to affect the quality of political discourse in this country and insist that candidates discuss the long-term implications of their policies. Through, we want to get the word out to other grandparents so that they can act, speak, and vote on behalf of their grandchildren’s future. On our grandchildren’s behalf, GrannyVoters will ask the candidates what they will do to improve the world that we are leaving to our grandchildren. (2004)  

CR: They want to act, and they want to act as old women, but they have no theoretical base. I’m counting on academia, particularly Women’s Studies, to provide them with one.

VBL: One theory of aging that many scholars have found useful is Kathleen Woodward’s (Aging and Its Discontents 1991) mirror stage of old age, a variation on Jacques Lacan’s (Ecrits 1966) mirror stage of infancy. The old person sees herself in the mirror and, instead of seeing an integrated self reflected, feels an alienation from the image of this aged body. Old people say they don’t feel any different from when they were young adults, but they cannot believe that their bodies are so different from how they feel. They experience distancing from their bodies and a sense that their bodies are betraying them.

CR: That alienation from the body comes from the fact not only that we weren’t always old, but also that we were ageist when we were young. We shared society’s revulsion of aging flesh. We internalized the ageism. Our bodies are changing all our lives. We should always be standing in front of the mirror, saying, “I can’t believe this is my body.” At age 20, we should be in disbelief that it’s the same body we had at age 5. It’s so marked when we’re old because we’ve internalized that physical revulsion that’s not dissimilar to the physical revulsion that other marginalized people have experienced—people of color, the disabled, lesbians and gays, Jews. All marginalized people have heard at one time or another that it’s “natural” for others to find them physically repulsive. That’s key. There’s a mechanism that connects all types of marginalization with a contempt for the physical body. Ageism is not different from other “isms”; we put it into the category of natural—naturally, younger people don’t want to associate with old women. Not long ago, people thought it was natural for men not to want to associate with women outside of the home, or for white people not to associate with people of color. Of course, men will sometimes want to associate just with men, African Americans with African Americans, gays with gays, old women with old women. The question is, how pervasive is the segregation? And who holds the key?

VBL: It’s essential to recognize that ageism is in the same category as racism and sexism, but it differs in that during the life course, we all move from the unmarked to the marked position, from privilege to discrimination. That has a great deal to do with our resistance toward acknowledging ageism, including the resistance of scholars to address the issue. It seems that you’ve been delivering this same message on ageism for many years to the academic community, and too many of us still don’t get it.

CR: Well, I’m not in academia, and I’m only invited to speak there very occasionally, but in 2002 at NWSA in Las Vegas, I was supposed to give a reading from the new edition of Look Me in the Eye. I picked up the conference schedule of presentations, and I was so appalled by the invisibility of old women that I had to give a talk instead of a reading. It was almost twenty years after Barbara’s 1985 presentation to NWSA about ageism in Women’s Studies, which created a huge amount of attention at the time. Her talk was entitled “Outside the Sisterhood,” and I can tell you that nearly twenty years later, old women were still outside the sisterhood in Las Vegas. That was evident also when I looked over the women’s studies texts and anthologies. So I’m delighted that this issue of the Journal is being devoted to ageism, and I appreciate the invitation to contribute.

VBL: As the baby boom ages, perhaps as larger numbers of those active in Women’s Studies face ageism themselves, they will develop an interest and understanding.

CR: Women’s Studies is most able to see that this is not just a “problem of the elderly”; we need to clearly see the world of difference between how old men and old women are treated—beyond the issue of their pocketbooks, which is huge. Old men who are especially frail and powerless are seen as if they are women, just as gay men sometimes are treated contemptuously as if they are women. But the world is run by old white men. The experiences are incredibly different. Here’s an example. When newspaper publisher Katherine Graham died, Michael Bechloss, a liberal historian in his 50s, was speaking of his experience with her, and he literally said, “Everybody talks about her as an 84-year-old woman. I did not see her as an 84-year-old woman. She wasn’t ossified” (Bechloss 2001). That says worlds about the differences between attitudes toward old men and old women—who would say that if Daniel Schorr (who’s 90) or Mike Wallace (in his 80s) or Dan Rather died? And this is a liberal guy talking.

VBL: The example that strikes me is the obituary of columnist Ann Landers. You’ve noted that the story announcing her death on NBC Nightly News began, “A great-grandmother who . . .” (2002). That had nothing to do with her accomplishments and would never have been applied to a man. The media simply does not point out that an accomplished old man is a grandfather, let alone foreground his place in the family. Moreover, you’ve pointed out that this is exactly the type of description applied to younger women in the 1950s: “A mother of two,” etc. And you believe that drawing this analogy with attitudes toward younger women before the second wave can be an effective classroom technique.

CR: Yes, that’s a crucial piece of feminist theory. Since the second-wave feminists began as young women, they didn’t know old women existed, so that attitudes toward old women now are exactly the same as the earlier attitudes toward younger women. They’ve been frozen in time. It’s an important piece of understanding, particularly to introduce students to issues of ageism in Women’s Studies. Make clear to them how feminism really made a difference in the overt contempt for women that was mixed with an exaggerated, false respect and protection, and how it’s the same for old women today. If we just point out old women’s issues, that’s a yawn for students. We have to connect these issues to the ones that younger women faced, not so long ago. Connect how younger women in the ‘50s were patronized, seen as submissive and dependent, childlike, with how old women are treated now. Young women who spoke up were called “uppity,” and still now, old women who speak up are called “feisty.” Younger women weren’t seen as terribly bright, not anyone you’d want to have a long conversation with, just as old women continue to be viewed now. It used to be that a few younger women would be complimented by being told, “Oh, you think just like a man.” Well, the other day in Ben and Jerry’s, I was told I couldn’t be a senior, because I was smiling; seniors were always grumpy. This happens all the time. I’m told, “I’d never guess you were 72,” and that’s supposed to be the highest compliment you can give someone.

In the classroom, the blatant contempt for old women needs not to be danced around, but needs to be brought out with outrage, to get it across that these are women. In fact, this represents one-third to onehalf of our lives as women. In the 1960s and 1970s, we deconstructed “woman”—we need to help students deconstruct “old woman.” Teachers need to use powerful presentation techniques, such as a Vogue article I have entitled, “How Old Do You Look?” (Green 2003) with an illustration of an old woman’s hand made to look exactly like a chicken’s claw. And that type of attitude is everywhere. We can do a scholarly analysis of birthday cards—the cards that inform me as an old woman just how disgusting and hideous I am. Then I’m chastised that I don’t have a sense of humor when I object, the same comments we used to hear about sexist or racist jokes.

VBL: You’ve mentioned magazines and birthday cards. What other classroom resources or approaches do you recommend?

CR: I’d be delighted to provide a PowerPoint presentation for use in classrooms, because students need to be shocked, because they start out thinking old women are just so boring. They need to be slapped with it. Then link old women’s issues, as we were saying, to the blatant sexism of the ‘50s and ’60s, how these are identical, except that younger women’s bodies generally weren’t seen as hideous. Still, menstruation was seen as disgusting, for example. When the class is dealing with body image issues, bringing up age is natural, and the media offers plenty of negative images of old women to analyze. But we need to make clear how it starts younger, how society is making the 30-year-old terrified of how she’s starting to look like me.

And finally—I’m leaning heavily on Barbara [Macdonald] here—they need to see that there’s a false power women gain by being young. What little power she gets—and it’s a false one—she gets for every year that she distances herself from me in age. The price is that every succeeding year she loses power. The 30-year-old loses power by not being 20, the 40- year-old by not being 30, and so on. We can see it clearly in movies and TV—we already know that the male actors age and continue to win roles and build prestige and are coupled with young women, while the female actors age and disappear after 30. The same system that sees old women as hideous and boring starts to discard women at earlier and earlier ages, at 30. There are ways to make the issue of old women integral to any approach of feminism.

VBL: We know that you’re hoping for more from academia, but what about the broader feminist community? Several essays in Look Me in the Eye rightly criticize the unconscious ageism in the women’s movement. In her remembrance of Barbara Macdonald, Lise Weil (2001) noted Macdonald’s justified exasperation at the feminist community, having expected them “at the very least to get it, if not to act on it” (xv). Has anything happened in this area since Barbara Macdonald’s last years?

CR: I have a funny take on that. I’m not sure I’ve seen a women’s movement in recent years that is even comparable to the one Barbara and I were living and working in. That movement wasn’t just another special interest group; it was a movement to transform society. Unfortunately, now, the movement to transform society is coming from the other direction. I don’t think we currently have the theory or the passionate activism of the late ’60s and ’70s. We no longer have women’s presses and bookstores and venues that provide a natural setting to develop cutting-edge theory. We used to have lots of these places, and now we have fewer. So if Women’s Studies doesn’t address ageism, I don’t know who would. Women’s Studies is embattled, but you’re all we’ve got.

VBL: You noted in the latest edition of Look Me in the Eye that you were aware of now being older than Barbara was when she wrote the essay, “Look Me in the Eye.” While reading this edition, I was aware that many of the essays are now at least twenty years old, so that you now are about the age Barbara Macdonald was when you assembled the first edition. How does this perspective affect your reaction to your own aging?

CR: I am just so grateful to have had that opportunity to observe ageism and analyze it with Barbara over twenty years, so that now when I encounter it directly, it’s still painful, but it’s not as bad. At least I have what so many old women don’t have, and that’s an analysis of the truly bizarre things that people say and do. I ran into a young man in his 30s; we had been activists together, and after we had brought each other up to date about our political work, he said goodbye and added, “I’m so glad you’re still up and around!” I realized at that moment that he saw me not as a political colleague, but as a wrinkled old woman about to keel over. The constant message is that we are nothing but our bodies, and our bodies are disgusting. Another example: When I went to visit a younger friend in the hospital, another woman in her 30s was there, talking about someone who was about ten years younger than I. She said, “Well, she’s somewhat elderly, but she’s nice.” I am standing there with my white hair, and I’m invisible. It’s amazing; the contempt for old women is so pervasive that nobody really notices it. They think it’s natural. We have to remember when contempt for people of color, contempt for gays, felt just that natural. We’re still working to combat that contempt in many corners, but we haven’t even made a start with ageism. People don’t even know it when they see it. For me personally, it’s not as big a problem with people I know well, because we’ve confronted it, but out in the world, it’s still unexamined.

VBL: I think the Journal’s readers would be interested in learning more about your current work with The Old Women’s Project. How was it conceived, and how has it been received?

CR: The Old Women’s Project began in 2001 as an idea cooked up around my kitchen table by Mannie Garza, Janice Keaffaber, and me as a way to honor Barbara, who had recently died. She was, after all, the first to name ageism as a central feminist issue as opposed to a problem of the elderly. She was the first to claim the word “old” as a political act. And the project allowed the three of us to confront the ageism we ourselves were encountering in our 60s and 70s. We aren’t activists working specifically on old women’s issues; Medicare and Social Security are essential women’s issues, of course, but what I want to do is to change attitudes, to get at the root of ageism. We want to make visible the fact that old women are directly, personally affected by all issues of social justice. Our first action was to organize a large demonstration for low-cost housing on International Women’s Day 2001. We brought together all sorts of groups, showing that old women are at one end of that issue of a lifetime of women’s unpaid and low-paid work. That action and follow-up lobbying launched the low-cost housing movement in San Diego. We work to foster that spirit of connecting women, emphasizing actions that show how old women are impacted by every kind of issue.

VBL: The photos of the giant puppet you use in demonstrations are particularly impressive.

CR: The puppet is huge; it’s a Kathe Kollwitz self-portrait. We chose her because she looks multiethnic, and we gave her long, white, braided multiethnic hair. She’s very popular wherever she goes and her name is POWER, an acronym for Pissed Old Woman Engendering Revolution. People also love the bright T-shirts we have saying, “Old Women Are Your Future.” Women have shown us that they’re hungry for all-women’s actions—I like to say, “even though that’s so twentieth century.” Our actions have brought together anywhere from 12 to 400 women—usually 50 to 100 at a time. We’re respected in San Diego’s progressive community because we do a lot of coalition work. It’s helpful that we make it clear how old women are impacted by what we’re working on in coalition. We’re not just do-gooders helping others; we have a vested interest in the cause. We’re looking to help progressive people see old women in a new light. We definitely don’t call ourselves grannies. The grandma thing does away with a sense of equality and reduces old women to their roles within the family.

VBL: It seems to me that you’re accomplishing a great deal through this coalition work. You can show how women are connected regardless of age, how they’re affected by the same issues at various ages; at the same time, you’re able to reach and educate a population who may ignore anything that is treated as only an old woman’s issue.

CR: You put your finger on the button. It just felt good to us.

VBL: And you’ve received attention outside the San Diego area.

CR: When we put 400 women together to demonstrate with shopping bags saying, “Women don’t buy this war,” we heard from media across the country, including Oprah Winfrey. We’ve heard from feminists, from feminist publications. We hope it ripples out.

VBL: So you’d recommend a similar approach for other activists?

CR: I’ve been an activist for almost 50 years, and coalitions work. We focus on people on the bottom—and that means we’re always working with women—whether they’re low-wage home health care workers and janitors or those in need of low-cost housing. We show that these are old women’s issues. As we say, “No living wage equals homeless old age.” It’s essential that whatever group we identify with, we hold firm to that identity, but we also must make connections to other issues, not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because the connections are real. For example, old women are affected both by policies of the “war on drugs” and by its results, which fill prisons instead of offering rehabilitation, because guess who has to raise the children of parents who are addicted or in prison? Old women. We hope other activists will see more and more the importance of not being single-issue. Single-issue politics are wrong for these times; these times are much too serious for that.

VBL: Here in Florida, issues involving old women may get more media attention than they do in San Diego, just because of the older population here. Nevertheless, the attitudes are disconcerting. Unless the issue concerns the healthy, carefree, empty-nester who is pictured on retirement brochures, the coverage is aimed at a younger audience, asking what in the world we shall do about this burden of old people, as if they are helpless and generally worthless.

CR: If we’re to address these social issues effectively, old women must be treated as human beings, as equals. And once more, the situations place women under intolerable stress, because the younger women are expected to be caretakers. As Barbara foretold in “Exploitation by Compassion” (Macdonald 1983), the response to the challenges of increased longevity, maintaining independence, and providing health care is, “Don’t you have a daughter to take care of you?” (1983); Barbara was analyzing that many years ago. No one’s dealing with these social issues ahead of time, and it’s going to get harder.

I want to add that what I’ve been talking about is white mainstream society, in part because it would be arrogant of me to speak about attitudes toward age in different ethnicities, and because the issues are different in different communities. But I address white dominant society first and foremost because these ageist attitudes have a huge impact on women of color. I’ll quote Harriet Jackson-Lyons, an old African-American woman who has been organizing to get women who are raising their grandchildren the same rights and income that foster parents receive. This powerful woman talks about her experience organizing: “Ageism has been one of our biggest obstacles with politicians and agencies, convincing them that we do not want cookies, boat rides, trips to the mall. Being old does not mean that we cannot think. We are being respected more and more. Now they don’t call me ‘dearie’ anymore” (Boston Women’s Fund 2001, 9). I think that’s a really valuable quotation. Otherwise, I think ageism can be seen as a bourgeois, frivolous, white women’s issue, when it really cuts across all ethnicities and classes. Our saying used to be, “All issues are women’s issues,” and it’s also true that all issues are old women’s issues.

Cynthia Rich can be contacted through The Old Women’s Project website,, via e-mail at The latest edition of Look Me in the Eye is available through Bella Books, Tallahassee, FL, at, or call 1-800-729-4992.

Valerie Barnes Lipscomb earned a Ph.D in English from the University of South Florida, where she teaches literature and composition. Her publications examine age and performativity in modern drama. Send correspondence to


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The Old Women's Project
San Diego, California
March 10, 2003

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