Aging and the female philosopher

FemaleScienceProfessor observes today

… it still amazes me that any man in the physical sciences today can seriously ask the “what if there are no qualified women” question as if it is a sane question. 

Her post starts off with the story of a conference which had to have at least one woman speaker and did meet that very minimal requirement.

One could be excused for thinking that the only thing worse than being a women in a male dominated field, such as philosophy, engineering, the sciences and math tend to be, is to be an aging woman in one of those fields. As one’s social-sexual value diminishes, the fact that one is thought to have little or no intellectual value becomes all the more evident.

And everyone knows that one’s abilities are on the decline after 40 or 50, right? Maybe not.

Margaret Mead said, “There is no more creative force in the world than a menopausal woman with zest.”  A ‘health article’ in the NY Times puts the point in today’s idiom. Its title: Evolution’s Secret Weapon: Grandma.

Studies of modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Venezuela and Eastern Paraguay — societies that offer insights into how humans evolved — consistently show that Grandma is doing much of the work. … Often, the scientists find, women in their 60s are as strong as women in their 20s. “It’s the women over 40 who are carrying the heavy loads,’’ said Dr. Hawkes.

If one looks at how much of academic and business life is shaped by expectations built on men’s lives, the differences in aging may reveal an overlooked way in which the talent and potential contributions of women are squandered. 

The article is drawing on research by Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah. The results of her work have been in the public domain for some time. As Natalie Angier noted in 1997

As Dr. Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah and her colleagues have found in their extensive studies of the Hadza, women in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and beyond are among the most industrious members of the group. They are out in the woods for seven or eight hours a day, gathering more food than virtually any of their comrades.

The Gay Elderly

Intersectionality– roughly, the way that multiple oppressions may interact, and may even not be clearly separable– is rightly a major topic that receives a lot of attention in academia (though arguably still not as much as it should).  But some intersections get more attention than others, and one that doesn’t really get a lot of attention is the intersection of ageism and homophobia.  But it should, as this New York Times article makes clear.  There always has been a large gay elderly population (as a few seconds’ reflection would make clear to anyone but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), but now things are a bit different: many of these people have eventually managed to live openly as gay in a world that is more tolerant than the one that they grew up in, partly by choosing the communities in which they live.  But when they need long-term residential care things turn ugly– they’re forced to live in close quarters in homophobic communities (both residents and staff).  Most of them return to their closets, and at a time when life is getting enormously difficult anyway this is a huge burden.  Some commit suicide, and many suffer depression.  The good news is that there are some– though surely not enough– retirement centers that cater to gay people; and that gay rights organizations are working very hard to educate those running and working retirement centers, in order to improve things. One of those working to do this, by the way, is Amber Hollibaugh, known to me for her writings on sexuality. (Although the article is primarily focused on homophobia, the work being done includes work against transphobia as well.)