Barbara MacDonald: A Pioneer Theorist of Ageism
Tuesday, 28 October 2008
[EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.
In 1983 (along with her partner Cynthia Rich), Barbara MacDonald published a collection of essays titled Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism.
With this slim book, MacDonald put the lesbian feminism movement of that time on notice: in carving out space for ourselves as lesbian women, we were ignoring, excluding, and rendering invisible the few old women around us - and the old women we ourselves would one day become.
MacDonald insisted unequivocally that her ability to name the ageism she experienced derived from her life of knowing "otherness" as a lesbian in unsympathetic times. And she knew that experience was not something unique to lesbians.
”...these essays are about growing old...but they are about difference - about otherness - and all my life I have had to deal with difference, so old age does not come to me now as a stranger...It happened that I felt my difference because I was a lesbian.
"But difference is something we have all dealt with in our lives - that struggle to follow our impulse, our own uniqueness, to know aloneness; and that desire to be like everyone else - not to stand out, to belong.”
In those heady days when lesbians were making themselves visible as never before and many U.S. women were exploring their individuality and autonomy with heady vigor, MacDonald all too often felt an outsider because, in her mid-sixties, she was the oldest woman in the room. Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts amid the ferment,
”...again I was ‘other.’ Again I lived with the never-knowing when people would turn away from me, not because they had identified me as a lesbian, since I was no longer thought of as a sexual being, but because they identified me as old.
"I had lived my life without novels, movies, radio, or television telling me that lesbians existed or that it was possible to be glad to be a lesbian. Now nothing told me that old women existed, or that it was possible to be glad to be an old woman...Again I had to chart my own course, this time into growing old.”
Sometimes this was lonely, alienating.
”I am glad the women's community has a beginning and is there to support women but I am aware that it is not there to confirm who I am...Sometimes I feel like the only way I'll really get into [a women's community center] - [appear] alive in the eyes of the young women - is dead, on a poster.”
Though righteously angry with the young women who erased her, she knew what she wasn't going to do in response. She wasn't going to pretend that she was not getting old. Too often, MacDonald wrote,
”...the old woman tries to pass. ‘I don't think they know my age...People don't think I'm as old as I am, so I don't go around blabbin' it.’ Another old woman recommends ‘taking on the qualities associated with youth. People will never think about your age. They'll just think how young you are.’
“Passing...is one of the most serious threats to selfhood. We attempt, of course, to avoid the oppressor's hateful distortion of our identity...But meanwhile, our true identity, never acted out, can lose its substance, its meaning, even for ourselves.”
MacDonald understood that the aging of the U.S. population would mean that old people would become targets of a pervasive, ageist marketing campaign. She insisted we were being deformed by
”…a society which, in anticipation of the year 2000 (when one out of every four persons will be over 50), is planning a whole new image of aging that will tell us we are as young as we feel and that how to feel young is to look young. A society which is developing endless products to keep us looking young. Which is to say that society isn't going to let us grow old naturally any more than they ever let a lesbian, or any other woman for that matter, do what comes naturally.”
Angry as she was about what society did with her experience of aging, she sought to report honestly what aging meant to her.
”What I am always aware of, somewhere in the back of my mind but not taken out and examined as I do now on this page, is that I am in the process of dying and that all of this is part of the life experience. It is a process and one that we may be conscious of for the last ten or twenty years of our life, which, if you think about it, may be a quarter or more of your lifetime. I find myself wondering why this is not more talked about and why it has not become the common knowledge of our lives...
“...I see that only some deaths are hidden...I see now that all my life, as in yours, one death was always visible in film, in art, and in literature - the agonizing death of the hero who dies gloriously in mortal combat...we see him always in that single moment of death...
“The assumption that is made [by the myth of the heroic warrior] is that if you kill them first, you will live. (I assure you that, with the body messages I've been getting lately, I won't.) This assumption would not be possible if the daily deaths of ordinary people were made visible, and if the life process of dying were in our heads instead of the single event, and if the bravery of the old who face death every day were recognized for the courage it demands of the human spirit...
“Today, gradually, sometimes not easily, I begin to understand that my body is still in charge of my life process and has always been. It is still taking good care of me, but it always had two jobs: to make sure that I live and to make sure that I die. All my life it has been as busy with my dying as my living.”
Barbara MacDonald died on June 15, 2000 at the age of 86.
I had not thought of MacDonald's book in many years until Marian Van Eyk McCain of Elderwomanblog reminded me of it in comments on a previous Gay and Gray column. When I first encountered it, I was one of those youngish women among whom MacDonald was never sure she could find a place. Today I am almost as old as Barbara was when she began writing these essays. Reading it again was a profound experience I had hope I have succeeded in sharing here.
Look Me in the Eye is presently out of print, so I have taken the liberty here of offering long quotations to share the flavor of what hold up well as a challenging work by a brave woman.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran explains how she came to be nicknamed Smokey.]
Thank you for this, Jan. It's hard enough being an old, single woman. This insight into the plight of lesbian women gave me a new insight.
Posted by: Kay Dennison | Tuesday, 28 October 2008 at 05:18 AM
”...a society which ... is planning a whole new image of aging that will tell us we are as young as we feel and that how to feel young is to look young."
How prescient! The denial of old age and death has just taken on a new tack in the face of aging Boomers, not changed fundamentally from MacDonald's day. And when the myth of youth no longer works due to the unstoppable advance of age, our commercially-driven culture forgets you, or rather, turns their back on you as irrelevant.
I often wonder what our culture will be thinking and doing when Boomers reach their 70's, 80's and 90's. Will Boomers remain invisible on the margins of society? Will they demand their rights? Will they be courted by advertisers who have found a new way to make a buck off the elderly?
Posted by: Mike Nichols | Tuesday, 28 October 2008 at 06:42 AM
I believe Mike has hit on the reason that elders are perceived to be irrelevant and it's MONEY. Hollywood started the youth culture craze before I was born as the stars were always beautiful an worshiped as Gods. The advertising industry quickly followed suit. Since physical beauty sells, the wrinkled elders were shoved into the background.
It is always wrong, and cruelly so, to be intolerant of someone who may be different. I believe no group has suffered more than the gay community,
Posted by: Darlene | Tuesday, 28 October 2008 at 09:23 AM
I don't care how much some may try to be young by looking young. Aging is with us all unless we meet our demise early on so I remind myself of this each time I'm dismissed because I'm old & gray! And then of course, I knowingly smile! Dee
Posted by: Dee | Tuesday, 28 October 2008 at 01:35 PM
The book is, indeed, out of print; but some copies are available from other sellers at Amazon. Search by author's name; there are other books with same title.
Say, Ronni, perhaps an Amazon affiliate link would be helpful to you and your readers.
a link to the book:
Posted by: Kate | Tuesday, 28 October 2008 at 03:12 PM
Excellent reprint! I am bisexual (more accurately, non-sexual!), 82, and one of the old-young (wish I had a dollar for every time someones says to me, "You? 82? Impossible!")
Posted by: Mimi Merrill | Wednesday, 29 October 2008 at 12:33 PM
I was so sad to hear of Barbara McDonalds death and cant beleive she died all those years ago and I didn't know. Despite this Im happy to see her influence still lives on: What a legacey! I do have a copy of her book "Look me in the eye" If anyone wants to borrow it.
I as a lesbian read it when I was in my early 40's and felt it was a revelation, yet found it also hard to read because of my own fear of ageing at that time.Thankfully I have been a part of an Older Lesbian network since that time and had the opportunity to debate and share our experiences.
We are in a different climate now and Im happy to say mostley I enjoy the age I am despite the increasing frailties. Im proud to be a part of a community who have been through the extreme end of prejudice and come out laughing. Like Barbara I can look most people in the eye, not with defiance or defence but loveing acceptance. I don't choose to rail against discimination so strongly but I wont be denied either. That I beleive is one of the many positives of being a Lesbian and a woman.
Vito Eileen Ward
Posted by: Vito Ward | Thursday, 13 November 2008 at 04:12 AM