Thursday, April 23, 2009

Invisible Women

You've probably heard about Susan Boyle, a middle-aged, "frumpy" woman from a small Scottish village who astonished everyone by her singing performance on a British talent-search TV show. Susan Reimer, a Baltimore SUN columnist, wrote this about Boyle’s achievement and the "invisibility" of middle-aged and elderly women:,0,7224091.column

Here's an essay by Suzette Haden Elgin, "Why Old Women Are Older Than Old Men," which concludes, "We're being taught that the appearance of age is okay for men but not for women."

Isaac Asimov once wrote a column in which he proposed that a reason for the persecution of women as witches in late medieval and early modern Europe was that old women, before the advent of modern obstetrics, were rarer than old men; furthermore, the facial characteristics of advanced age were more obvious on women than on men when almost all adult males wore beards. Therefore, old women were perceived as sinister. Doubtless their expertise in the arts of midwifery and herbal healing added to this perception.

Supposedly, in preindustrial societies old people (presumably including both sexes) were revered for their "wisdom." Since the rapid acceleration of technology began in the twentieth century, accelerating faster with each decade, the younger generation (in Western culture, at least) has become more apt to regard elders as hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant. Why should "the appearance of age," though, make "invisibility" more characteristic of old women than men of the same age, now that women theoretically have equal opportunity for education and professional advancement? Shouldn't achievement outweigh "beauty" or lack thereof in both sexes? Or are we still influenced by perceptual triggers evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, to the effect that a female lacking the outward marks of fertility (an appearance of beauty, youth, and health) seems less valuable on some instinctive level?

I hope not, but what cultural changes would have to happen to make old women as attractive and respected in our culture as old men of the same level of achievement? Would civilization have to be destroyed by a cataclysm that would render the "wisdom" of a long memory obviously valuable again? Or do the two columns cited above exaggerate the problem?

Margaret L. Carter


  1. That's an interesting perspective on the witch hunts and the reason for them. I agree about the invisibility of older women, but I hope it might slowly change. We hear all the time about the aging 'baby boomers' and their influence economically and socially on the world. And we're still holding on as the top consumers, movers and shakers. And the generations following us will be even less inclined to slide in 'invisibility.'

  2. Great blog post! I recognize the value in older women and certainly hope our society begins to show more appreciation as well.

  3. Great blog post! I recognize the value in older women and certainly hope our society begins to show more appreciation as well.