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Journal of Aging Studies

17 (2003) 379 – 397

Gendered identities in old age: Toward (de)gendering?
Catherine B. Silver
Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, 365 Fifth Ave.,
New York, N.Y. 10016, USA

In postindustrial societies, like the United States, the loss of socioeconomic power and status
among older people have created an arena where patriarchal rules and gender-based expectations
have been altered, providing the context for new (de)gendered identities. In this article, we analyze
assumptions regarding gender and age representations. By comparing different views of ageing—
psychoanalytic, feminist, and that of older people themselves—we want to explore how they reflect
underlying ideologies about the body, gender, and the self. These approaches to ageing are examined
to assess the meaning of gender and age as social constructs. The article addresses the issue of
(de)gendering by suggesting that in the third and fourth ages, gendered identities become altered in
ways that diminish gender differences and clear-cut gender representations. We end the article by
discussing some implications for doing research about the production and consumption of knowledge
about ageing.
D 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Ageing; Gender; Feminism; Psychoanalysis

1. Introduction
Older people, like most marginalized groups in advanced industrial societies, face a
paradoxical situation. On one hand, they are at a socioeconomic disadvantage compared to
younger age groups (Quadagno, 1999). On the other, their marginality situates them in a
sphere of normative freedom from which they can question society’s norms and
deconstruct the discourse of ageing (Hazan, 1994). In the United States, as in most
advanced industrial societies, disengagement from the ‘‘adult world’’ is accepted if not

E-mail address: (C.B. Silver).
0890-4065/$ – see front matter D 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1996. We will not use the term adult world to describe the nonaged because it implies that the aged are no longer adults. and an ideology of self-control regulate individuals in old age. 30 years in life expectancy.1 Adult life is expanding as ‘‘old age’’ is pushed further away. better-off financially. 1978. Lock. 1993). on average. Today. older individuals—especially the aging baby boomers—are better educated. In this article we will use a variety of terms like the aged and older individuals. The body. especially for women.B. 1 There has been increasing evidence of the importance of distinguishing between the ‘‘young old’’ and the ‘‘oldest old’’ in terms of physical conditions. This situation may be changing with new life styles. 1992. 4 We use the term ‘‘nonaged’’ to describe individuals fully employed in mainstream society in terms of work and family obligations as parents. p. medicalization. the third and fourth ages represent states of mind and symbolic spaces that separate older individuals from the ‘‘adult working world’’ of the nonaged. Primarily. longevity of white females is 83 years. and life satisfaction. The term third age was initiated in France in the 1960 and used in many European countries. and more sophisticated about ageing than previous generations.5 years. 1999) has led to an increasing segregation and depersonalization of the oldest old (85 years and older). black males 71. 1991). mostly women. We do not like to use the term elderly. who represent the fastest growing group of the elderly population (Neugarten & Neugarten. and the medicalization of ageing that has prolonged the middle years and changed standards of ageing. individuals in postindustrial societies have gained. is increasingly subjected to the dictates of the biopolitics of science and society (Foucault. A survey of older people’s feelings regarding the language used to describe them showed that the term third age was the most acceptable to them.3 Better quality of life. mental health. and emotional conditions when the pains of aging are not primary as with the oldest old (Hazan. While this situation may reflect older people’s choices. with women having gained seven more years than men.380 C. In this paper. Blaikie. we will talk of individuals in the third and fourth ages of life. Age segregation. 3 The words used to describe older people vary and many have a negative connotation. black females and white males 78 years. We do not propose to distinguish between the third and fourth ages in this article. 155). and sophisticated use of technology— including cosmetic surgery—have slowed down the ageing process. They are responded to in ways that allow the nonaged to control the lives of older men and women (Bauman. we have to keep in mind that medicalization and age norms are largely attempts to control the fears of ageing and death among the nonaged. mental. especially the aged female body. who have a longer life expectancy than men. we will use the broad concepts of the third and fourth ages that correspond to age ranges 60 – 84 years for the former and 85 years and above for the later (Baltes & Smith 1999). . Since the turn of the century. 1996) who belong to the fourth age. preventive medicine. these changes have increased the fear of ageing and death and have strengthened the images of old age as an illness. 2 In the United States. Individuals who defined themselves as belonging to the third age describe themselves as ‘‘ante-aged’’ being in healthy physical. Paradoxically. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 expected in the ‘‘third’’ and ‘‘fourth’’ ages of life (Featherstone & Hepworth. 1999).4 These fears are redefined and rationalized as social problems.2 The extension of life into a ‘‘fourth age’’ (Baltes & Smith. More than being simple age categorizations.

have little meaning in understanding the everyday life and psychic realities of older people. and a series of losses around a decaying body. feel less depressed. These concepts. and that of older people themselves—deal with this paradox. In this article. gender norms. 1994) that support a social order organized around power relations of men over women. argues that Freud was terrified of ageing and. he was leaving out an analysis of the links between sexuality and age over the life course. Psychoanalytic approaches to gender and ageing The psychoanalytic views of ageing have for the most part stigmatized older individuals. social expectations. ‘‘gender’’ and ‘‘age’’ are not natural states but social constructs (Butler. The social–emotional order of the adult world is defined by laws. Helms. 1999. mobility. Field. and ideologies that shape an individual’s life and psyche around accomplishments. who are still at a socioeconomic disadvantage compared to older men. How are we to make sense of this situation? My theoretical query is to explore how different views of ageing–psychoanalytic. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 381 As we know.5 we contribute to an analysis of (de)gendering processes by discussing how gender categorization becomes less central as an organizing principle among older people. we compare how different discourses of ageing categorize age and gender. or misperceive the changes taking place in older people’s sense of gendered selves. we are faced with a paradox: Older women. and economic rewards that are future oriented.B. however. feminist. 1993. Until recently. and engage in creative pursuits (Barefoot. Lorber. Often. especially men. an illness. coped with his anxiety by ignoring the impact of age in his theories of the self. 1993). and of ‘‘young’’ over ‘‘old. By focusing primarily on issues of sexuality in childhood. 5 The term discourse in this paper does not refer either to a linguistic analysis of text or the methodologies of knowledge production like many feminists theorist have undertaken so well. especially women. 2001. in a fascinating book. distort. Aging and its discontents (1991).C. more often than not. The loss of socioeconomic power and social status of older/retired individuals. we use the term discourse in a broader sense to analyze the assumptions underlying in the use and meaning of the categorizations of age and gender. 2.’’ Normative and discursive structures are used to maintain and reproduce a social–emotional order that does not fit the realities of marginalized groups such as older people (Bourdieu. Rather. Woodward. & Schroll. are more likely to have a positive view of ageing. Mortensen. psychoanalysts and social gerontologists approached ageing within a framework that defined the ageing process as a decline. . creating the conditions for altered identities. we describe different approaches to ageing to show how they often ignore. has created a social arena where patriarchal rules and gender-based expectations have been weakened. and we explore how fears of ageing and death shape views of ageing among the nonaged. Friedan. psychoanalysts have used a language and proposed a dualistic view of ageing based on their own unacknowledged and repressed fears and anxieties of ageing and death. values. postmodern. In the United States. 1984).

and his speech. he implied. his heart. symptoms and anxiety (1926). because their psychic energy had been used-up in childbirth and mothering. SE vol. Karen Horney and. indeed. whom we expect to make powerful use of the possibilities of development opened up to him by analysis. There is no path open to further development. 1900). 134–35). 7 Ageing reconfigures the Oedipus drama. Freud argued that the self becomes more rigid with age. . but this time.6 Freud’s negative feelings toward ageing are captured in the following quote from a letter to Lou Andre´as-Salome´: With me. it is in the late period of his life that he wrote masterpieces such as: Inhibitions. adaptability. and mastery over life. It is as though the whole process remains thenceforward insusceptible to influences. who was only 5 years younger than Freud. The tyranny of the male superego diminished with age. 8 The weakened superego of women that was for Freud linked with a weaker sense of morality has also been reinterpreted by feminists as a manifestation of women’s strength. Female sexuality (1931). Freud described ageing as a series of losses—the loss of teeth. are old—which is to say rigid and incapable of change: A man of thirty strikes us as youthful. pp. around a powerless and weakened father who is afraid of being rejected by younger sons/colleagues. If men at the age of 30 are still youthful. A woman of the same age however. Moses and monotheism (1939). Civilization and its discontents (1930). 1964). the superego played a different role in the psychic structure of older females and males. This was especially true for women.8 In contrast. Freud lectured on Femininity (1933) and compared the possibility of psychic development of men and women. whose sterility is comparable to a lunar landscape.382 C. Freud at age 50 already talked about how his body was failing him—his intestine. Deutsch (1945. women. the difficult development to femininity has exhausted the possibilities of the person concerned (Freud. of course.7 Women. the loss of limbs—that he conceptualized as a form of castration. an inner ice age (Andreas-Salome. a state of total disillusionment. crabbed aged has arrived. as reported in The interpretation of dreams (Freud. Lou Andre´as-Salome´. He believed that it was difficult for ‘‘older’’ individuals to undergo psychoanalysis. 22: pp. Lou Andreas Salome herself. The future of an illusion (1927). were living examples of a more positive view of ageing (Chodorow. a creative process. especially in his later years. often frightens us by her psychical rigidity and unchangeability. experienced ageing as a culmination of psychic and intellectual growth. 1989). Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 In his own dreams. somewhat unformed individual. as though. who did not internalize as strong a superego in the Oedipal struggle.B. Her libido has taken up final positions and seems incapable of exchanging them for others. did not experience the same fear of loss and castration later on in life. In addition to libidinal energy. 460–462) saw old age as a time of creativity for women. Women psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein. allowing for a greater enjoyment of life but also creating fears of losing power and control. At age 70. comparing them to 6 Despite Freud’s negative view of ageing and complaints about the deterioration of his body and mind. the libido having lost its mobility. Because of his cancer of the throat and prosthesis he was in constant pain.

The psychoanalytic views on menopause are also revealing (Lock. 1997).B. Laufer. and a renewal of emotional needs and psychic creativity (Lomranz. 330–341). 1982). the traditional psychoanalytic discourse. and cognitive-related factors than the adult world (Foner. Psychoanalytic models define menopause as a symbolic loss of femininity and a deep narcissistic wound. noticed that women were more likely to express emotional needs and faced ageing as a challenge and a ‘‘career. health. Freud and early psychoanalysts accepted the medical model that saw women’s irritability and depression as being caused by biological and hormonal changes. especially women. in her study of an old-aged Jewish community. . & Kivnick.’’ reenforced the view of postmenopausal women as useless and ‘‘abject. 1993. which described menopause as the ‘‘fatal touch of death itself. namely. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 383 adolescents going through puberty. In the third and fourth ages there is a restructuring of the personality (Neugarten. Neugarten & Neugarten. 1998. 1977. 1975). and obsolescence.C. the culture of psychoanalysis has continued to share a negative view of older individuals. Silver. The medical model. The Freudian tradition has also reinforced dichotomous thinking by contrasting young and old rather than focusing on the continuities between age groups and the heterogeneity of older populations.9 On the whole. psychoanalysts have started to study old age as a stage of development and see the self as constantly changing (Butler. Ageing as a source of narcissistic injury is defended against by mechanisms of denial and splitting that reenforce the negative cultural representations of ageing around images of passivity. By strengthening the binary categorizations of gender and age. young over old. The dominant Freudian discourse made invisible a paradigm of ageing based on renewal and transformation. Despite the attempts to conceptualize menopause in psychological terms and the use of life stages (Erikson. More recently. supported by medical and scientific models of the mind. Gutmann. has helped reproduce a social order based on internalized expectations of domination of male over female. 1986). 1980). a sense of ‘‘reclaimed powers’’ (Gutmann. 2000). 1986. Feminist analysis of gender and aging It is impossible to talk about gender and ageing without first acknowledging the contributions and ambivalence of feminist writers.’’ rather than as a disease (1978). decay. biological models never fully lost their power among Freudian psychoanalysts.’’ having lost both reproductive power and sexual attractiveness (Kristeva. 1992). declining estrogen levels. Erikson. Myerhoff. pp. 3. starting with the classical statements of 9 The population of older men and women has become more heterogeneous in socioeconomic. the psychoanalytic discourse has ignored issues of ageing and paid little attention to gender differences by using a male developmental model of the self as the standard measure of humanness (Gilligan. 1996. 1982). In many ways. and helped sustain a discourse on ageing as a physical and mental decline. We now turn to feminists and postmodern thinkers who have deconstructed some of these assumptions.

’’ She also conceptualized the third age as a time of liberation from the patriarchal order. p. they are old enough to get along without her. This recurrence is in no way due to chance: patriarchal society gave all the feminine functions the aspect of a service. It is important to keep in mind the historical period when de Beauvoir was writing. feminists who started the U. creating ‘‘the Other within us. Unfortunately. they criticized her for her ageist and sexist attitudes (Maierhofer. . she takes advantage of her age to escape the burdens that weigh on her. especially ageing women. they are getting married. 584). 1970b. Rid of her duties. or hostility. freedom brings with it further frustrations because it leads nowhere. she is freed from social obligations. 583–584).’’ As a founder of Women’s Studies expressed: . including among feminists who. at his side she organizes a life of her own—in friendship. they are leaving home. . that those of you who are younger see us as men see us—that is. . early feminists themselves exhibited ageist attitudes toward ‘‘older sisters. but a liberation that could not be enjoyed. . De Beauvoir made a remarkable analysis of women and ageing. Furthermore. You do not see us in our present lives. Initially. As for her children. Ironically.B. pp. 1988).S. she assumes control of the couple’s affairs.384 C. 2000). 1970b. she eludes his embraces. showing that women.e. and woman escapes slavery only at times when she loses all effectiveness (The second sex. and to show how women internalize the negative images and stereotypes of ageing. dieting and the care of her beauty. fighting for economic equality in the labor force and for the rights over their young (i. indifference. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 Simone de Beauvoir in The coming of age (1970a). she finds this freedom at the very time when she can make no use of it. when they did. reproductive) bodies. Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis is existentially pessimistic in that she does not see that the freedom of old age can empower women or bring about psychic rewards. The experience of freedom becomes itself a burden and a lack: ‘‘No one needs me!’’ (de Beauvoir. She showed the discrimination and inequality that characterized women’s lives in society. If his decline is faster than hers. She can also permit herself defiance of fashion and of ‘‘what people will say’’. were objectified as ‘‘the Other’’ and marginalized by society. have often ignored the plight of older women (Cooper. Later on. a time when there were few options open to women and limited collective consciousness about women’s rights. If anything. I quote: It is in the autumn and winter of life that woman is freed from her chains. She was the first to look at the interplay of sexism and ageism in modern society. Ageism exists in society at large. Women’s Movement did not pay much attention to Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of ageing. she knows her husband too well to let him intimidate her any longer. you do not . she finds freedom at last. The message has gone out to those of us over 60 that your ‘‘Sisterhood’’ does not include us.. . 1988). as women who used to be women but aren’t anymore. her own personal idiosyncratic feelings about womanhood and her conflicts with Sartre also explain her pessimistic attitudes toward the liberatory potential of ageing within a patriarchal society (Woodward.

The hypersensitivity to questions of economic inequality and the fight against sexism and racism in feminist discourses led to overlooking ageism and generational issues. was among the first to recognize ageing as a feminist issue in her book The fountain of age (1993). plastic body. ageing has continued to be a feminist concern (Garner. childlike. and in need of ‘‘help. technologies of the self. 1983. cyborg—has no definite gender or age. second wave feminists in the 1970s and 1980s stressed women’s oppression and objectification. ‘‘crones. and you stereotype us. Since then. the mother of the first wave of contemporary U. Body parts can be replaced and the fear of death postponed infinitely. it reenforced the images of older women as vulnerable. for the purpose of my argument regarding gender categorization and (de)gendering. with its connotations of danger and contamination that need to be kept separate and isolated (Douglas. They become frightening.’’ and ‘‘witch like.S. Pearsall. Gender structure makes a difference in the way the aging body is understood. Betty Friedan. With the exception of Sontag’s (1972) analysis of the double discrimination or ‘‘double jeopardy’’ based on sexism and ageism.S. p. feminists paid little attention to ‘‘the Other within us. 1999). feminists with the graying and feminization of old age. unconscious fears and a rejection of the ageing female body. Older women’s bodies are more likely to be perceived as deformed. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 385 identify with our issues. Greer. 1999. 1996). and the use of discursive methodologies. issues of embodiment.’’ Second. The illusion of immortality that these views illustrate is a denial of ageing and of death in an age of tele-technology (Bauman. but the discourse of ageing has broaden from seeing ageism as another form of victimization and exploitation of women—especially poor and minority women—to include an exploration of older women’s identities away from the traditional requirements of womanhood and femininity (Banner. Among postmodern feminist thinkers. Gray. and regulation of the body around Foucault’s formulation of the knowledge/power nexus (Hewitt. 1992). you exploit us. The new focus on embodiment reflects a concern about the regulation of sexuality and the medicalization of ‘‘menopause’’ (Gannon. I have clustered them because they share a focus on issues of identity. The pre/post menopausal 10 I am using the term postmodern to refer to thinkers that vary in their theoretical approaches and methodologies.B.10 There is little room in their analyses for the subjective experiences of ageing (Banner. 1991) have taken central stage. 118). However. 1992. 1997). ridiculous looking. 1992. Ageing is increasingly understood as a form of resistance to the patriarchal order (Greer. In their analysis of old age. 1999). particularly their own. Mainly you ignore us (Macdonald & Rich.’’ The emphasis on older women as victims created several problems. The language that describes older women is indicative of a deepseated. The indifference and hostility to issues of ageing changed among U. and desexualized. subjectivity. Clough. 1966). The body—as machine. It was not until the third wave of feminism in the 1990s that ageing became a major issue for graying feminists. by seeing old age primarily as a problem for women—showing a bias in favor of gender differences—feminists lost the opportunity to understand the (de)gendering process. . you patronize us. First. 2000). feminism.’’ as imagined in children’s books and fairy tales.C. 1992.

1997). and. pushed away by younger people. which no longer reflects reproductive abilities nor attracts ‘‘the gaze’’ of men.386 C. The fears of ageing and death have to be controlled and kept at bay. 2001). viewed through the expression of older persons themselves rather than through the lenses of the nonaged. and the prolongation of life at all costs. has become a reminder of death to come. Men and women by keeping active and healthy want to feel that they are not ignored. has limited an understanding of ageism (Woodward. Humanist and critical gerontologists have reclaimed de Beauvoir’s work and ideas.. and the medical world. however illusory that may be. and class introduce variations into the components of life satisfaction. especially among the oldest old (Jerrome & Wenger. lead to the rejection of older individuals and their psychic realities. As they grow. above all.’’ In contrast.1. and subsequently try harder to retain a sense of power and authority. Jackson. especially in a society like the United States. race. narcissistic gratifications.11 A longitudinal study of gender differences in depressive symptoms from age 60 to 80 shows an increase in symptoms for men but not for women (Barefoot et al. 1999). Unlike the pessimistic logic of existential freedom. for men and punishing for women. Feminists have tried to take these factors into account (Dressel. 4. (De)gendering in old age 4. as expressed by de Beauvoir.B. 1997. 11 Once again we are aware that ethnicity. 1999). If sexuality and the ‘‘fragmenting’’ body are no longer key signifiers of self-identity or threats to the social order. Fears of ageing and death. Deconstruction of gendered identities In the United States. the lack of attention to older individuals among feminists has hampered their understanding of the processes of (de)gendering. why do older women need to be regulated and controlled through biopolitics? The female body. which is obsessed with youth images. combined with the assumption of women’s multiple victimization based on race. The theoretical bias of stressing gender differences. 1997). and focused on the paradoxes and contradictions of the ageing self. The view that ageing is subjectively more difficult for men than for women goes counter to the common belief that ageing is easier. and sexual orientation. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 body is a metaphor for an analysis of the control of women’s sexuality by men. . men do not maintain friendship networks over the life course as women do. if not rewarding. and engage in new pursuits. especially among younger adults. Paradoxically. women now can make choices. The nonaged want to keep older people at bay and invisible because they remind them of the potential for suffering and of their own mortality. take risks. Furthermore. 1999). that they are still in control of their lives (Furman. ethnicity. older women generally become more satisfied with their lives (Greer. science. Women exhibit what Margaret Mead called ‘‘a postmenopausal zest. men often become psychologically more vulnerable than women because they feel they have more to lose. we are profoundly ambivalent about ageing.

Gender categorization becomes less salient than age as a way to self-define (Silver & Muller. Men and especially women no longer have to endure. especially in standards of 12 We do not mean to imply that older people are no longer sexual or sexually active. 1991) and as a basis to stereotype older people (Kite. only that sexuality is now part of a larger configuration of the self. 1979). 1984) characterized by a weakening of social expectations about mobility and a lessening of traditional gender norms. and authority to start with. By defining these changes as losses. The loss of paternal authority is further eroded in old age. 1991). it is important to point out that they use different methodologies and can lead to different results. In men’s eyes.16 Some studies show major gender differences. such as menopause. 2001). Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 387 Men and women spend a significant period of their lives—on average 19 years for women and 14 years for men—in the third and fourth ages. 1977) who psychologically gain after such ‘‘losses’’ (Rubin. Neugarten & Neugarten. society legitimizes and reenforces an ageist ideology. income. What these changes have in common is the lifting of social and symbolic controls around sexuality. (Lock. 1999). Adorno. The changes primarily affecting women. The social order of the third and fourth ages can thus be conceptualized has having modified patriarchal power and traditional gender relations. Men and women’s location in the social structure during their adult years (structures of power. and Sanford (1950) observed that modernity involved the loss of father’s authority in the family. to the same degree. It is meaningful to remark that research findings about gender differences in old age are far from consistent. and family obligations. 1997. It is this transformative process that creates a potentially disruptive situation in existing gender relations.13 Retired men often face a loss of power. Lopata. the loss of physical beauty and reproductive power made women into social rejects and useless sexual objects. Frenkel-Brunswick. They studied the impact that such loss had on men’s sense of self. 15 The language of loss is itself an ageist statement that feminists have tried to challenge by proposing positive formulations. the ‘‘empty nest. Gruber-Baldini. 1996. depending on whether or not they are using cross-sectional or longitudinal data (Barefoot et al. and family dynamics. these changes have only a short-term negative impact on women. power.B. and sense of self in advanced years. political ideologies. & Fozard. economic positions. 14 More than 50 years ago. 1996).. in a ‘‘habitus’’ (Bourdieu.’’ are defined as loses and are thought to bring about self-doubts and depression in women.C. Woodward. Levinson. patriarchal structures) greatly shapes their social status. Deaux. kinship structures. . status. sexuality and work are no longer at the core of self-identity.14 Women also face loses. but since they have less resources. we do not review all these factors and their complex interactions. They have been exhaustively discussed elsewhere (Baltes & Mayer. societal controls in their private lives. & Miele. 16 Without examining these studies in detail.15 Actually. 13 In this article. femininity. inequality. 1993.12 These features become integrated in a more complex and different configuration of the self. and authority in the family.’’ ‘‘widowhood. Longitudinal studies also suggest that gender roles become more malleable than age categorization (Verbrugge. public recognition. In the third and fourth ages. their sense of loss is quantitatively and qualitatively different.

b). These studies show clear gender disparities. 1996). . where male domination and gender differences are less central in shaping everyday experiences. physical and mental health (Coyle. namely. Other studies such as the Berlin study (Baltes. 1997). with ‘‘femininity’’ playing an increasingly important role for both males and females. 141). 1999) show small differences in the mental and functional health domain and even fewer gender differences in personality and social integration. 1996). with women facing greater socioeconomic hardships than men. greater aspirations. gender inequalities and discrimination persist. 1999).17 The leveling of power differential between older men and women and the weakening of traditional gender expectations in everyday life induce the emergence of new psychological states. values (Helterline & Nouri. and expression of the self (Ryff & Marshall. In institutional spheres. AttiasDonfut. 1999. 214. they freed their mind and actions from a whole load of social impositions that would have impinged upon their outlook and prospects (Hazan. A tendency toward androgyny was shown to be especially 17 The double burden that characterizes women’s working life often does not end in their older years because women are still expected to take care of others. p. & Horgas. Huyck. still others argue that the personality structure of older persons becomes more androgynous (Erikson et al. 1999). Women are often locked in the societal expectations of taking care of children. 1999). p. 1998. Barin. Riley. traditional gender expectations have changed and the subjective sense of self has turned out to be increasingly personal and idiosyncratic (Chodorow. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 living. One area that shows significant differences is household division of labor with men doing more housework than women as they age (Verbrugge et al. older women have more choices. 1999. Jung. 1994). and husbands while contributing economically to the household (Silver. 1985a.. The elderly by cocooning themselves in the social capsule of the third age. While the socioeconomic disparities between older men and women have persisted. The findings of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on social activities among older people also show small differences between men and women in psychosocial characteristics. gender differences diminish. Gutmann (1987) pointed to the socioevolutionary tendency of gender reversal in old age.. 1998). there seems to be clear gender disparities in socioeconomic factors. But in the microworld of social interaction and in the day-today expression of the self. Trying to make sense of these findings. Today. Freund. 1999). 1986. and can more freely express nontraditional gender and sexual orientations. life style (Quadagno. There is a positive relationship between androgyny and qualitative well being (Ruffing-Rahal. tendencies toward the integration of feminine and masculine characteristics (Baltes & Smith. 1996. 1994). This discrepancy between the institutional order and the private life of individuals has become more apparent in the third and fourth ages. 1933). elderly parents. while psychological and personality factors show fewer gender differences as individuals grow older. & Combs.388 C. Some researchers make a case for helping the integration of feminine and masculine features in old age (LaBouvie-Vief. as well as between androgyny and productivity among scientists (Rossi.B. Androgyny as a psychological state that combines aspects of femininity and masculinity affects social and health outcomes.

The lifting of normative expectations. their theoretical construct has yet to include an epistemology of age. and biopsychological changes (Rossi. the control of the old by the young. 5. 1987). 1986). despite socioeconomic changes and women’s achievements in the labor force over the last decades. The question remains: How do individuals change modes of thinking about gender in social settings that are built on binary conceptions? The analysis of the third and fourth ages is provocative because it provides an arena to explore what happens to the self when binary thinking and gender categorization loose their organizing power. But their marginalization as a group leads them to a mode of thinking that opposes young and old. ageing. 1977. These psychological processes and subjective states can be experienced as arenas for creativity. and need for self-discipline define both groups. is responded to by the use of protective devices. The disappearance of a clear-cut gendered representation of the self among individuals in the third and fourth ages of life has been accompanied by the salience of another ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ mentality. As mentioned before.b) create a paradoxical situation that presents older individuals with greater economic dependence and at the same time greater normative freedom from institutional frames (Bauman & May. reflects a vision of the self full of contradictions and paradoxes. and multiplicity of the self.’’ Postmodern feminist theorists have challenged the binary construction of a gendered self and have stressed the need for analyzing and understanding multiplicities and intersectionality of features of the self. gender categorization and self-definition around a gendered self becomes less central among older people.C. The experience of a different form of domination. There is a parallel between the positions of women and older people as ‘‘Others. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 389 significant in widowhood (O’Bryant. 1978). and isolation that result from being socially . and death. as described in interviews. However. vulnerability. Feminist theorists have argued for the need to create gender equality and diminish gender differences. What takes central stage in the life of older individuals are mechanisms to cope with the alienation. 2001). individuals are less likely to define themselves in terms of gendered identities. There is paradox here: In the third and fourth ages. Men’s unconscious fears of women and of their sexuality have been overlaid by unconscious fears of pain. The discourse of older people. that is. rolessness (Erikson et al. Gender as a marker of identification and constitutive of selfhood in old age becomes less salient compared to other features of the self. Myerhoff. However. 1994). Feminists who advocate a (de)gendering process stress the need to deconstruct modes of binary thinking and their expression in institutional settings and ideologies that reproduce inequalities. needing help. 1985a. and forms of liberation from the restrictive definitions of womanhood and femininity (Pearsall. openness. narratives and biographies. role reversal (Gutmann. Contradictions of the self in old age (De)gendering is linked with experiences of greater flexibility.B. to which we now turn. the social order is still constructed and reproduced around gender differences defined as ‘‘natural. discrimination.. Research findings point to the greater gender flexibility and changeability of the self.’’ Features such as strangeness.

as well as the fears of death projected unto them by the nonaged? The contradictions of the self in old age reflect the simultaneous experience of separateness and freedom. 1980. in analyzing texts written by older people. time lag. described how they generated and consumed knowledge about themselves. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 marginalized as old. 2000).390 C. 2001). the experience of time and space as a ‘‘limbo state’’ (Hazan. and mind /body splits are survival strategies and forms of resistance to the world of the nonaged. the disjunction between physical pain and inner feelings that lead to the formulation of ‘‘the mask of ageing’’ that refers to the discrepancy between inner feelings of youthfulness and older appearances and conformity to age norms (Featherstone & Hepworth. These strategies allow them to simultaneously conform and resist demands put on them. devaluing. and stigmatizing judgment of younger people. ‘‘crazy. disassociation. 117) reflecting a state of mind that is primarily concerned with present rather than future or the past issues. 1996). paternalistic. The simultaneity of these contradictory responses makes older individuals seem irrational. similar to what Johnson (1998. 80) has described in the narrative of African American slaves. they decline to see themselves as old. p. condescending attitudes. 1998. objectifies . 1991. resistance and conformity. This state of mind is expressed in a language that favors literal and metaphysical modes of communication rather than symbolization (Hazan. 1986).’’ or pathological in the eyes of the nonaged. 6. especially the oldest old. These processes of disassociation are often misunderstood as reflecting a pathological response to aging. They do not present themselves to themselves as Others. Hazan. Gubrium. the ‘‘affective discontinuities’’ that take the form of disassociative emotional states between affects and events. Among them: the split between the ageless components of the self and dramatically changing physical and socioeconomic circumstances (Kaufman. The exploration of these dynamics give insights in how marginalized groups resist the inequalities. The marginalization of older individuals. Social and psychological splitting in old age Several points should be kept in mind when attempting to address the paradoxical situation of older individuals characterized by a combination of powerlessness and power. Lax. p. This marginalization brings about psychic response to cope with the binary split of young versus old (Hazan. Compartmentalization. The texts that they produced clearly demonstrated that they do not regard themselves as an object of knowledge. generate new patterns of communication as described by Hazan (1996) in his study of older people who attended the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Cambridge (England). This combination of normative freedom and social isolation brings about contradictions and disjunctions. The disassociation between inner and outer realities. physical and mental isolations in their daily lives (Moody. and between affects and events. 1988). and splitting are strategies used by older individuals to insulate themselves from the stereotyping. stereotypes. conformity and agency. How do older people protect themselves against the dismissals. and stereotypes. Individuals in the third age created a form of ‘‘local knowledge’’ that was highly critical of social formulae and cultural codes.B. Compartmentalization of the psyche.

As a result.’’ that is. between ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘bad’’ inner representations (Klein. These processes are responses to the multiplicities of interpsychic and intrapsychic contradictions of old age.’’ but this process is often accompanied by more subtle changes in value systems and psychological needs that transform a sense of self in a complex way (Reinharz. In today’s society. It is based on cultural definitions. and authorized knowledge about ageing that interact with and reinforce personal expressions of the self. 1973. ‘‘Social splitting’’ refers to mechanisms used to cope with anxiety about ageing and death by projecting such fears unto older individuals using cultural codes and linguistic formulations. It connotes the ability of older people to be both subject and object of their own knowledge. we take a stand outside of our bodies and watch ourselves as strangers. forms of coping that do not imply conformity. especially in societies obsessed with youth images and a narcissistic culture (Cushman. fluid situations. Social splitting reflects the distancing between age groups based on an us and them mentality.18 By becoming strangers to our bodies we liberate our minds. who are experienced as different and threatening. 1963). 1995. social.B. older people are undergoing massive changes. 18 Being a stranger to oneself does not refer to a feeling of alienation in the Marxist sense. social splitting is used to project social anxiety onto more vulnerable groups. Social splitting is more than an individual response to anxiety. Silver. physical. between physical and mental spheres. ‘‘Psychological splitting’’ reflects a process of disassociation between body and mind. in a way similar to what mystics do. It is also a resistance against demands for adaptation and conformity and as a response to inescapable physical pain and suffering. and psychological aspects of life become compartmentalized through processes of psychological and social splitting. 1982). It is accompanied by the increasing gap between the subjective ‘‘I’’ and the social ‘‘me’’ (Mead. the oldest old have become the ultimate target in an endless chain of projections along age groups. .C. rigid and unable to adjust. 1934). However. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 391 them as ‘‘victims. Freud already suggested in his essay on The libido theory and narcissism (1917) that when the body is filled with pain. 1992). adaptation. and double binds (1998). or unity of the self. Psychological splitting can mean the disjunction of mind/body in a way that allows for a denial of ageing or ‘‘mis/recognition’’ of the body. There is an important distinction to be made between (ad)ministering older people’s sociomedical conditions and older individuals’ own abilities to stand outside of their own bodies when the physical pain and suffering is too great. social expectations. 1997. Binary thinking of ‘‘younger’’ versus older creates the social and cultural conditions for adults to project their fears of ageing and death unto older groups that become the target of their fears. Although they are perceived as static. that are defined as the ‘‘Other’’ (Hochschild. It provides an emotional distance that creates a sense of security and psychic control. 1978). but are based on the ability to deal with contradictions. psychological splitting is not only a form of denial. such as Jews and minorities. Even in nursing homes it is the oldest old among the residents. those most likely to feel vulnerable and sick. As Freud pointed-out in Civilization and its discontents (1930). Lasch. Spilerman & Litvak. Older people cope with the contradictions of aging through what Lomranz identifies as a process of ‘‘aintegration.

together with the upcoming retirement of the baby boomer generation. and a narcissistic injury. between objective and subjective definitions of age.392 C. We have a long way to go before creating new paradigms and providing institutional support to these (de)gendered views of the self. the third and fourth ages come close to embodying a feminist utopia of gender equality (Frueh. and technologies of the self. the lack of ‘‘consistency. cultural. They also create arenas of normative freedom and a parallel world of meaning. needs. The early feminist discourse focused on the victimization and exploitation of women. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 The crucial distinctions between objective social realities and individuals’ subjective responses. and between ‘‘false’’ and ‘‘true’’ self (Winnicott. As we know. emotional losses and creativity. a symbolic loss. women are either stigmatized or ignored and gender and age are conceptualized in binary terms. older people do not experience the self as fully coherent or clearly gendered. taking into account the interplay of sexism and racism with little attention to ageism. and practices of ageing. and world views. and a language of essentials used to create a world of their own. medical. discipline. and idiosyncratic concerns. and splits between body and mind. and the self can be actualized in contradictory ways. However. Behind the mask of aging resides a world with its own emotional logic. Older people deconstruct the adult world and use psychic mechanisms to protect themselves against discrimination and social isolation. power relations and gender differences become minimized. To the nonaged. with disjunctions between emotions and events.’’ ‘‘integrity. Postmodern theorists challenged the social construction of gender and saw ageing in terms of fragmentation of the body. A conceptualization of a (de)gendered social order is proposed by Lorber (2000) as . 7. offer new social arrangements that can destabilize present definitions. and repetitions. However. images. who want to maintain a social order that favors their interests. In this utopian society. The discourse and practices of older people themselves give us a view of ageing based on their experience of the self as conflicted. past and present recollections occur simultaneously on a continuum full of disruptions. The psychoanalytic discourse defines the experience of old age as a castration. displacements. but with little consideration to physical and emotional pain. The medical discourse defines ageing as a decline and an illness. with compartmentalization of psychic processes around disordered experience of time and space. In these models.’’ and ‘‘unity’’ of the self are interpreted as problematic and in need of control and solutions. the nonaged. It is with some irony that we conclude that in postindustrial societies like the United States. The convergence of these social and emotional dynamics contributes to a process of (de)gendering. Conclusion The different views of ageing discussed in this article illustrate the interaction between sociological. 1965) have to be considered carefully when applied to individuals in the third and fourth ages of life. disordered experience of time/space.B. such transformations never occur without strong opposition from those in power. Processes of physical deterioration and mental growth. androgyny becomes the norm. and economic changes. 1997). psychological.

N. then it becomes imperative to ask older individuals to react to their own productions.). such as ageism. What I am suggesting is that the central involvement of older people in the full research process becomes essential to an understanding how knowledge about aging and (de)gendering is produced. and isolation in their daily lives. I am not suggesting that the nonaged cannot contribute to an analysis of old age. J. References Adorno.N. & Smith. D. Andre´as-Salome´. symbols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. & Sanford. T.’’ it is important to get older individuals to become researchers themselves (Hazan. and that the mask of ageing hides a world of contradictions and disjointed feelings. Concretely. (de)gendering does not guarantee that other forms of domination will vanish. E. as we have seen. New York: Harper and Brothers.). Younger people define older people as the Other. this means that research about the production and consumption of knowledge about aging should come from older individuals in collaboration with the nonaged. Leavy. I would also like to thank Claudine Attias-Donfut. (1964). The Freud journal (S. but only when other forms of domination. Silver / Journal of Aging Studies 17 (2003) 379–397 393 the basis for a new feminist movement. L. The exploration of these dynamics in the third and fourth ages gives us insights into how other marginalized groups resist the inequalities. Patricia Clough and Judith Lorber for inspiring me to write this paper.). (1950). If anything. La Dependance des personnes agees.. R. Trans. The authoritarian personality.A. The world of older individuals needs to be studied from the inside. C. J. However. (13/122-133). L.. (De)gendering with its rejection of binary thinking can bring about more equality in society at large. 1996). (1999). (1999). A.. In Baltes. Multilevel and systematic analyses of old age: Theoretical and empirical . (with Renaut S. (1996). (Original work published 1927) Attias-Donfut. Men and women in the Berlin aging study. rather than the researcher becoming an insider or ‘‘going native.. Une affaire de femmes..V. New York: Basic Books. However. P. Retraite Et Societe.B. I would like to end with some research implications.C. A. & Horges. and modes of representation that can simultaneously connect and distance them from the dominant groups. Frenkel-Brunswick. Acknowledgements I would like to acknowledge the support of the Research Foundation of the City University of New York for awarding me a grant (PSC-CUNY #633332) to carry out this research. Paris: C. have also been curtailed. M. as well as produces new meanings. stereotypes. Baltes. M. & Mayer (Eds. Baltes. If we assume that there is a breach in communication between the nonaged and older people. Levinson. M. there is a tendency to recreate an Other in order to protect oneself from anxiety about ageing and death. A. The Berlin aging study: Aging from 70 to 100.. Freund. It is our view that the basis for such a movement is already taking place through the changes that accompany the third and fourth ages of life. Most of the research about old age has been done by the nonaged across a variety of disciplines.

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