Examining women’s aging through a feminist advocacy perspective

Recipient of the Florence Denmark Award describes her research.
By Lisa Hollis-Sawyer, PhD

Between 2011 and 2050, the number of U.S. women aged 55 years and older will increase by more than 26 million (U.S. Census Bureau, National Population Projections, 2012). The United States and other industrialized nations, as well as many other countries across the world, are experiencing an unprecedented increase in the number of aging women, necessitating a deeper understanding of their unique social situations and needs based upon a lifetime of social inequities (e.g., "feminization of poverty,” Pearce, 1978) and social pressures to balance many different social roles and responsibilities (i.e., "Superwoman phenomena," Elliott, 1980). This interest has been a driving force behind my own research, teaching and applied activities for approximately 30 years, integrating my areas of interest and training within psychology, gerontology and feminist studies. One recent culminating work from this integration of research interests is a book that I wrote with a colleague in 2016 entitled "Women and Positive Aging: An International Perspective."

One of the main topics that I have researched over the last three decades has been focused on examining the life-span role of women in an elder care context from a combined positive aging and feminist perspective. The application of feminist theory and the concept of women's role empowerment within a changing society are critical to understanding the evolving dynamics of this increasingly normative role for women across their lifespan. As women's roles have only accumulated in number for many decades within most societies across the world, it is vital to understand the associated empowerment issues that need to be addressed to both optimize their quality of life and quality of aging over time. Have workplace and/or public policies, community-based support programs and societal attitudes toward aging women kept pace with the evolving needs of many generations of women? How has the meaning of “older woman” been reexamined (or not) considering societal attitudes regarding changing life expectancies and associated extended social engagement? These are just some of the questions that guide the aging-related research that I do with colleagues and students in an ongoing basis. It is essential to explore aging from many different perspectives, some of which may not be traditionally applied to the later life experience. One of those areas is the application of feminist literature to examine women's aging.

“Doing feminism” (Heywood & Drake, 1997) can be expanded in concept to “doing aging feminism” to encourage advocacy and empowerment of all aging women across the world. Aging for women is both a universal experience and a global feminist issue, and feminist theory applies to many fields of study (Hermann & Stewart, 1994). More integration of different viewpoints is needed regarding women's development to their later life adjustment and adaptation experiences. Historically, feminists have focused on promoting the rights of women to equalize their social status in societies across the world (Cott, 1987; Friedan, 1963) but have not necessarily focused on later life. Feminist theory argues that women have been systematically marginalized in terms of their economic status, social resources, employment opportunities and social power (Barber & Kuiper, 2010; Davis, 1983; Harley, 2007). These beliefs have propelled the feminist movement to advocate for equal social opportunities for women regardless of disability, race, ethnicity, cultural background, social economic status, education and/or sexual orientation in many different contexts (e.g., the workplace). It may be argued, however, that one of the largest growing social issues associated with women is related to their later-life experiences. The aging of women needs to be more explicitly recognized as a transnational feminist issue deserving advocacy initiatives on a global basis (Grewal, 1998; Harley, 2007; Moghadam, 2005).

Traditionally, women have been expected to fulfill the roles of caregiver to multiple filial generations, workforce participant and other social obligations without an equitable allocation of social support resources (e.g., concept of “women in the middle” by Brody in 1990). This societal inequity on many different levels (e.g., economic, social and emotional quality of life factors) can meaningfully affect a woman's aging trajectory. Globally, women’s cumulative life experiences of disproportionate economic resources, heath care supports, housing access and associated quality of life factors detrimentally women's their personal autonomy and personal agency, (Mackenzie & Stoljar, 2000; Narayan, 1997) which in turn, influences the quality of their aging outcomes. Feminist theory and aging issues for women should be more inextricably linked a conceptual and applied basis, starting with tangible advocacy efforts within communities to better address the needs of older women on physical, cognitive, social, emotional, psychological and “other” adjustment related bases within a cultural and life-span related context (Robinson, 1999).

As with any aging issue, women’s aging trajectories should not be regarded as a “one size fits all” experience but rather acknowledged as a complex integration of culture, education and familial history spiritual background and other unique individual difference factors contributing to resultant attitudes and behaviors. It is an ethical imperative as educator, researchers and community outreach providers to create greater access to and more positive educational and community-based opportunities for both aging women of color and women from diverse backgrounds to truly reach their later-life potential. An appreciation of women’s unique aging experiences needs to be better acknowledged in both research and practice for the support of their quality of life needs.

On a personal basis, I actively seek out opportunities to mentor women students of all ages (i.e., “womentoring” concept, Hetherington & Barcelo, 1985). On a regular basis, I strive to model positive aging behaviors for my women at both the undergraduate and graduate level in school and in the community. One area of research that I feel particularly passionate about is how to improve the educational experiences of women across their lifespans. Education and its associated training opportunities can open doors for aging women that might otherwise be closed due to inequities in life circumstances.

One area of my continuing research relates to eradicating educational barriers to women’s learning experiences over a lifespan. Women’s possible anxiety related to math test performance (e.g., “stereotype threat” reactions) and chilly classroom factors have been a focus of my ongoing research with older women learners for two decades (e.g., Hollis-Sawyer & Sawyer, 2014). Beyond the formal educational setting, I am focused on educating the community about women’s quality of aging concerns. For example, my research and advocacy efforts have culminated in creating a training workshop on intimate partner violence for practitioners working with aging women in the communities. In general, I believe that it is an ethical imperative as researchers and educators in the aging field to better support the lives of aging women as they cope with economic insufficiencies (e.g., continuing wage-gap realities in many professions and the associated “feminization of poverty” concept), multiple caregiving and eldercare demands (e.g., “women in the middle” concept), and societal stereotypes reflecting negative imagery of women’s aging (e.g., “anti-aging” media messages).

My professional activities have been guided by the belief that an on-going understanding of diverse women’s aging experiences is critical to create effective community-based and educational interventions for positive social change in their lives. My ongoing research agenda, and associated community education outreach efforts, hopefully are making a meaningful difference in diverse aging women’s lives.


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Hollis-Sawyer, L.A., & Sawyer, T.P. (2014). “By the numbers:” Language-based and competency enhancing math instruction to alleviate older women’s math stereotype threat reactions. International Journal of Education, 6(3), 157-174.

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About the author

Lisa Hollis-Sawyer, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology, women and gender studies faculty, and gerontology program coordinator at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. In 2017, she received APA Div. 35’s Florence Denmark Award for Contributions to Women and Aging.