Recently, I was asked if I had written anything on the topic of women’s aging that I might be willing to share. The friend who inquired mentioned that they’d been engaged in “SERIOUS introspection about the differences that happen as we feel and experience the bodily changes, especially as women.” I haven’t written anything for quite some time that specifically and explicitly foregrounds women’s aging, though much of my Gero-Punk essaying emerges from and explores my embodied experiences traveling through the life-course. Also, while I have done a ton of teaching over the years about women’s issues in aging, I’m no longer in a position to do so, thus I no longer have topic-related resources front-of-mind to offer to her.
So, as I’ve been pondering what I might suggest she read that’s been written by others, I’ve found myself reflecting on – and yearning for! – the particular pleasure and power of gathering with others to read a text closely, to explore and discuss together the ways in which our travels through the life-course are refracted through the prism of gender (and all the facets of being with which gender intersects).
In my previous incarnation as Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University (may she R.I.P.) – from 1998 to 2015 — I designed and taught many renditions of a yearly seminar on Women’s Issues in Aging. For reasons still mysterious to me, every time I’d be preparing to teach this course again, I’d announce to Simeon or Erica (or both) that I really didn’t want to teach it and that this time around would be my last. And then the course would begin and by week three you’d hear me proclaiming how much I loved teaching this course.
Why? Because of the collaborative nature of the course, because we – students and teacher alike – were learning with and from each other.
For the first half of the term we’d explore together a set of texts that I had selected — philosophy, theory, empirical research, essays and poetry — which touched on the complexity and diversity of women’s experiences traveling through the adult life-course. Our close reading and discussion of these texts informed and inspired us to ask many juicy questions, such as:
- Who is a woman and how do you know a woman when you see one?
- How is gender socially constructed? How does gender identity intersect with other positionalities (race, class, age, disability, generation, and more)?
- How do systems of social inequality shape women’s aging experiences?
- How significant is gender identity for our sense of self-in-the-world, and how does our gender identity shift as we travel through the life-course?
- To what extent can we exercise agency over how we embody and enact ourselves as gendered beings, particularly as we move more deeply into later life?
At the mid-point of the term, after having created a shared foundation for exploring women’s issues in aging, we’d spend an entire session individually and collectively brainstorming potential themes or topics which we wished to dive more deeply into for the remainder of the course. Together, we’d settle on three or four areas of focus and students would select which area they wanted to work on. Out of this process would emerge collaborative inquiry groups who would then put flesh on their chosen topic, articulating learning objectives and guiding questions, learning resources and activities, and a choreography for the class session for which they would take responsibility. My role? To serve as their “teaching assistant” with whom they could consult about potential resources and ideas for how to conceptualize and enact their collaborative inquiry session.
Over my many years – 15 or more? – of revising and guiding this course, I’ve benefitted greatly from participating as a co-learner in the student-led collaborative inquiry sessions. The themes and topics explored are too plentiful for me to recount, but some highlights include: Understanding and addressing the intersections between ageism, sexism, and racism; creating queer spaces for adult aging and old age; cross-cultural and global perspectives on women’s aging; communities of color and social roles for older women; alternative approaches to older women’s healthcare; “anti-aging” discourses and practices regarding women’s aging bodies; creating rituals for embracing the crone archetype; old women as agents of social and political change; auto-ethnographic writing as a way into and through one’s lived experiences with/in a female body; cis-gendered men’s aging experiences around masculinity; fostering intergenerational collaboration across differences of all kinds.
These complex and amazing themes and topics were inspired by the many equally complex and amazing students (including my own mother!) who have gathered in this course over the years, students who came from diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicities, nationalities, gender and sexual identities, life-course stages and ages, political commitments, philosophical and religious beliefs, class statuses, and various disability communities.
I wish I could find myself back in the situation of not wanting to teach this course again (only to find myself totally in love with teaching this course, again).
A few days ago, Simeon picked up a book from the pile on my desk and thumbed through it. He remarked that on first consideration, it looked to have a great balance between substance and approachability and perhaps could serve a template for something I might write in the future. The book is Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age, by Mary Pipher.
I had completely forgotten about this book – my mother had offered her copy to me after she read it — the latest from a psychologist and writer whose work I’ve long admired (her book Reviving Ophelia was very important to me. I read it a couple of years before I became the mother of a daughter). So, I texted Erica and asked her if she was interested in forming a Gero-Punk Book Club with me to read and discuss Pipher’s new book. My invitation, which Erica accepted enthusiastically, triggered her recollection that she had ordered this book from her library and it was sitting on the holds shelf waiting for her to rescue it.
And now I extend this invitation to you. Would any of you dear readers like to join us in our dislocated, virtual and semi-simultaneous Gero-Punk Book Club as we read and then hopefully discuss our take-aways from Pipher’s book?
P.S. Mom, though you’ve already read this book, you can join, too! And what about you, Pamela? (You inspired this little project!)