Martha Holstein: Feminism and the Future of Aging

She argues that there’s no ‘new old age’ and 70 is not the new 50

This article is the next in our series on the future of aging: interviews with people who are experts in their fields and are also visionaries. We’re asking them to talk about what they believe will happen in the years ahead to change the experience of aging.

Martha Holstein, PhD, is a leading voice in the field of feminism and aging. Thoughtful and outspoken, Holstein challenges assumptions about what later life should be—and what it is—particularly for older women.

Conventional wisdom doesn’t mean much to Martha Holstein, PhD. “I never set out to be a devil’s advocate,” she says. She just happened to be one. “I always saw the opposite of what other people saw.”

So when she stumbled into a career in the field of aging, Holstein did not go along to get along. Instead, she became a dogged groundbreaker—and ultimately one of America’s preeminent scholars on feminist gerontology.

Holstein has spent more than 40 years as—at various times—professor, researcher, speaker, author and consultant. She’s taught at Loyola and Northwestern universities. She’s worked at a think tank and as an activist. And that just scratches the surface.

Now semiretired, Holstein continues to challenge assumptions about getting older. One difference is, she’s now older herself. This adds a richness to her expertise that makes conversing with her fascinating and thought-provoking, whether you agree with her or not. She is passionately liberal; a self-described pessimist; and, she insists, a product of great luck.

Out of the In Crowd

As a speaker and writer, one of Holstein’s main goals today is to get women to embrace being old—the good, the bad and the in-between. But the ways she wants them to embrace it go against the cultural tide—and often against leading, fellow gerontologists.

Tell Holstein 70 is the new 50, and she’ll say 50 isn’t all roses, and what’s wrong with 70 anyway? Call her “not old” at 76 and she’ll insist that she is too. (Tip: don’t argue.)

Many of her views are unpopular in the academic world and even prompt teasing from her friends, she admits. She preaches “own your old” so much that people call her a broken record. But unpopularity is old hat to Holstein. She’s spent most of her entire academic career not being agreed with.

She actually never planned to go into the field of aging. In 1973, Holstein, in her early 30s, was teaching the history of Western civilization at a community college in largely conservative Orange County, CA. She’d just finished working on the presidential campaign of George McGovern, the anti-Vietnam War Democrat who lost to Richard Nixon, when she happened across a job listing for someone to coordinate “senior volunteers.” She applied and, to her surprise, was hired.

As it turned out, this was the same year that the federal government created Area Agencies on Aging, local organizations that connect older people with services to help them live independently. Out of curiosity, Holstein got involved with those. “One thing led to another, and that is the beginning of this career in the field of aging,” she says. “It would have been totally impossible to do it now, where people get degrees in gerontology. But in 1973, it was possible.” She got her own PhD, in medical humanities, in her mid-50s.

During the early years of her scholarly work, “Martha was going upstream against at least two currents,” Mark Waymack, PhD, said via email. He’s the chair of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and has worked with Holstein on various projects. First, aging just wasn’t a popular topic. “Second, Martha is a woman and expressing a feminist voice. And in those earlier years, the feminist voice was also very much a scorned and devalued voice in academia.”

“She has shown courage in standing up to some of the most traditional influential scholars on aging and ethics,” emailed Jennifer Parks, PhD, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago who’s also worked with Holstein. Even today, Holstein “is one of maybe a small handful of scholars working on aging from a feminist perspective. I take her work in this regard to be unique and to be a major contribution to ethics and aging.”

While she is still speaking, writing and teaching one quarter a year at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, Holstein is also learning what it’s like to be an older woman, not from an academic standpoint but from a real-life one. Some things are challenging. The former runner (who now does yoga and Pilates) has lost some physical agility and lives with chronic lower-back pain. But many other things are rewarding—like having leisure time. “I love my life now,” she says. “I was a workaholic. I always had an endless to-do list.”

We talked with Holstein—whose most recent book is Women in Late Life: Critical Perspectives on Gender and Age (2015)—about the issues that most concern her today and where she sees the future of aging headed, particularly for women.

SCF: Though you’ve focused on aging for over 40 years, has anything about the experience of getting older surprised you?

MH: What interests me is how, despite all these efforts to change images of aging—all this great push of what I call the rah, rah version of aging—“70 is the new 50” and “you’re only as old as you feel”—I encounter ageism all the time. I encounter salespeople calling me young lady. And when I say I’m an old lady, they say, “No, you’re not.” They don’t even let me be old.

SCF: You embrace that word, “old.” You want other older women to call themselves that too—and to resist the effort to see old age as an extension of midlife. Why?

MH: If we adopt this notion that young or middle age is universally good and old is universally bad—therefore we have to deny that we’re old—I think we just reinforce the kind of ageist notions that dominate in our society today.

And you hear people regularly say, “Oh, I’m not really old,” or, “I’m so busy I don’t have time to do anything; my children say I’m busier than they are.” We’re always emphasizing the things that make us like a young person instead of emphasizing the things that make us special and different, which is a certain amount of freedom to get up every day and say, what do I want to do today? We may not pay sufficient attention to the opportunities and the possibilities of old age and may even feel guilty that we’re slowing down.

SCF: Along those same lines, you reject the “70 is the new 50” idea and the so-called new old age. Why?

MH: If I say that at 76 I’m just like I was at 56, then I have to accept all the things that I did at 56—work late into the night, work every weekend. You can’t just have the good parts. You must accept the bad things that go along with it.

And again, it doesn’t break the power relationships between young and old. It still says young is better than being old.

SCF: In your book Women in Late Life, you’ve pointed to many social inequalities older women face. What are the most critical ones?

MH: The social inequalities are in part economic issues, because women have worked in a gendered workplace. We don’t have family leave policies. Women have more dropout years or reduced earnings when they take care of family members, so they have lower Social Security benefits—as well as increased out-of-pocket costs. In our system—particularly now in the neoliberal state—caregiving is viewed entirely as an individual responsibility. There’s no place for the public sector. So playing the kind of gendered role [of caregiver] that’s expected of women in our society often leaves us financially much more insecure than men when we are old.

The other place that there’s a lot of social inequality is—we’ve just seen all these reports about how often women are silenced, that women are interrupted far more often than men, that when women make a point it’s ignored, and then when a man makes a similar point, it’s applauded. So when you combine gender and age, women have far less role to play in public life. There is that kind of persistent ageism that discounts women as we get old.

SCF: You mentioned the neoliberal state. What do you mean by that?

MH: It’s a revival of sort of 19th century classical liberalism, which is not political liberalism as we think about it today. That’s why it’s called neoliberalism. It is basically the dominance of the market—that the private sector can do everything better than the public sector. So whatever you can commodify, translate into a good that could be sold for a profit, is really the desirable end. The people who fit into this kind of society are entrepreneurs, are consumers, are workers, are all the things that many of us who are old are not.

SCF: How should society fix the social inequalities you talked about?

MH: If I knew that, I probably would win a Nobel Prize. I think part of it is for us to be proudly old. And I think we need more and more intergenerational groups where we are with people who can see [that] just because we have gray hair doesn’t mean our brains are fried or that we have no cognitive capacity at all.

And the other thing—for women, it is that dual intersectionality between gender and age. So you have to break gender norms since our life is framed by gender.

But there’s no single answer. The way the gerontological community tried to do it with this “new aging”—you know, with “productive aging” and “successful aging”—just kind of played into it and said, in order to be a successful old person, it means you just don’t have to grow old at all. You can age without aging. And that’s a myth. None of us are going to get old without aging.

And the more we talk about all these positive developments, we leave out the mass sadnesses that people feel. It’s like it’s not OK to mourn the loss of capacity, to recognize that you can’t play tennis anymore or you can’t play golf anymore. It’s not OK to have these losses associated with aging.

SCF: You just mentioned successful aging—the idea that you’re aging “successfully” if you’re healthy, happy and active. Elsewhere, you’ve said that this concept has amounted to a moral judgment. Instead of “successful” aging, what should the emphasis be on?

MH: There should be no adjective. We don’t have successful middle age. We don’t have successful childhood. Successful aging is a concept that says there’s a bad way to age, and there’s a good way to age. So I don’t want any adjective except to recognize that being old is as diverse and as interesting or boring as any age.

SCF: You’ve also spoken against emphasizing productivity as a measure of an older person’s value. What other values should be emphasized more, especially when it comes to older women?

MH: It’s hard because finally when we’re old—if we are not impoverished and not worrying about where our next meal comes from, which almost half of women are—but if we’re lucky, we finally have the chance to make choices about our life. We finally have to decide how we want to live. And the last thing I want is somebody to tell me that to be a good old person, I have to be productive, that I have to keep on working or that I have to volunteer or I have to do something.

Does ever a time in our life come where we can assess our own lives and decide how to live? Have we not paid—most of us—paid our dues, either working full time, taking care of our family, working in our community? Don’t we ever get a chance to—let’s say I just want to write poetry all day?

SCF: You’ve said you don’t think we can eliminate ageism in society. Why not?

MH: In some ways, it’s because it’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s everywhere in that when I go to the cosmetic counter, she wants to tell me that I’m not an old lady even though I insist that I am. Well, that’s ageist. That’s saying to me that it’s not OK to be old. So it’s everywhere.

And you go look at images of old women in greeting cards. If you just change it and make that a black person or brown person, with all the negative imagery, there would be hell to raise.

So that’s what I mean that it’s sort of everywhere and nowhere, because it happens, and people are not held accountable for it.

SCF: There’s been much talk in the media about how boomers will change the experience of aging. Is there truth in this?

MH: I’m not a student of boomers. But the first observation I’ll make: boomers are not all white, middle class people who are spending a lot of time defying that they’re old. There are a lot of impoverished boomers. There are a lot of people living in terrible conditions who are boomers.

You want to generalize the things that make you feel good: everybody’s doing great, everybody’s really affluent, we’re healthier than usual. If you break that down by race, class, gender, ethnicity, the picture isn’t all that rosy. But that serves a critical political agenda that says, oh, we can cut Social Security because people are rich; they’re affluent.

So I don’t know that the boomers are going to change everything like a lot of sociologists tell us they should.

Obviously, I’m not a very optimistic person, and I’m very political, and I see the grip of neoliberal politics, which want to undermine the fact that most of us need public assistance. The average woman’s Social Security is $1,200 a month. Most women don’t have pensions; 401(k)s primarily serve people earning over $100,000 a year.

So my optimism about the future is bleak as long as this neoliberal ideology that undermines the role of government in providing the necessary supports for us to then build our lives—as long as that’s the dominant ideology, it’s kind of hard to change things.

SCF: What does the term “old woman” mean to you?

MH: Being an old woman, to me, means trying to live as consciously as I possibly can, knowing that I don’t have an endless amount of time left. There’s an element for me of urgency about, how do I live every day?

Some people wisely call it conscious aging, that we live with this kind of awareness. My friend [radio journalist] Connie Goldman said, “Who am I when I’m not who I used to be?” So who am I now? So that’s, for me, really important.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.