The Cartography of Age

 Age Matters: Realigning Feminist Thinking

edited by Toni M. Calasanti and Kathleen F. Slevin

New York: Routledge, 2006, 353 pp., $32.95 paperback

 Lesbian Communities: Festivals, RVs, and the Internet

edited by Esther Rothblum and Penny Sablove

New York: Harrington Park/Haworth Press, 2005, 189 pp., $29.95 paperback


Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians

by Cheryl Claassen

New York: Haworth Press, 2005, 284 pp., $19.95 paperback


Reviewed by Leni Marshall


            As an academic whose research focuses on aging, I anticipated Toni Calasanti and Kathleen Slevin’s Age Matters with the fervor some people reserve for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Now that Age Matters is here, I unhesitatingly recommend it to researchers in my discipline and others, including sociology, sleep studies, sexuality studies, work studies, science and technology studies, or advertising. The collection will also be of use to teachers of upper-division undergraduate and introductory graduate courses in women’s studies. For a high-quality, crash course in aging studies, read one of the articles in Age Matters—just pick one that sounds interesting. The authors’ long-standing involvement in aging studies and their clear writing make most of the articles in this volume good introductions to aging studies. And although the writing is pitched to people who read academic journals, those outside academia will find many of the topics interesting—for example, Toni Calasanti’s discussion of the gender stratification in caregivers’ emotions in “Gender and Old Age: Lessons from Spousal Care Work.”

The authors in Age Matters explain that “[a]cademic feminists’ lack of awareness regarding age and age relations is comparable to women’s lack of awareness regarding gender and gender relations…before [feminism’s] second wave.” Most articles open stating that although feminists recognize age as a factor affecting X (X being work, relationships, care giving, technology, sleep, sexuality, or biomedicine), feminists do not yet understand what happens when age is added to an analysis of gender and X. Each article demonstrates the analytical depth created by including age. Two assumptions permeate the volume: first, that a feminist approach reveals unseen social patterns, and second, that “gender is not just a code word for woman but a dynamic and relational concept that explains the construction of the masculine as well as the feminine.” Age Matters makes analytical connections between feminism and aging studies in a diversity of fields, with ideas applicable beyond individual disciplines.

Each article illuminates a particular area of aging studies, and the connections among the articles enhance the volume. For example, consider the chapters “Aging and Gender in Families,” by Katherine Allen and Alexis Walker; “Intersectionality and Age Relations,” by Anna Zajicek et al; and “Sleep, Gender, and Aging,” by Jenny Hislop and Sara Arbor. Discussing black Americans, Chicanas, and women, respectively, in a British sleep study, each article offers reasons why the social pressures on the women in each particular group may make them “reluctant to forfeit their freedom from caring and greater independence by remarrying,” cohabiting with a partner, or living with the younger generation in their families.

Another example: “The Embodied Experiences of Old Lesbians,” Kathleen Slevin’s study of middle- and upper-class aged lesbians, quantitatively echoes the anecdotal claims of an early volume of feminist gerontology, Look Me In the Eye (1988), by Barbara MacDonald and Cynthia Rich. Slevin suggests that a lifetime of being on the edge of society provides practice in managing and resisting outsider status, an experience that these lesbians put to use as advancing age makes them outsiders in another identity category. Robert Meadows and Kate Davidson’s article, “Maintaining Manliness in Later Life,” makes a similar argument regarding their subjects, aged men in England who were conscripted into the military before 1960. The authors claim that these men respond to the social power losses of old age by calling upon their military experience, when their bodies were disciplined and their personal freedoms limited by external social forces.

They also speculate that the men who were the most privileged or whose bodies had been closest to some cultural ideal begin to recognize “their own place within power relations” when they experience changes in their social power brought about by age.  In contrast, one-third of Slevin’s subjects had or were planning to have cosmetic surgery, and another twenty percent were considering it. Thus, women who had the fiscal means and were closest to a cultural ideal literally “bought in” to antiaging procedures. They became consumers of biomedical interventions not necessarily to satisfy a regulatory male gaze but rather to satisfy the even more tyrannical gaze of youth.

Throughout the volume, the aged interviewees consistently reject the label of “old.” “Acting old,” to them, means not being able to do the things they used to do—mow the lawn, have sex, get out of the house, walk without a cane. This definition leads to the possibility that a person could avoid old age by remaining active until death—a hope belied by the reality that people are treated as old long before they feel old. Because bodies are relational objects, this hope “can engender a feeling of power within one group and feelings of powerlessness within others.” The situation encourages people of all ages to try to improve their social standing by participating in the disempowerment of people who act old. Although this behavior may aid some people in their early years, it contributes to those same people’s exclusion from society as soon as they lack the fiscal or physical ability to “pass” as young (read: active).

This volume makes a substantial contribution to feminist aging studies, adding to the recent trend of a yearly “must read” book of feminist gerontology—Margaret Cruikshank’s Learning to be Old (2003), Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Aged by Culture (2004), Stephen Katz’s Cultural Aging (2005), and now Calasanti and Slevin’s Age Matters (2006). These texts further the discipline, highlight the field’s gaps, and prime the pump for an increased flow of scholarship. For example, Calasanti has agreed to be the general editor of a Rowman and Littlefield book series on aging and minority populations, generating additional much-anticipated contributions to the field.


Whistling Women and, particularly, Lesbian Communities, are more accessible to nonacademics than Age Matters. A common theme in Lesbian Communities is that such communities expand lesbians’ circle of acquaintances and support, provide a foundation for them to take on more public roles, and create a means by which they can address personal as well as collective needs. This volume reminds the reader, lesbian or not, that one can value and foster communities to which one may be peripheral at best. As a book junkie who tends to purchase online, I’ll change my practice now that I’ve read “More Than a Bookstore,” Kathleen Liddle’s article on the relevance of feminist bookstores.

Predictably, the authors in Lesbian Communities define “community” in a multiplicity of ways: a place; a group of people; a set of shared beliefs, activities, or goals. Some refuse a definition altogether, arguing that such attempts at clarity may unfairly exclude people, even those who consider themselves part of the community. Susan Krieger, the author of The Mirror Dance, a study of a lesbian community, opens the volume with two interesting remarks: first, that the (dys)functionality of a community “is far less important than the fact that the women had idealistic desires for mutual nurturance, and that the community was a potentially positive source”; and second, that an organically occurring community, when questioned and scrutinized for boundaries, tends to disintegrate.

Although the boundaries may be blurry, readers can easily discover the limits of communities in these articles. As inspiring as it is, Elana Dykewoman’s vision of physical locations owned by and for lesbian communities seems idealistic. And despite the cross-generational learning that Jane Dickie and her co-authors describe in “Heirs of Aradia, Daughters of Diana,” in which undergraduates interview women who had lived in a “radical, separatist” community twenty to thirty years earlier, the experiment offers small hope for countering this charge. Some of the communities that the articles in this volume describe—“Lesquire’s Pub” in Frances Wasserlein and Carolynn Sween’s essay; the separatist lesbian community of Bev Jo’s memory and vision; the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which Bonnie Morris discusses in “Negotiating Lesbian Worlds”—exclude some people for being open about their genes. In contrast, the group “Dykes and Tykes,” which Arlene Istar Lev and her co-authors describe in their essay, welcomes bisexuals and transwomen. Either way, though, some people won’t be comfortable in the group.

The final essay in the volume discusses the differences between lesbian and feminist community. The two overlap in many ways, but not all. For example, as newcomers to New Mexico, African American lesbians Shaba Barnes and her partner were welcomed by people of various races, ages, and sexual orientations. However, when Barnes’s partner had health problems, the couple moved to a lesbian RV community in Arizona, where they encountered indifference and racial discrimination. This article offers multiple examples of disparities between lesbian community, based on sexual orientation, and feminist community, based on a particular set of values. The two often overlap, but not always.

Readers may find  reasons to dismiss the reach and effect of lesbian communities, but this volume generally has its eyes open about the possibilities of dysfunctionality, celebrating the groups realistically, rather than unreservedly. No matter what your genetic makeup or sexual orientation, you will probably recognize the joys and pitfalls in the communities these authors describe.


The research for Whistling Women began as Cheryl Claassen’s quest to find or create a community of lesbians in her North Carolina town. Many of the women she met were retired, living half the year in North Carolina and wintering in Arizona or Florida. For much of the twentieth century, the assumption was that women need not—or rather, should not—concern themselves with financial planning; thus, Claassen wondered how these women became so fiscally fit. She satisfied her curiosity by undertaking a four-year study, interviewing the women she met in North Carolina, the people they knew, and more—a total of 44 women born between 1917 and 1938.

She finds that parents, husbands, and gay men provided these women with information on investments and the stock market, but concludes that having a job with a pension is the key to a financially comfortable old age. However, her research covers much wider ground than that, and although Claassen says she feels daunted sorting aspects of women’s lives into tidy bins—coming out, politics, careers and jobs, retirement activities, health, and lesbian communities—she does an admirable job of it. She contextualizes each section with a whirlwind historical overview. The chapters blend reportage, analysis, and the women’s voices.

Claassen says that she quotes the words of her interviewees as much as she can without jeopardizing their anonymity. She provides tables of her data, sometimes doubling back and reporting the same information in prose. That doubling, the occasional repetition of information in multiple chapters, and her defensive stance as she refutes negative stereotypes about the origins and neuroses of lesbianism are mildly distracting, but most of the information Claassen offers is highly useful to other researchers, and interesting for those people who want to learn more about lesbian lives, about older people, or both.

For those who study aging populations, this volume offers qualitative and quantitative confirmation of a diversity of experiences within and between age cohorts. For example, I enjoyed hearing the women’s multiplicity of opinions about retirement:

Carolyn: I still have anxiety dreams about retiring          

Roberta: Retirement has been wonderful—the best years of my life.

Amelia: Retirement has been a disappointment

Kate: On a scale of one to ten, my life is now a twelve.


I was also interested in the women’s general rejection of lesbian separatism and the importance to them of Greenwich Village and women’s bookstores as ideals as well as actual places. The relationships of the women in this study—with men and with women—last longer than the national average for heterosexual marriages. And Claassen’s section on sexual practices would serve as a useful response to the undergraduate student who once exclaimed during a class discussion about Lucille Clifton’s poetry, “I didn’t know women over 60 could still have orgasms!”

The most poignant chapter in Whistling Women is about words. The widespread silence surrounding lesbians’ lives in the early- and mid-twentieth century is old news, but hearing how that silence affected individual lives is nonetheless moving. The silences created by inadequate language are even more striking:

Cam: [She] and I didn’t know we were lesbians. We lived together thirteen years!

Claassen: Did you have words for what you were doing?

Gigi: Other than loving her? No.


The majority of the interviewees tentatively claim the term “lesbian,” but do not feel entirely comfortable with it. They do not use words such as “queer” or “dyke.” Some appreciate the coalition invoked by the label “gay,” even as they recognize its gender bias.

Claassen notes that the educational and familial backgrounds and retirement activities that challenge the women in this study are strikingly similar to those that most baby boomers face. Thus, she suggests that the information embedded in lesbians’ experiences of retirement may be “instructive for the general retiring population of the next fifteen years.”

A friend of mine who recently turned forty says that she enjoys the newfound freedom from wolf whistles that comes with the invisibility of older age—and yet, she dyes her hair. Ambivalence about aging and old age is nearly universal. Aging forecloses some of the promise in our lives, and we mourn that loss. The lesson of these three books is that old age contains the potential for new possibilities, and that by studying aging, we map the known and begin to discover what we do not yet know.  


Leni Marshall’s research focuses on literature about aging, literary theory, and the social constructions of age; her teaching interests include multicultural and minority literatures. Her current project, All Over: The Identities of Old Age, explores aging and its categorization in literary and cultural studies. She welcomes e-mail at

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