Aging & the Life Course

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Aging & Life Course

Organized by: Beth Montemurro, Pennsylvania State University
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – Chicago

There have been a number of interesting articles published in Gender & Society between 2005 and 2016 which explore aging and the life course. These articles look at how issues of identity and aging intersect with gender and gendered expectations.  Several articles address the impact of generational norms and social change – including changes in reproductive technology, attitudes about homosexuality, and longer life expectancies.  For those teaching courses related to gender and aging or seeking articles for a section on aging in a Sociology of Gender course, these articles provide information on a range of stages in the life course from early twenties to eighties and from a diversity of perspectives and contexts.

Ice, Erin; Sanyu A. Mojola; Nicole Angotti; F. Xavier Gómez-Olivé; and Brian Houle. 2022. “Making Sense of Troubled Livelihoods: Gendered Expectations and Poor Health Narratives in Rural South Africa.” Gender and Society 36(5):735-763.
When men and women cannot attain idealized gendered forms of economic provision and dependence, how do they make sense of this perceived failure? In this article, we posit that poor health narratives serve as a gendered tool to make sense of inadequate livelihoods, even when that inadequacy is attributable to structural conditions. We draw on survey and life-history interview data from middle-aged and older rural South Africans. The survey data show that even after adjusting for biometrically measured health differences, working-age (40–59 years) men report poorer health when they are unemployed, and women (age 40+) and pension-age men (age 60+) report poorer health when they live without household earners. Life-history interviews show parallel patterns: When their economic circumstance is not troubled, individuals regularly minimize health concerns; conversely, when they have a troubled livelihood, individuals draw on poor health to explain it. When women and men cannot perform idealized gendered practices in the family, poor health becomes a tool to reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance. Poor health narratives recast perceived gender failures to an individualized, biological explanation. Our study illustrates how the epidemiological context can be a resource that forestalls a redefinition of gender norms when the gender order is in crisis.

Young, Yvette; Miles O. Kovnick; Nguyen Huu Minh. 2022. “Gendered Exposure, Gendered Response: Exposure to Wartime Stressors and PTSD in Older Vietnamese War Survivors.” Gender and Society 36(5):704-743.
Growing numbers of women in militaries worldwide, coupled with vast segments of women within war-affected populations globally, raise questions about gender as it structures trauma exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health consequences of war. In this study, we investigate the gendered associations between early-life wartime stress exposures and PTSD symptoms in older adulthood using data from the 2018 Vietnam Health and Aging Study, a unique data set documenting multiple dimensions of health and wartime stress exposures within a sample of older adults who occupied diverse roles during the American war in Vietnam. Our results indicate that the severity of recent PTSD symptoms is significantly and positively associated with the severity of wartime stress exposure among both men and women. Vietnamese men’s social positions, particularly their predominance in combat, exposed them to more numerous war-related stressors. However, Vietnamese women experience a greater PTSD penalty associated with some wartime stress exposures, likely due to the burden of protecting family in wartime and incorporation into military and paramilitary roles with lesser preparation, training, and support than men. We conclude that women who survive major wars, both as soldiers and civilians, bear a significant burden of armed conflict’s lasting toll upon mental health.

Diefendorf, Sarah. 2015. “After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities over the Life Course.” Gender & Society 29 (5): 647-669.
This study seeks to understand the ways in which men who pledge sexual abstinence until marriage negotiate and assert masculine identities before and after marriage. Using longitudinal qualitative data, this work traces the ways in which men who pledge abstinence until marriage manage a tension between both “sacred” and “beastly” discourses surrounding sexuality. The situational and interactional gendered practices of these men highlight their attempts to resolve the incongruity between practices of sexual purity and hegemonic definitions of masculinity. I argue that a decision to pledge sexual abstinence until marriage is an example of hybrid masculinities (Bridges and Pascoe 2014) in that the postmarriage transition to a more hegemonically masculine status suggests that such practices are not challenging current gendered systems of power and inequality. These findings underscore the potential fallacy in using cross-sectional data to illustrate changes in gender relations, and demonstrate the importance of incorporating life course perspectives when theorizing masculinities. 

Conlon, Catherine, Virpi Timonen, Gemma Carney, and Thomas Scharf. 2014. “Women (Re)Negotiating Care Across Family Generations: Intersections of Gender and Socioeconomic Status.” Gender & Society 28 (5): 729-751.
Changing Generations, a study of intergenerational relations in Ireland undertaken between 2011 and 2013 by the Social Policy and Ageing Research Centre (SPARC), Trinity College, Dublin, and the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG), NUI Galway, used the Constructivist Grounded Theory method to interrogate support and care provision between generations. This article draws on interviews with 52 women ages 18 to 102, allowing for simultaneous analysis of older and younger women’s perspectives. The intersectionality of gender and class emerged as central to the analysis. Socioeconomic positions shape contrasting forms of interdependency among family generations, ranging from “enmeshed” lives among lower socioeconomic groups to “freed” lives among higher socioeconomic groups. Women are initiating changes in how care and support flow across generations. Older women in higher socioeconomic groups are attuned to how emotional capital women expend across family generations can constrain (young) women’s lives. In an expression of solidarity, older women are renegotiating the place of care labor in their own lives and in the lives of younger women. A new reciprocity emerges that amounts to women “undoing gender.” This process is, however, deeply classed as it is women in higher socioeconomic groups whose resources best place them to renegotiate care.  

Utrata, Jennifer. 2011. “Youth Privilege: Doing Age and Gender in Russia’s Single-Mother Families.” Gender & Society 25 (5): 616-641.
Although age is a critical aspect of identity, the study of how age intersects with other characteristics has been underexplored. In this article, Utrata looks at how Russian grandmothers and single mothers do both gender and age. Specifically, she looks at the way single mothers manage responsibilities and how their children’s grandmothers participate and view their strategies for balancing work and family.  Older women want to help support their families and offer unpaid childcare, because they have trouble finding paid work and face discrimination in the labor market. This article is particularly useful for its articulation of the relationship between age and gender and the significance of age-related gender expectations.

Lee, Kristen Schultz. 2010. “Gender, Care Work, and the Complexity of Family Membership in Japan.” Gender & Society 24 (5): 647-671.
This article explores the gendered dimensions of caring for aging parents in Japan.  Based on in-depth interviews with more than one hundred women and men, both caregivers and those in need of care, as well as observation in an elder care facility, and analysis of questionnaires, Lee looked at feelings of ambivalence about sons’ expectations to provide care for aging parents.  She found mothers and daughters both preferred the idea that women act as caregivers because they believed women were better suited to affective care. Yet, sons and daughters-in-law most often bore responsibility and daughters often felt conflicted when caring for their mother-in-law rather than their mother.  

Martin, Lauren Jade. 2010. “Anticipating Infertility: Egg Freezing, Genetic Preservation, and Risk.” Gender & Society 24 (4): 526-545.
Can we slow down the aging process? Stop biological clocks from ticking? In this interesting article, Martin explores the controversial and provocative topic of egg freezing as a means of controlling fertility.  Martin examined both the idea of egg harvesting as a response to infertility and pre-emptive egg-freezing in response to anticipated infertility associated with aging. Rhetoric surrounding these procedures label some women as worthy and sympathetic –those with medical conditions such as cancer that complicate their ability to get pregnant in their more fertile years—and some as selfish and unsympathetic—those who elect to harvest eggs prior to the onset of reproductive troubles.  Martin looks at the ways controlling fertility can empower women and benefit them in education and the labor market, who might otherwise be disadvantaged by career interruptions earlier in their adult lives.  

Rosenfeld, Dana. 2009. “Heteronormativity and Homonormativity as Practical and Moral Resources: The Case of Lesbian and Gay Elders.” Gender & Society 23 (5): 617-638.
Rosenfeld interviewed twenty-eight homosexual men and women over the age of sixty-five in order to explore the ways ideologies about heteronormativity influence presentation of self and social interaction.  She looked at the ways in which generational norms influenced her interviewees’ presentations of self.  She found most aimed to pass as heterosexual in their public lives. Given the homophobic postwar climate, these men and women felt showing any behaviors or mannerisms that might reveal their sexual orientation would be dangerous. 

Vespa, Jonathan. 2009. “Gender Ideology Construction: A Life Course and Intersectional Approach.” Gender & Society 23 (3): 363-387.
Using life course and intersectional perspectives, this study examines how changes in life experiences such as marriage, parenthood, and work are associated with changes in individuals’ gender ideology. Using longitudinal survey data and fixed effects, findings suggest that exposure to these experiences influences gender ideology, though with greater variation than previous work has detected. Marriage exerts an egalitarian influence on Blacks but a less egalitarian one on whites. Parenthood has a less egalitarian effect for all married parents but an egalitarian one for most unmarried parents. These findings suggest that gender ideology is dynamic and life experiences are important sources of change. Furthermore, this change depends on individuals’ race-gender categories and the configuration of life events to which they are exposed. These nuanced findings amend past work by better identifying for whom and under which conditions life experiences shape gender ideology. In doing so, this study illustrates how the conceptual and methodological approaches help us understand gender ideology construction by revealing substantial variation that went undetected in past work. 

Aronson, Pamela. 2008. “The Markers and Meanings of Growing Up.” Gender & Society 22 (1): 56-82.
Aronson interviewed 44 young heterosexual women between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-four in an attempt to understand how women identify the transition to adulthood and the experiences that make them feel more mature. She found that rather than merely recognizing concrete changes like marriage or the completion of education, adulthood was defined by feelings of feeling independence, both financial and social, self-fulfillment through pursuit of education or career, and feelings of uncertainty as to what their future holds. Aronson noted that these sentiments correspond with “living feminism” or focusing on their own goals, individuality, and success rather than relying on men partners to validate their adulthood.   

Dillaway, Heather E. 2005. “Menopause is the ‘Good Old’: Women’s Thoughts About Reproductive Aging.” Gender & Society 19 (3): 398-417.
Dillaway found that most women did not link aging and menopause. Menopause signaled the cessation of menstruation, however, many women had closed the door on reproduction on their own earlier, by using contraception or other methods of pregnancy prevention.  Furthermore, as people are living longer, menopause happened in mid-life, rather than late life, so fewer women looked at it as sign of decline. Menopausal and post-menopausal women appreciated menopause because it afforded them more freedom in acting on sexual desire, as they no longer had to worry about contraception or menstruation. Few women felt “old” as the result of menopause. In contrast, some felt younger or “like teenagers” given this heightened sexual interest or general feelings of freedom.  This research points to the importance of not conflating aging and menopause and understanding women’s experiences of it from their point of view.