By Kerri Romeo
But then,’ thought Alice, `shall I never get any older than I am now? That’ll be a comfort, one way–never to be an old woman…” ~ Alice (from Alice in Wonderland, Chapter IV)
In our last visit to Wonderland Alice couldn’t wait to grow up. Then in almost the same breath she was relieved at the thought of having never to grow old.
It would seem logical that our fear of growing old is natural; our health deteriorates, our beauty (for women) and stamina (for men) fade and we are nearing the end of life. But there are cultures that honor elders more than they fear aging. IS it natural to dread old age or is it the effect (intentional or unintentional) of societal expectations?
In Victorian England, the societal and financial pressure to marry (ideally by 22, but no later than 30), started to be ingrained from childhood, especially for the middle-class females like the real-life Alice. A woman’s “career” was marrying, having children and raising a family while maintaining a pristine image along with her husband to be held in high-regard in their exclusive society (similar to the suburban wife and mother of today). Not being married by 30 earned the negative title of spinster and a life of servitude. Alice, meet Lily: “It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over…”
Complicating matters was that according to a census in 1851 women of marriage age out-numbered men (by about 400,000) so competition was fierce among those referred to as redundant or surplus women. Did any generation feel safe?
For a woman, old age was less about a chronological number and more about a woman who could no longer bear children and the physical and mental changes that went along with it. (Explaining why middle age started younger for women even though their life expectancy was longer than men). For the working class woman or man it meant no longer being able to work. In both cases they were no longer viewed as useful to society. Even worse, as life expectancy increased during the Victorian Era and the older population grew, the old began to be viewed as a burden on society.
This isn’t a problem in modern day America though, right? Women don’t need to marry to be deemed useful in society and they can earn their own living. Women can remain attractive and manage their changing bodies with creams, injections and treatments and can marry at 22 or 62 if they want.
In political Wonderland, the place where all systems and rules are created, women and men of all ages stood on the debate stage for the presidential candidacy so we can’t be an ageist society, right?. No more than we can be a racist society (since we had a black president) and no more than we can be sexist either (after all the president-elect chose a woman for VP). Or can we? Can all of that “progress” be true and we still be an ageist (as well as racist and sexist) society? It is not enough to listen to someone just because they are young or just because they are old if they are not speaking for the well-being of all of us.
The capitalistic systems we have in place give the illusion of progress. From the more superficial level, we do not embrace aging as much as resist it creating a very pretty consumeristic market. We overtax our health with poor quality food and environment, causing our health to decline faster while we turn to pharmaceuticals and a distorted healthcare system (anyone else miss Marianne Williams’s Whole Health Plan with Medicare for All added later?). As we reach midlife it becomes more difficult to even be interviewed for a job while the young are overburdened with student debt and limited job prospects. And the elderly are still cast off as burdens to society and thrown into institutions that abuse them as everyone is too busy or financially drowning to care for them.
How is American today different from Victorian Era England and America? How did we become the imperialistic society that we declared independence from? Ageism is another reaction to a society that encourages competition over cooperation: Competition between races; competition between genders; competition between classes; competition between generations. What if we stopped competing against each other? What if we looked at one another and saw ourselves? We all were young once. We all grow old. The little girl (or boy), the older woman (or man) and all the ages in between, always reflecting back at one another. All affected by a system that forgot that we are human.
What would you tell your younger self? What do you want to you tell your older self? What do you tell yourself today?
Taking a cue from a Native American elder from the same time period that Alice in Wonderland was written that still rings true today. Are we listening now?
“The love of possessions is a disease with them. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own and fence their neighbours away. If America had been twice the size it is, there still would not have been enough; the Indian would still have been dispossessed.”
Chief Sitting Bull, Tatanka-Iyotanka of the Lakota Nation
Continue your political wonderland journey with Choose Your Adventure
Kerri is an advocate for the introverted activist. Often at a loss for words in person, she writes to make sense of the world and connect with others. She wishes for more curiosity & kindness in the world.