What Does Equality Have to Do with Aging?

by Ellen Richard Vosburg | December 07, 2020

My mother and I were recently talking about what our family plans to eat for Christmas dinner. We choose a different theme every year, and my mom isn’t thrilled about this year’s dinner theme, but she’s willing to go along. My mother also has a rather dry sense of humor, and when I said we could suggest a change, she quipped, “But they don’t care what I want. . . . You know women of a certain age are invisible.”

Now, my mother was joking in this instance, but her sentiment reflects a real dynamic that women somehow “disappear” as they grow older. I cannot speak to age discrimination in all world cultures, but as a young woman living in the US, I cannot escape the messages our culture sends about women and aging. The resounding cry is: “Don’t!” From covering gray hair to maintaining the weight of our younger selves to filling our cheeks with gels that smooth out our wrinkles, we associate a youthful appearance with relevance, power, and influence.

Even as egalitarians, we can prioritize youth and the experiences of youth as we advocate for equality in marriage and the church. Rightfully so, we write regularly about how to work out good egalitarian practices for dating, weddings, and the early conflicts of marriage. We talk about how the church and society devalues singleness, especially for women, an experience predominantly shared by younger people. We do our part to encourage and support young women in seminary, hoping that they will encounter fewer barriers to the ministry God has called them to than previous generations of women. We want to raise our young sons and daughters with a theology that teaches them their equal worth from the beginning.

These focuses are not wrong, but when we prioritize youth, we overlook the reality that advocating for gender equality is a lifelong project. Unfortunately, there is no magical age at which a woman’s maturity and experience cancels out the discrimination she experiences based on her gender, so we need to talk about gender equality past the experiences of our youths. While working out an equal partnership in our marriages and ministries, we will encounter new challenges at each stage of life. To that end, this issue of Mutuality tries to tackle how our egalitarianism speaks to the challenges and context of midlife and beyond.

Hannah Rasmussen kicks the issue off by exploring how Jesus’s resurrection, and ultimately our own, liberates women from the stigma of childlessness. She wonders whether our desire to have children by a certain point in life is one way we try to avoid death. Keren Dibbens-Wyatt and Nils Swanson give us a peek inside their respective marriages and how they’ve learned (and are learning!) to share an equal partnership in the context of chronic illness and disability, challenges that many of us will encounter as we age. Illness and disability introduce additional power imbalances into a marriage, but these writers show us how friendship and a shared commitment to submitting to each other can lead us toward mutuality. Sarah Lindsay brings us a profile of a female pastor who has faithfully followed God’s calling to lead the church and be ordained in midlife. Finally, we conclude with reviews of a couple of books that are encouraging and pertinent to egalitarians at midlife.

Contemplating women’s equality and aging has helped me think outside of my current life situation, find empathy for others, and advocate for women of all ages. I hope this issue does the same for you, that it opens you to new ideas and aspects of women’s equality to explore and that it prepares you for the challenges and opportunities of egalitarianism at midlife and beyond.

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