How we understand age shapes the form of history. Most often, historians use age as a simple tool for framing other topics. For instance, biographers use age to note the passage of time in their subject’s life. Social historians demarcate age cohorts to analyze statistics. Cultural and political historians rely on birth dates to define generational shifts. In all of these forms of history, chronological age remains in the background, a transparent fact not worthy of inquiry. But what if age itself has a history that we need to explain? What if the ages found in archival documents are not simple facts, but a rich record of the process through which socially constructed hierarchies come to define lived experience? We have come to regard gender and race in precisely this way, recognizing that male and female or black and white are not simple facts but complex expressions of power that change over time. Recent research reveals that age, too, functions as a vector of power. Historians have shown that people used age to define citizenship, work, sexuality, imperial power, and social welfare. Age emerges in these accounts as a contested site, a shifting category at the center of historical developments rather than a neutral framework.
The OAH 2018 Annual Meeting panel “Growing Up and Growing Older in the United States: Age as a Category of Analysis” turns to questions of age and political power. Presenters will explore how women and girls used ideas about age to claim political authority and how their opponents drew on age-based stereotypes to marginalize and demean them. Rather than focusing on one particular age or life stage, this panel brings together work on youth, adulthood, and old age to consider how age intersected with race and sexuality in the formation of political identities.
Beginning with the woman suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century, Corinne Field will explain how black and white women’s rights activists reconfigured the often-denigrated identities of “grandmother” and “old maid” to authorize women’s political empowerment in later life. By publicly celebrating their aging leaders, suffragists challenged misogynistic contempt for postmenopausal women, redefined female aging as a path to authority, and accommodated people to the idea of older women in positions of power.
Following this story into the twentieth century, Vanessa May will track the careers of Progressive Era reformers who assumed leadership positions late in life. May will focus on the late-in-life career of Dr. Martha May Eliot, who became National Children’s Bureau chief in 1951. Eliot, at sixty years old and in a lifelong partnership with another woman, found herself out of step with new feminine gender norms that emphasized maintaining youthful, heterosexual attractiveness and (at least the possibility of) motherhood. Journalists and political opponents criticized her “grandmotherliness” as old and out of date. She and other women who supported the Children’s Bureau lost power and influence over the course of the 1950s.
The glorification of youth undermined the authority of old women but opened up new possibilities for young women and girls, a development taken up by Miya Carey. Carey adds a new dimension to the well-known role of children and youth in the civil rights movement of the 1960s by focusing on the particular efforts of black girls to redefine the significance of age, race, and citizenship. Through case studies of two key events—the National Association of Colored Girls’ 1960 Citizenship Institute for Future Leaders and the National Council of Negro Women’s 1965 International Debutante Cotillion—Carey examines how black girls presented themselves as the fulfilment of civil rights. By promoting young women as representatives of present gains and future possibilities, both events enabled girls to articulate their thoughts about civil rights, democracy, and economic justice.
James Marten, an expert in the history of childhood and youth, will comment. Taken together, these presentations challenge historians to pay greater attention to how they rely on age to structure the narrative forms of history. Audience members will be asked to consider how those forms might change if age is brought out from the background and examined as a historical phenomenon in its own right. What new narratives, overlooked phenomena, and explanatory insights might we develop?
Corinne Field is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and co-editor with Nicholas Syrett of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (New York University Press, 2015).
Vanessa May is Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University where she also directs the Women and Gender Studies Program. She is the author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Miya Carey is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University, planning to defend this year. Her dissertation, “‘That charm of all girlhood’: Black Girlhood and Girls in Washington, D.C., 1930-1965,” analyzes the activities and missions of black girls’ organizations as a way to uncover the experiences, expectations, and definitions of black girlhood from the 1930s-1960s.
James Marten is Professor and chair of the History Department at Marquette University. He is the current editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. He has written or edited more than a fifteen books on the Civil War era and children’s history, including The Children’s Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front (ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2003); and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
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