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As Newt Gingrich has gnashed and snarled his way through the Republican primary’s gladiatorial spectacle, much has been made of the massive hypocritical gaps between his rhetoric and his behavior. We’ve learned that Mr. “Family Values,” the Christian crusader leading the pitchforked crowd against the infidel sinner, Bill Clinton, was at the same time having an affair with a staffer 23 years his junior while still married to his second wife, Marianne, now 60. According to her, when she refused to agree to an open marriage, Newt ditched her for the younger, blonder staffer.
While little makes me happier than to catch holier-than-thou conservatives in their incessant hypocrisies (homophobic anti-gay crusaders who turn out to be gay, anti-choicers whose wives have had abortions, etc.), one crucial cultural reality has been ignored: Gingrich’s behavior embodies, promotes and even celebrates the double whammy of sexism and ageism. There are many reasons why Gingrich is unelectable, but this one – simmering in the hearts of millions of women everywhere – may be the most lethal. Yes, pundits have focused on the fact that Gingrich is a cliché, a man who serially turns in his current older wife for a younger model as he ages. But we haven’t heard much about what this behavior says, and reinforces, about prevailing attitudes toward older women.
I’ve been talking to older women – or “vintage females,” as I like to say, of which I am one – and there is a real fury, however suppressed, unarticulated and even censored, about the gap between who we are, what we do and the stereotypes surrounding us. Of course, this is true for older men as well. The term “senior citizen,” while in and of itself semantically inoffensive (was it meant to replace “elderly”?), has taken on a certain negative connotation. I mean, what do you think of when a politician refers to “our seniors”? A separate class of crotchety folks infused with entitlement and ready to cane anyone who proposes cutting Medicare comes to my mind.
The terms “seniors” and “senior citizens” mark older adults as having entered a separate realm, a new identity, a rhetorical category different – even cut off from – our previous selves. Whatever we used to be, we are no more. We didn’t used to be “junior citizens” or “adult citizens.” (Of course, we spend most of our lives categorized as consumers, not citizens.) Why can’t we simply be older adults (or, for women, vintage females, given the obvious and flattering wine analogy)?
While this rhetorical delineation of a separate (and marginalized) identity happens to all older people, it is much more prejudicial and profound for women. How often have you heard the term “little old lady” used to make fun of someone compared to “little old man”? When women turn a certain age, suddenly we’re lumped into an anachronistic category – old bag, granny, senior – that relegates us to the trash heap of history. Here Gingrich is quite an experienced and dedicated practitioner.
Why is Betty White, the 90-year-old recent recipient of a Screen Actors Guild award for best actress in a comedy, so beloved? She thumbs her nose at the stereotype of older women as humorless, uncool, washed up, sexually prudish and beaten down by age. She speaks to legions of women the same age or older than the two Newt dumped, who still feel inside just as we did when we were 50, with plenty more to do and say.
Every year, more and more women are living longer, continuing to work, volunteering and raising political hell. Gingrich’s serial trade downs for the ever-younger embody the notion that older women (especially ones who have put up with the likes of him for decades) are irrelevant and disposable.
Women of any age should never support a candidate whose actions (not to mention policies) announce: Once you hit a certain age, I will ditch you with extreme prejudice. Like so many in his party, Gingrich resents anyone who isn’t white, well-off and male. All women – and remember girls, like it or not, we all get old – should shun him, and any candidate like him.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.