Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


with 2 comments

The last taboo is not making fun of disabled people – it’s making fun of old people. They can be cute, they can be irascible, they can be demanding. What they can’t be, is silly.

I can rail against the diminution of the person, visited upon the frail elderly by their paid minders and keepers. If there is any justice in this world those women (for they are usually women) who persist in talking to the aged in a simpering, soothing, patronizing voice should be forced to listen to themselves for about a million years. And they should have to do it while waiting to be taken off the toilet or waiting for their diapers to be changed. Being old isn’t for sissies.

And the only reason these care-givers of the frail and dependent elderly get away with the kind of treatment one usually dishes out to babies less than a year old is that those men and women being patronized can’t or won’t fight back.
Why don’t they complain, loudly and long, about the childish treatment? Because so many of them have no choice about where they live and with whom. They are the brittle elderly, the parents with dementia, the old people who cannot care for themselves and whose children are unable to care for them at home. Unable to afford and thus choose 24-hour live-in care, they are at the mercy of others.

Many are afraid to complain for fear of retaliation. They literally suffer in silence.

So there it is: you can patronize the elderly with impunity, but you can’t make fun of them,

I’m about to break that taboo. But here’s the caveat: I’m not making fun of the woman she is, but the women she represents – generations of women who predated feminism and were raised with the strictures and ties of what society expected of them. With few exceptions they became, in this order: dutiful daughter, obedient wife, uncomplaining mother, doting grandmother. Whatever they did strictly for themselves, to fulfill whatever aspirations they had in their hearts was done after all the chores were finished, the children fed, the husband catered to, and the house in order.

Of course there were the rebels, the women who didn’t follow the program. But those women paid for their independence by being regarded as freaks by society. Those “freaks” became the unsung heroines of the feminist movement. And when feminism liberated us from the expectations of others — or so we thought — women were free to kill the myths that still persisted

In reality, we didn’t manage to kill anything but ourselves.

Her name is Patricia Murray Wood and she was married on May Day in Palm Beach, Florida. We Canadians are more likely to recognize the name of her new husband — Edward Noonan Ney – than the bride’s, albeit she was a newspaper columnist and comes from a fine old American family. If the groom’s name strikes a chord it’s because Ney was the American ambassador to Canada from 1989 to 1992. Both husband and wife have had long and illustrious careers. Both have been widowed and divorced. I know when and where they married because I’m an inveterate reader of the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times and that section’s wedding announcements

Such announcements, obviously, are happy ones. They shine a light into the lives of ordinary people and the occasional celebrity. The actor Henry Winkler’s daughter, for example, was treated with the same journalistic care and style as two homeless people who were featured one week and the same rules apply to everyone, including the gay couples who have started appearing in the past few years

But there is one thing I fail to understand or appreciate when it comes to women who are either personally famous or old enough to know better: Why on earth would a 90-year-old woman, as The Times put it: “take her husband’s name” ? Because that’s how old the bride is — 90. The groom, the former ambassador, is 85.

I find it sad and silly a woman that age would think it necessary to change her name. I find it equally strange that any man that age would make such a request. So when I read it, I laughed out loud. I first thought it some joke. Then I mentally apologized and started to think about the kind of a world these two aging people were born into, a world of expectations and strict social structures. But having lived through a great deal of one century, I would have hoped that things might have changed for them.

Certainly, I cut young people a lot of slack. Feminism is supposed to be about choices, so when my nieces took their husbands’ last names, mirroring their mother who did the same almost 40 years ago, I celebrated their choice.

Personally, I’ve only ever had one last name, admittedly my father’s. But because I married late there never was an expectation that I would change my last name. Neither husband ever raised the question. I joke that the reason I didn’t was because both of my spouses had long and sort-of complicated last names that wouldn’t fit into, in newspaper parlance, “a one-column byline.”

Maybe I should blame The Times for holding to such strict guidelines than a 90-year-old bride is treated the same way as a 20-year-old. Certainly putting in the names and home towns of the presumably long-deceased parents borders on the bizarre.

I prefer to think it’s the last gasp of a generation who were raised to be frail, dependent and little more than arm candy for their husbands. Such women were always identified as somebody’s wife or mother, person dependent on a man or a child to give her not only a last name, but an identity.

Never has the Helen Reddy song, I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, seemed so appropriate.

Change your name at 90? What was she thinking?

Frail and dependent is so last century.

So, sisters, it’s time. Time to ‘fess up and tell the truth. Who does the heavy lifting in your house? You do, right? Only we don’t tell our husbands. They think “heavy lifting” involves large chunks of concrete or their mother-in-law’s suitcase.

Guys don’t ever seem to stop and consider heavy lifting is something as simple as hoisting up a 40-pound toddler who’s too tired to walk any farther while carrying four or five plastic Safeway bags full of groceries (looped over your arms because said arms are now full of child) and doing so while taking public transportation.

I look at the small piano (a so-called “apartment” sized instrument) in our living room and remember my mother and I carrying it down the stairs in my parents’ house. When my brother complains (as he does, often) about once having to help me move out of a two-story townhouse in north-east Calgary into a downtown apartment, he focuses on said piano. Granted, it has cast-iron innards, making it the musical equivalent of a black hole. Having to carry it down half a flight of stairs and then lift it above the railing and do a 180-degree turn on the landing before carrying it down another half-flight has apparently scarred his memory for life. I certainly don’t remember my mother and I whining about how heavy it was, we just went about our business and moved it.

None of this would make any difference in women’s lives if we didn’t grow up believing in the myth of the frail and weak woman. And the older we get, the more the myth takes hold and traps us into a box of neediness, helplessness and dependence.

The myth of female frailty has a long and storied history and who knows how many women have encouraged it? Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell’s irrepressible, self-centred heroine in Gone With The Wind was the typical soft Southern woman – with a backbone of steel. Long before Mitchell’s opus was published, Shakespeare lets us know how he feels about women in the first act of Hamlet: “Frailty, thy name is woman,” says the prince of Denmark.

As Colette Dowling writes in The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality¬ ¬— “It’s hard to overstate the influence of medicine on the myth of female frailty. Protecting pubertal girls from too much mental and physical activity became a major campaign among physicians if the nineteenth century. In a widely quoted 1879 medical textbook, Thomas Emmet advised that girls ‘spend the year before and two years after puberty at rest.’ Each menstrual period should be endured in ‘the recumbent position,’ until their systems could adjust to ‘the new order of life.’

“Another make medical writer advised adolescent girls to avoid exercise altogether. Sufficient strength could be gained in the kitchen, the washroom and the gardens — nature’s gymnasia for adolescent girls,’ as he so nimbly put it.”

The myth of frailty has benefited lazy and frightened women who must believe that to be strong just isn’t very attractive to men. “For centuries,” writs Dowling, “women have been shacked to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual. . . . I began to see that the frailty myth hadn’t did, it had only wedged its way a little further underground.”

Strong, fit and healthy at every age should be the goal for all of us.

NEXT: Finally, spring and golf.


Written by Catherine Ford

May 10, 2010 at 7:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Your comments about women changing their names got my blood boiling. To assume that a woman who takes her husband’s name must be frail and dependent – little more than arm candy is the worst sort of arrogance on your part. You find it “sad and silly” that Patricia Wood would change her name at 90 – I think it’s kind of sweet. How brave must you be to get married at 90?

    Perhaps because you married so late you’ve never considered that a young woman (especially one that is independent and self assured) makes a statement by changing her name – she is saying to her husband, the world and herself- I am willing to make a new life with you – I am willing to put aside the family of my birth and begin anew with you.

    Is it fair that it’s the woman who usually changes her name – probably not but that’s another issue.

    Susan Moffet

    May 10, 2010 at 7:26 pm

  2. Thank goodness! I am not alone. I thought I was singular in my addiction to the NYT wedding announcement pages. They are always interesting and can sometimes provide commentary on today’s sociological trends – at least in the marriage department. Take the announcements of same-sex couples – we’ve come a long way baby! And, to your point, Catherine, there is the issue of the everything-old-is-new-again custom of ‘taking’ your husband’s name. As a woman who wed in the 70’s – I didn’t even consider the option. Now twice a mother-in-law; I was merely curious when our daughter, who wed at 30 decided to adopt her husband’s name; but secretly thrilled when our daughter-in-law (same age) made the same decision. Huh.
    And to be clear – both women are independent and neither are mindless arm candy. Let’s check in on the trend 10 years from now.

    Jennifer Diakiw

    May 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm

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