Looking Old: The Visual Culture of Aging in the US Women’s Rights Movement

Anti-feminists obsessively described activist women as physically unattractive 'old women' and 'old maids' while defending male politicians' prerogative to not be judged on the basis of their looks, the privilege, that is, to be "old," "ugly," and eminently electable.

Lecture Description

When feminists in the antebellum United States organized to end slavery and demand their rights, they immediately faced critics who ridiculed them as ugly old maids, wrinkled old ladies, and superannuated old ex-slaves. Old in this sense was not the same as old age, but rather an aesthetic judgement wielded by anti-feminist and anti-Black journalists, caricaturists, and politicians to suggest that women speaking in public looked unattractive, ridiculous, or pitiful and should therefore be dismissed without engaging their ideas or political strategies. To gain a public hearing, feminists needed to shift how Americans saw mature women, but the very plasticity of the term “old” as applied to old maids, old ladies, and old ex-slaves did more to divide women from each other than to create a unified age group. Examining Anglo-American visual culture from the 1830s to the 1890s, I demonstrate how anti-feminist and anti-Black representations of female oldness created distortions in public recognition and internalized forms of shame with which abolitionists and feminists had to contend to enter politics.


Old Age Women's Rights, Activism, and Suffrage

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