Corinne T. Field is an Associate Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the political significance of chronological age and life stage in US history. Her current book project, "Grand Old Women: How Abolitionists and Feminists Transformed Aging in America," considers how nineteenth-century activist women insisted that "old maids" and grandmothers should not recede into the background or try to look younger, but instead step forward as national leaders who were undeniably and gloriously aged beyond youth. Field's research explains how these women pushed back against stigma that we would now call "ageism," how they theorized the intersections of age, race, and class in women's lives, and how their persistent activism opened new possibilities for women's security and fulfillment in old age. Her next project, tentatively titled "Looking Old: A U.S. History," will consider the aesthetics of oldness across hierarchical relations of gender, race, and class. With LaKisha Simmons, Field is co-editing an interdisciplinary anthology on the global history of black girlhood. She is the author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America (2014) and co-editor with Nicholas Syrett of Age in America: Colonial Era to the Present (2015) as well as a roundtable for the American Historical Review on "Age as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis." During the 2018-2019 academic year she was the Mellon-Schlesinger Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and she has held fellowships at the American Antiquarian Society, the Huntington Library, and Virginia Humanities.
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.