After ten years of studying gender, I can confidently say that as a woman, getting older brings a sense of liberation. – Angela Saini
As an author, my main focus has been on uncovering one of the greatest enigmas in history: the roots of patriarchy in human civilization. Little did I realize that this quest would permanently alter my perception of myself.
I was aware that delving into this topic would require a journey through time. However, the time periods involved were not just centuries, but thousands of years. This led me to the southern region of Anatolia in Turkey, where I found myself at Çatalhöyük – one of the earliest human settlements ever discovered. Çatalhöyük remains remarkably well-preserved, offering a glimpse into the ancient way of life in this region long before the construction of Stonehenge or the pyramids in Egypt.
A nearby museum houses the most valuable object discovered at the location, a small figurine that captured the attention of the archaeological community when it was unearthed in the 1960s. The Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük is estimated to be 9,000 years old and portrays an elderly woman. She is depicted sitting like a queen, with a straight back and folds of skin resembling clay waterfalls around her. Two large cats, potentially leopards, peer out from under her hands as she rests.
Upon her discovery, archaeologists quickly deemed her to be a deity, potentially representing the sacred female. In the years following, there has been speculation as to whether she may have been a historical individual, potentially holding a high standing within her community or serving as a prominent matriarch in her family. However, due to the lack of written records from her time period, we cannot confirm this. Nevertheless, studying the human remains can offer insight into the culture to which she belonged. Çatalhöyük was a settlement where individuals appeared to lead similar lives regardless of gender.
The current information suggests that both men and women in Çatalhöyük had similar diets, spent a comparable amount of time indoors and outdoors, performed similar types of work, and were buried in similar manners. The slight difference in height between genders serves as a reminder that social factors can greatly impact biological differences between sexes. It appears that any social hierarchies in this Neolithic community were not based on gender.
However, as indicated by the figurine, it is possible that they did adhere to age-based divisions.
The role of age as a source of power is often overlooked, despite the fact that many influential individuals, both currently and in the past, have been older. In family dynamics, elders typically hold the most esteemed position. This is still expected in Chinese cultures, where filial piety is highly valued. Even in highly patriarchal families, mothers and mothers-in-law can exert significant control over younger members.
In numerous societies around the world where inheritance is passed down from mother to daughter instead of father to son, the most senior woman in a household holds the position of authority. In India, elderly women who are no longer occupied with caring for young children have begun to actively participate in local village politics, also referred to as panchayat. In fact, just recently, an 89-year-old woman was elected as the oldest panchayat president in the state of Tamil Nadu. However, this is not the oldest age on record for a panchayat president. In 2015, a 93-year-old woman was elected in Maharashtra.
Perhaps the reason why we disregard age is because it is a fair method of gaining influence – it affects all individuals who live long enough. As I approach middle age, I can personally feel the gradual accumulation of respect and status that seemingly comes with age. When a salesperson first addressed me as “ma’am” a couple of years ago, I was caught off guard; now, I embrace it. I understand that this may not be the case for all women, but at least I feel more empowered to speak up and confident that I will not be dismissed. I am also more comfortable demanding what I want. One of the most liberating aspects is that I feel less objectified by the male gaze. Nowadays, my thoughts and opinions hold more significance to others.
I have dedicated over ten years to studying and composing on the topic of gender. Through this process, I have learned that it is not as rigid as we tend to think. Gender identity can change throughout a person’s lifetime. For young children, gender is not a significant factor. It is often influenced by societal stereotypes that we project onto them. As individuals reach adolescence and early adulthood, gender becomes more prominent. However, in old age, as our reproductive abilities decline and our bodies change, the meaning of gender shifts yet again.
As we age, it becomes increasingly difficult to adhere to traditional expectations of femininity (or masculinity). I now find myself needing to wear lipstick, a task that was previously unnecessary. It takes deliberate actions to maintain the softness and shine of my hair, preserve its color, and prevent my skin from sagging. I am aware of my youth slipping away, along with the physical characteristics that identify me as a woman. It makes me wonder if it would be easy to distinguish between older men and women if they didn’t put in so much effort.
This may cause a sense of instability. However, viewed from a different perspective, it can also bring a sense of freedom. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to carry the burden of societal expectations? So, despite the constant reminders from companies selling anti-aging products that aging will diminish my feminine appeal, I am surprisingly excited to enter this new phase of my life. As I age, my gender feels less important. I now have the opportunity to simply be myself, just as I did in my childhood.
Currently, I am reminded of the possible experiences of the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, imagining her life thousands of years ago. Despite her body being deemed less significant, her age gave her authority. I admire the numerous accomplished older women I know, who are unconcerned with others’ opinions and hold prestigious positions such as leading university departments, editing newspapers, and chairing boards. I eagerly anticipate reaching that stage in my life. After all, why should we fear age-related physical changes when they can be overshadowed by the power and influence that come with it?
Angela Saini is a science writer and teaches at MIT. Her latest book, The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, was shortlisted for the 2023 Orwell Prize
Would you like to share your thoughts on the topics discussed in this article? If you want to send a response of no more than 300 words via email to be potentially published in our letters section, please click here.