Shifting Gender Relations in Old Age?
Fachhbereich Sozialwesen Universität Kassel Kassel, Germany
Feminist gerontologists are not alone in underlining that age, like gender, is a socially constructed category linked to a system of power relations which can give rise both to privilege and oppression. While the intersections between gender relations and further dimensions of social inequalities such as class or ethnicity/race are prevalent subjects of women and gender studies, much less attention has been paid to the question of how masculinities and femininities are shaped by age relations.
The proposed paper bases on the results of a qualitative study funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, which analyses the interaction of age, gender and labour in the third sector in Germany. It deals with voluntary care work provided by senior citizens in self-help-organizations for the elderly with a particular focus on male caregivers.
Previous studies on masculinity in later life indicate that masculinity is constructed "through and by reference to age" (Hearn 1995), highlighting the fact that hegemonic masculinity, with its emphasis on physical strength, wealth, virility and professional status is increasingly difficult to achieve for aging men (Calasanti 2004). The tensions between age and hegemonic masculinity are said to become even more considerable if older men engage in feminized tasks such as care- giving (Meadows/Davidson 2006).
In-depth interviews carried out as part of our study with both male and female volunteers in self-help organisations for the elderly reveal that elderly males engage in an unanticipated amount of reproductive labour in the voluntary sector. In contrast to approaches suggesting that gender differences become less relevant with age (Gutmann 1987), the proposed paper will reconstruct the set of different coping strategies our male interviewees developed in order to reconcile care-giving with their male identities, which include caring styles which stress ?male? behaviour patterns, relating current care activities to an earlier career or overemphasizing manliness within their biographical narratives.
In addition to providing empirical results, the paper will discuss the assumption that masculinities and femininities in old age do not diminish, but rather vary in ways which make them a challenging subject for feminist research.