chapter  3
28 Pages

The Lengthening List of Oppressions: Age Relations and the Feminist Study of Inequality

The Developing Study ofInequality Oppression is a relation between groups with different occupational niches and shares of such resources as authority, wealth, and esteem-all distributed within social networks according to formal rules or ascribed status. This follows from the focus by classical and modern theorists of inequality on skewed distributions of land and labor power (Marx 1972; Wright 1989), authority (Weber 1922/1968; Dahrendorf 1959), honor or prestige (Collins 2004; Treiman 1977), and access to social networks (Warner 1949; Coleman 1990). The group with more and better resources can use its authority to control those with less, and ideologies justify the inequities with reference to nature, the needs of complex societies, or the will of higher powers. Such a definition of oppression has become conventional among feminist scholars. Young (1990), for instance, defines oppressed status in terms of economic marginalization, control by violence, powerlessness, exploitation, and cultural imperialism. Andersen defines race, class, and gender oppression in terms of "the appropriation of labor and the restriction of rights of citizenship" (2005: 445). This is also an operational definition-open to empirical testing, in that researchers can measure distributions of resources, note formal restrictions of civil rights and employment, and observe patterns of ascription, exclusion, and subordination in interactions. l

By what means do political-economic relations become clear to theorists of inequality, such that some (like age) fail for so long to join the list of commonly studied oppressions? The inclusion of sexuality into the theoretical framework requires analysis of the obligation to perform reproductive labor in opposite-sex pairs and the exclusion from occupational and

family-based privileges of anyone who does not. The focus on age requires theorizing the obligations to reproduce and/or take paid work and the expropriation of labor from those who do not: both the very young and most of the old. (There is much more to these institutional inequalities. I simplify merely to make a point about political-economic analysis.)

Age relations-the systems of inequality that privilege younger adults at the expense of old people (Calasanti 2003)-structure the labor market and are enforced by the state by means of its age-graded labor and retirement policies. As such, age relations could appear relevant to anyone willing to apply a conventional definition of oppression. For instance, the exclusion of even middle-aged women from most dating and courting networks reduces the familial support of those past childbearing years, and the stigma attached to physical dependency allows condescension toward people too frail to keep their jobs. The twentieth-century, Western institution of retirement has further sidelined the growing old population from the workforce. Nevertheless, little of this has entered feminist theories of political economy outside of social gerontology. Ironically, with its focus on the problems of the sexually desired (compulsory heterosexuality, sexual objectification and harassment, abortion rights), mainstream feminist theory has largely done the same-sidelined old women from its theories-and has thus missed opportunities to theorize forms of inequality that constrict the lives and fail to compensate the work of so many.