Women’s biological, psychological, and social development across the life span is compromised by cultural, political, and economic factors creating long-long lifestyles, habits, expectations, and roles that place women at risk. The first step in reducing the risk is to understand it. My goal is to promote understanding of the physical and psychological well-being of women as they age. Many of the common concerns in middle-aged and elderly women (e.g., cardiovascular disorders, sexuality) are at the nexus of scholarly tensions between explanatory models emphasizing normal aging versus disease and nature versus nurture. These concerns also continue to be targets of scientific sexism in research and treatment. In a feminist context, the traditional assumptions that aging is necessarily associated with intellectual deterioration, depression, physical disability, and social disengagement are challenged. Social skills and support, control over one’s life, and social and economic roles are emphasized as major determinants of psychological well-being. Physical well-being is discussed in the context of diet, exercise, substance abuse, and obesity. Even the common separation of psychological and physical well-being, while convenient, is restrictive in that the strongest predictor of psychological well-being in aged women is physical health. While many seek solutions and answers within a medical paradigm, feminist scholarship invalidates this route by elaborating the essential synergism of nurture and nature. Appreciating the complexities of women as they age in Western society and facilitating healthy development requires assuming continuity and interdependence, rather than opposition and contradiction, between biological and environmental forces. Indeed, with age, biology becomes relatively less important as the combined influences of pollution, trauma, sexism, ageism, poverty and access to quality health care accumulate over a lifetime. In the last several decades, science has been inundated with criticisms aimed at questioning the legitimacy of the essential underlying principles of the endeavor.
Critics from a wide variety of disciplines and professing an even wider variety of ideologies have challenged priorities, funding sources, assumptions, methodologies, interpretations, goals, applications, and ethics of scientific research. Postmodernists, social constructionists, and deconstructionists have created an atmosphere of intellectual challenge as well as considerable professional insecurity and defensiveness. A dominant force in this search for valid, useful and humane theory and practice has been and continues to be feminism. A crucial contribution of feminism to the revolution in the physical and social sciences has been to provide critique based on an examination of the ideological underpinnings of theory, methodology, and interpretation-to demand acknowledgment of the fact and the meaning of the social, political, financial, and personal context within which research is embedded. In all respects, the ideology and practice of feminism is the basic context and motivation of this book.