Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Disability is relevant to feminism, part infinity: Study shows that long-lived women have higher rate of disability

When discussing disability and ableism (and other forms of oppression) in feminist contexts, feminists sometimes question why it should be discussed at all. Isn’t feminism about women?, some ask. What does disability have to do with women’s oppression?

Disability is relevant to feminism because women experience disability, and because disability-related oppression often manifests in gender-specific ways. Disabled women are raped at a disproportionate rate. The bodies of women with disabilities are seen as public property, subjected to rude and invasive questioning. And a new study shows that women experience much higher rates of disability as we age, though we have longer life expectancies. The study, published in the Journal of Women’s Health and conducted by the Public Health Agency of Barcelona, found that 53% of women over 64 experience disability (an increase since 1992), compared to only 30% of men of the same age.

Albert Espelt, the lead researcher on the project, explained, “The double burden of work that women experience throughout their lives — domestic work and work outside the home — is a key factor in explaining this difference in different studies.” He went on to clarify that domestic work also has an impact on non-evident disabilities.

Women are forced to do disproportionate amounts of housework because we are expected to, because we are constructed as the default performer of domestic work. But most of us also have to work for a wage - even if we didn’t want to work for pay, it’s not like care of our homes and children are monetarily compensated. And what do you know, that gendered expectation that we will carry the bulk of the burdens of the home has an impact on our bodies and our minds as we age.

Disability is naturally ocurring, and not something to be eliminated. But when women experience disability at disproportionate rates, it is indicative not of a wide variety of different human experiences and bodies. It’s indicative of sexist demands placed on women’s bodies throughout our lifetime.



  1. Wow, lots of loaded words - forced, disproportionate, constructed, gendered, bulk of the burdens, sexist demands. A few points:

    1) This was a study conducted using women and men who are over 64 years old today. So, the youngest ones (64 years old) would have been born in the 1940's and have been running their own household (I imagine between 20-40 years old) in the 1960's-1980's. These are much different times than women live in now and I think it's entirely possible that the number of elderly women with disabilities will eventually go down, especially when our generation of young women reach old age. I see this happening because of changing attitudes towards women and also technology which makes housework much less strenuous. I was raised in the 1990's by my father while my mother worked and I'm sure she did much less housework than my grandmother.

    I'm a bit confused about the explanation from Albert Espelt because:

    2) This study was conducted in Barcelona, Spain, which was under the rule of a dictator, General Franco, from 1936 until 1975. While things were moving ahead for women in the United States and many other parts of the world, the Spanish lived under a totalitarian, oppressive, and strictly Catholic regime. This made their lifestyle much different than that of their American counterparts: women played a much more traditional role, they were expected to be mothers and housewives and many of their equality rights were taken away during the dictatorship. Their housework was much harder, but they wouldn't have worked outside the house as much. I suppose after the dictatorship they may have, and perhaps that's when the double burden happened; being expected to be the perfect Catholic housewife and work outside the house. Or perhaps in rural areas they were expected to work on the farms like the men and take care of the household, I don't really know.

    This study does not mean that in 40 years we, the readers, will have the same fate as the elderly women of Barcelona, so be careful using "we", it's misleading and makes this personal. This study means that, in the past, the amount of housework a woman did coupled with her activities outside the house had a detrimental effect on her health in old age.

    I could not find a copy of the original study, but I would like to see what they consider a disability. As a final note I'm wondering if anyone thought about osteoporosis as part of the reason. Broken bones that don't heal well due to age that are caused by osteoporosis could become a disability and unfortunately is a gender disadvantage not caused by sexist attitudes.

  2. Actually, Becky, this is not just about women who are over 64 today - this study dates back to data from 1982.

    I'm not sure if you're saying this, but it's not just about the current generation. The older generation is still worth caring about whether or not this is what our generation will face.

    Also, I strongly doubt that no women worked outside the home during the reign of Franco - I would guess that women in the lower classes did indeed have to work!

    Furthermore, I find your argument that women no longer have to do the bulk of the housework to be patently false! This is based on my experiences - I, too, was raised in the 1990s - this is, actually, personal, sexism is systematic and I see and feel its impact. This opinion is also based on actual studies which have been fairly well-publicized!

  3. Of course we should care about older generations, I just don't see an exact crossover to our generation because our circumstances have changed. We are from a different country, we are a different generation with different social values and I am optimistic that when we are 64 and above the rates will be lower. Even women who were 64 in 1982 would have been living under Franco for part of their lives. And I believe as well that some women would have worked outside the home, notably the poorer ones, but this would have most likely been manual labour and harder physically; this was not a case of a career woman or even a woman who worked as a cashier taking care of her family on top of her outside job (although that comes with its own stresses). Most women were banned from important and influential positions.

    As for women having to still do the bulk of the housework: While women still do the majority, the amount that men contribute has gone up since the 1960's from 15% to 30% in the United States and over 20 industrialized countries on average it went from 20% to 30%. The paper also states they feel this is a continuing trend. While anecdotal, I think that it's become more socially acceptable to have women with careers and men looking after children than it was 50 years ago.

    I feel that feminists see change as immediate (and you can correct me if you think this is wrong or personally don't feel this way) and that's not really very realistic. Historically, when populations are forced to change their social values too quickly they're unhappy and rebel (I'm thinking of religious or nationality changes). Perhaps I'm just looking at this positively, focusing on the gains as opposed to the progress we still have to make.

  4. Plenty of women under the age of 64 are disabled now too. We need feminism to represent us as women. A feminism which ignores disability, as so much feminism does, does not represent women like me.

    There are so many issues affecting disabled women, like as the article said, increased rape and sexual abuse, less autonomy over our own bodies, and so much more.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin