Article by Professor Cori Field- "Antifeminism, Anti-Blackness, and Anti-Oldness: The Intersectional Aesthetics of Aging in the Nineteenth-Century United States"

June 22, 2022


When feminists in the antebellum United States organized to end slavery and demand their rights, they immediately faced critics who ridiculed them as ugly old maids, wrinkled old ladies, and superannuated old ex-slaves. “Old” in this sense was not the same as old age but rather an aesthetic judgment wielded by antifeminist and anti-Black journalists, caricaturists, and politicians to suggest that women speaking in public looked unattractive, ridiculous, or pitiful and should therefore be dismissed without engaging their ideas or political strategies. To gain a public hearing, feminists needed to shift how Americans saw mature women, but the very plasticity of the term “old” did more to divide women from each other than to create a unified age group. Images of female oldness remained keyed to middle-class marriage, racial difference, and chronological age in ways that divided old maids from married matrons, white women from Black women, and middle-aged women from those over sixty. Moving beyond a simplistic analysis of ageism, defined as prejudice by one age group toward another, this article develops an intersectional approach to analyzing the gendered and racialized aesthetics of oldness. By examining Anglo-American visual culture from the 1830s to the 1890s through the analytic of age, I demonstrate how antifeminist and anti-Black representations of female oldness created distortions in public recognition and led some women to internalize negative stereotypes with which abolitionists and feminists had to contend in order to enter politics.

When women in the antebellum United States organized to end slavery and demand their rights, they immediately faced critics who ridiculed them as unattractive old maids, elderly ladies, and superannuated ex-slaves whose lack of youth rendered their public appearance a national joke. Take, for example, press responses to the activists who spoke at temperance, antislavery, and women’s rights conventions in the early 1850s. The white abolitionist Lucy Stone, aged thirty-two, unmarried, and a rising star on the antislavery lecture circuit, found herself dismissed as “an incorrigible old maid.”1 Lucretia Mott, aged fifty-seven, a married grandmother and the most famous white woman in the abolitionist movement, appeared to reporters as a “an elderly lady … all bone, gristle, and resolution.”2 Sojourner Truth, a self-liberated former slave and widow in her midfifties, became in the eyes of a reporter for the pro-slavery Charleston Mercury “an old negro granny … a poor weak old woman.” She would be better off, he implied, under the supposedly benevolent care of a master and mistress in South Carolina than mounting lecture podiums in the North.3 In the antifeminist and antiabolitionist press, what these women looked like—uniformly described as “old”—engulfed what they had to say. “There is a hard, leathery, and desolate look about them, which speaks volumes,” the Richmond Enquirer claimed.4 The descriptor “old”—whether referring to old maids, old ladies, or old ex-slaves—conveyed an aesthetic judgment that abolitionist and feminist women looked ugly, ridiculous, or pitiful and should therefore be dismissed without engaging their ideas or political strategies. This rhetoric also created a wedge between young and old women. To gain a fair hearing, these abolitionist feminists would need to circumvent or reject the notion that being old rendered them unworthy of attention.

“Old” in this sense was not the same as old age. As social and cultural historians have shown, nineteenth-century Americans regarded old age as a stage of life associated with physical and mental decline that began around age sixty or sixty-five (Thane 2020). Many people dreaded the possibility of physical pain, loneliness, or impoverishment at the end of life, some projecting this anxiety through a fear of old people—gerontophobia—of discrimination against them—ageism (Butler 1969; Fischer 1977). From the early modern period to the present day, women have experienced this fear and discrimination earlier in the life course than men, often in their forties or fifties rather than their sixties or seventies (Sontag 1972; Botelho 2001; Ottaway 2004). Research into the history of ageism has been extraordinarily helpful in shifting attention from the chronological and biological dimensions of aging—the arguably natural—to the arenas of artificial prejudice and social hierarchy—the incontrovertibly constructed (Gullette 2017). And yet, ageism conceived of as prejudice based on chronological age or physical decline does not capture the meanings of “old” as wielded by antifeminists and antiabolitionists in the nineteenth century—unless, that is, we want to treat all women over thirty as part of one age group, an imprecise approach at best.

The pejorative “old,” when applied to Stone, Mott, and Truth, evoked not a particular stage of life but an aesthetic failure to please, a failure elastic enough to cover all but the first years of a woman’s life when she might be categorized as unequivocally young. This meaning of “old” was emphatically gendered and racialized. White men did not confront the same aesthetic appraisals when they mounted lecture platforms or published their opinions. By the 1850s, new photographic and print technologies subjected white men to increased visual inspection, but daguerreotypists and lithographers composed images that lent dignity to the gray hair and wrinkles of prominent white men while journalists interpreted these signs of aging as marks of achievement rather than an aesthetic failure to look young. In politics, voters generally preferred their national leaders (all white men) to be at least middle-aged if not older: the average age of senators was fifty; the youngest man ever elected president had been forty-nine.5 White manhood, as a stage of life when individuals strove for success in the market, politics, or arts, extended well into a man’s fifties or early sixties before the decline of old age began.

Champions of the United States as a white man’s republic refused to accord Black men the dignity of mature adulthood, creating a mass culture of minstrel shows and racist caricature that ridiculed free Black men as overgrown children even when advanced in age. Black abolitionist men such as Frederick Douglass asserted claims to manhood citizenship in early adulthood and patriarchal dignity in old age (Field 2014; Edelstein 2019). Black and white abolitionist women had to forge a different path. When they banded together in the 1830s, antiabolitionists used the pejorative “old” to devalue women as already past their prime, worn out, and ridiculous. This shared categorization of old women never created a coherent age group, however, because the term “old,” once unhinged from old age, became fundamentally racialized, inflected with class hierarchies, and keyed to middle-class marriage in ways that did more to divide women than to unite them around a common cause. Oldness for women arrived at different stages of life and took different forms depending on whether a woman was an old maid, an old lady, or an old slave. Old always connoted decline, but what a woman lost and when she lost it differed profoundly: beauty and sexual allure for unmarried white women faded by age thirty; reproductive capacity for white matrons was gone by their midforties; usefulness to white people for Black women was discounted by their forties if not earlier. All these women had lost their youth but along different pathways that corresponded to what Black feminist theorist Imani Perry refers to as the “layers” of modern patriarchy: the white daughter too old to become a bride; the mistress of a household aged beyond beauty and fertility; and the enslaved woman as property, a “nonperson,” no longer profiting white families (Perry 2018, 12, 21). These women, already devalued as old by midlife, then had to grow old a second time as they entered old age in their sixties and seventies (Woodward 1999, xiii).

In the nineteenth-century United States, Americans opposed to feminism and Black freedom deployed a racialized and gendered aesthetics of oldness that valued maturity as a sign of competence in white, propertied men while treating the same as a means of ridiculing and devaluing Black men and all women. These racialized and gendered forms of oldness became a key mechanism by which white-supremacist patriarchy—a system of power that concentrated property, political office, and cultural influence in the hands older white men—adapted to accommodate democratic government, capitalist competition, and mass culture. In order to gain a public hearing and claim their rights as equal citizens, feminists and abolitionists would have to challenge the aesthetic devaluation of activist women as “old,” but finding common ground would prove difficult given how aging positioned mature women in hierarchal relationships to each other. Further, one way—often the easiest way—for any individual woman to challenge the gendered and racialized aesthetics of oldness was to demonstrate that she still looked young, a feat relatively easy to accomplish for women in their thirties, forties, and fifties who had not yet entered old age as a distinct stage of life.

By the 1890s, companies producing face creams and hair treatments launched visually striking newspaper advertisements urging women to erase the signs of aging and of Blackness, often with the very same product: M. C. Turner’s “Mystic Face Bleach” would lighten the skin and make “even the aged to appear youthful”; “Black Skin Remover” was a “wonderful face bleach” that would also “remove wrinkles”; Osline would straighten hair and also “restore” gray strands to “a black, glossy appearance.”6 These campaigns repurposed established tropes of anti-Blackness and anti-oldness to fuel the growth of the modern beauty industry, an innovation that by the early twentieth century offered diverse groups of women economic opportunities as beauty culturists and enabled new forms of creative self-fashioning but at the same time sustained tendencies to judge women based on what they looked like (Rooks 1996; Peiss 1998; Gill 2010). At the turn of the twentieth century, new forms of advertising linked antiaging products to the idealization of whiteness in ways that continued to treat all older women as aesthetic failures while dividing women along racial lines.

In this article, I push age studies beyond a consideration of ageism (understood as the prejudice of one age group toward another) to highlight the functions of “old” as an aesthetic judgment linked more to antifeminism and anti-Blackness than to ideas about old age as a stage of life or old people as a particular demographic. By turning to Anglo-American visual culture, I offer a preliminary taxonomy of the negative stereotypes targeted at women who were no longer young, paying particular attention to how these exaggerated representations of female oldness divided mature women by race, class, and marital status while encouraging female spectators to distance themselves from these abject caricatures. I then show how early feminists and abolitionists mounted their own diverse visual campaigns aimed at changing how Americans saw older women in public and consider how these innovative representations circulated along with persistent visual tropes of female oldness as ridiculous, grotesque, or pitiful.

By attending to the racialized and gendered aesthetics of oldness in Anglo-American visual culture from the 1830s to the 1890s, I demonstrate how antifeminist and anti-Black representations of female oldness created distortions in public recognition and sometimes led women to internalize negative stereotypes with which they had to contend in order to enter politics. Understanding these dynamics requires forging new connections between Black feminist theory and critical age studies in order to identify the intersectional relationships that marginalized and devalued old maids, old ladies, and old ex-slaves while at the same time driving them apart from each other, a set of difficulties that both required and complicated efforts to change how Americans look at older women in power. Returning to the history of early feminism with age in mind, we can find liberatory ways of thinking about and embodying oldness but only if we move beyond formulations of ageism as prejudice by one age group toward another and account for the gendering and racialization of oldness as an intersectional formation that positioned women in hierarchical relationships to each other.

Toward an intersectional history of oldness

Black feminist scholars have long argued that the category of woman “must be disassociated from the white middle-class female subject who norms the category” (Hartman 1997, 100). So oldness as an analytical category must be decoupled from old age as a stage of life normed around the experience of white, working- or middle-class men in Europe and the United States. By making theoretical room for gendered and racialized forms of oldness, historians and feminists can better appreciate how growing up and growing old moves individuals through overlapping social hierarchies defined by gender, sexuality, race, and class.

In the 1970s, social and cultural historians researched the history of old age by focusing on white men in the United States and Europe over the age of sixty. They argued that the respect and usefulness once accorded old people in agrarian societies eroded by the late nineteenth century with industrialization, professionalization, and bureaucratization (Fischer 1977; Achenbaum 1978; Cole 1992). By the 1990s, historians challenged this “modernization” thesis by including women and people of color in their studies and arguing that, at any given time, gender, marital status, race, and class have always created wide variation in the status of old people, some privileged, many disadvantaged, with unmarried, nonwhite women consistently experiencing the greatest precarity in later life (Haber and Gratton 1994).

More recently, historians have dated key transitions in the meaning of oldness not to the late nineteenth century but to the eighteenth and located this transition not in factories and offices but on the coastlines of the Atlantic world, where the expansion of slavery, colonialism, and the public sphere profoundly changed what it meant to be human (Ibrahim 2021). These scholars notice that African people and European women came to be categorized as “old” long before age sixty-five, and this occurred through new forms of aesthetic appraisal. Historian Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, for example, documents how British merchants, planters, and ship captains categorized “old” African captives as “refuse,” turning them into disposable human beings, either executing them outright or targeting them for particular forms of exploitation and neglect. With no agreed upon rubric for determining who was old and no documentary proof of age since birth, British captains and sailors inspected captive African bodies for telltale signs of aging such as gray hair, missing teeth, and sagging breasts (Mustakeem 2016, 39–43). In the antebellum United States, enslavers further elaborated a complex system for assessing the age of enslaved people and categorizing those over forty as old or “superannuated,” that is, worn out, incapacitated by age, and therefore of lower monetary value (Berry 2017; Windon 2019).

Treating relatively young people as old, and then defining old in terms of uselessness and disposability, inverted West African value systems that venerated elders as spiritual and political leaders—values that many enslaved people tried to reproduce on New World plantations and in free Black communities (Pollard 1996; Close 1997; Shaw 2016). Enslaved people defied the commodification of their bodies by treasuring the infinite spiritual worth of every human being and creating networks for mutual care (Berry 2017; Evans 2019; Knight 2019). Black people also used imaginative literature and performance to embody Black age beyond the normative temporalities of liberal humanism. Literary critic Habiba Ibrahim (20162021) builds on the work of Hortense Spillers, who influentially argued that Black women, barred from the normative categories of womanhood occupied by white wives and mothers, might forge new gendered subject positions beyond the terms of white patriarchy, occupying an “insurgent ground … claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to ‘name’)” (Spillers 2003, 228–29). Ibrahim adds that “‘the monstrosity’ of black womanhood borne outside of a patriarchal order … includes the spectacularly decrepit woman who experiences historical time in nonnormative ways” (2016, 317; see also Edelstein 2019). What these investigations of racialized age reveal is the importance of oldness as a highly cathected site of exploitation and liberation, a dimension of racialized gender and sexuality as significant as the contested nature of girlhood or motherhood in the Atlantic world.

The white wives and daughters of British and American enslavers helped to produce aesthetic standards for measuring the oldness of captive bodies by positioning themselves as “mistresses of the market” and claiming particular expertise to evaluate enslaved women’s usefulness as wet nurses or childcare providers (Jones-Rogers 2019, ix). At the same time, as historians of white women’s aging point out, the wealthy widows and unmarried daughters who gained the most economic power from slavery and colonial expansion confronted a particularly harsh backlash from their male peers determined to police the boundaries of economic competition, party politics, and cultural taste as arenas for masculine achievement. In eighteenth-century Britain, leading male writers, caricaturists, and dramatists created grotesque, even monstrous representations of wealthy white widows and spinsters. These “monitory images,” as historian Katharine Kittredge argues, constrained and erased female power “that fell outside of the socially acceptable/male-defined stages of the appropriate [white] female life cycle: youth as the attractive mistress, maturity as the dutiful wife, and an old age of self-effacing widowhood” (2002, 248).7 Old maids and old widows lacked husbands but not in the same ways as enslaved women denied marriage by law.

White women could be seen as old quite early in life. Marriageable white girls began to lose their “bloom” by their midtwenties and feared becoming “old maids” at thirty (King 2003). Married women became widows unpredictably, often long before they reached old age. Popular representations of white female prostitutes, a highly visible working-class version of the unmarried woman, also placed an early expiration date on female beauty and sexual allure, circulating images of young women driven to an “early grave” or surviving to become grotesque “old bawds” (Carter 2004, 7). These aesthetic appraisals equated white women’s worth with youthful beauty.

White women found ways to shore up their sense of self-worth through spirituality, kin, and friendships (Premo 1990). Women writers used creative fiction to explore, and sometimes resist, the normative function of age expectations, populating their stories with vibrant old maids and old women. Literary critic Sari Edelstein reads these representations in terms developed by queer theorists such as Jack Halberstam, Sara Ahmed, and Lee Edelman who celebrate the alternative temporalities of lives “unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing.” But, where these queer theorists have tended to fetishize youth, Edelstein considers “how old age too might offer … ways of inhabiting time that do not merely ensure generational continuity or correlate to respectability” (2019, 117). Her literary history is also a feminist history, not only because authors such as Louisa May Alcott both imagined new ways of growing old and joined the woman suffrage movement but also because, as Edelstein writes, “once we begin to read with age in mind, it becomes clear that feminist critique often involves protest against disciplinary age norms” (12). Edelstein thus recovers the radical potential of feminists who reimagined new ways to understand and perform their embodiment as older women.

As abolitionists and feminists strove for cultural influence and political power, they had to engage directly with questions of how other people saw them in public. Lecturing, lobbying, and organizing required them to navigate the dynamics of being looked at in a public culture increasingly structured by the mass circulation of visual images. Black feminist theorists and feminist age theorists have focused on the visual dynamics of racism and ageism respectively, but their findings remain difficult to reconcile. For example, Janell Hobson argues that the “Hottentot Venus” became by the early nineteenth century a “black female icon” who represented “both the presumed ugliness and heightened sexuality of the African race” (2018, 1).8 In contrast, Margaret Morganroth Gullette (1997) critiques the cultural narrative of aging as decline that positions women as losing their beauty and sexual allure over time. How can we square the racialization of beauty with its temporal component? Could Black women lose something that, by Hobson’s account, they never had, or at least could not claim in the same ways as white women? Black feminists who consider representations of the mammy, a desexualized maternal figure whose defining feature is loving white children more than her own, sometimes present this stereotype as a middle-aged counterpart to the youthful Jezebel, but scholars also note that representations of the mammy spanned a wide age range, including premenopausal wet nurses, middle-aged “dry nurses,” and superannuated former caregivers.9 How exactly oldness figures in stereotypical representations of Black women remains unclear.

This is where feminist age theorists excel, developing nuanced theories for how women’s embodiment and their relation to visuality change over time. Kathleen Woodward emphasizes how individuals adopt negative stereotypes of older people when young and then confront a crisis when forced to recognize themselves as old, what she terms the ego-shattering “mirror stage of old age” (1983, 66). Many women respond by insisting that they are not really old or by concealing the physical signs of old age to preserve a stable sense of self in a culture where the “youthful structure of the look” debases old female bodies (Woodward 1991, 155; see also Gullette 1997). But how do representations of whiteness work to maintain racial difference even as old white women lose the beauty and sexual allure that defined their youth? How might the fear of an old female body also convey what sociologist Sabrina Strings (2019), in relation to fatness, calls “fearing the Black body”? How might we begin to account, that is, for the cross-currents of misogyny, antifeminism, and anti-Blackness conveyed through various representations of old women? Answering these questions requires turning back to the visual archive of early feminism.

Black feminist theorists and critical age theorists agree on the importance of the visual. Centering attention on the “visuality of racial domination,” in Jennifer Nash’s words, Black feminists have debated the varied processes through which Black women have had to either imagine their own desires within this “racialized iconography” (2014, 2–4), develop an oppositional gaze (hooks 1992, 116), trouble the visual field through strategic enactments of “excess flesh” (Fleetwood 2011, 105), or innovate forms of “embodied discourse” that can counter epistemic erasure and center the Black female body “as a means to cathect Black social thought” (Cooper 2017, 3). Feminist age theorists also agree on the importance of the visual to women’s aging in particular, centering inquiry on “the representation and self-representation of older women” (Woodward 1999, x); on how the “hostile age gaze” dismisses women aged past youth, stigmatizing them as old and inspiring shame (Gullette 19972017); and how “each individual enters into the Otherness of agedness from the outside in” as other people see individuals as old before they feel old themselves (Marshall 2015, 28). In this article, I move toward an intersectional theory of oldness by documenting how the visual economies of gender, race, and age all came together in the nineteenth century, and how early abolitionists and feminists responded to representations of themselves as old.

Anti-Black and antifeminist representations of oldness

Abolitionists and early feminists fought not only with speeches and pamphlets but also with woodcuts, cartes de visite, and graphic symbols.10 As Allison Lange argues in her definitive study of women’s rights activists and visual culture, a loosely affiliated coalition of popular artists, journalists, and editors responded to women’s political activism with an unrelenting barrage of negative graphic stereotypes. “From the colonial era through the present, satirical images consistently represented political women as power-hungry, masculine-looking activists who deserted their families to pursue fame and end traditional family values,” Lange explains (2020, 2). Women’s rights activists responded by developing their own visual campaigns to “transform notions of political womanhood,” particularly promoting their status as virtuous mothers and wives (vi). These campaigns also aimed to change how Americans regarded old maids, old ladies, and old ex-slaves.

By accentuating the effects of time on women’s bodies, caricaturists quite literally underlined age, etching dark wrinkles into women’s faces. While a journalist might describe abolitionists and feminists as “old,” a woodcut or lithograph could purport to show at a glance what these women looked like. Artists could also erase the relevance of age when it did not serve their purposes, for example by portraying Black women through a repetitive and reductive racial typology that did more to conceal than reveal age, or by simply excluding Black women from the picture entirely.

Take, for example, a satiric 1839 lithograph by Edward Williams Clay representing the leaders of the Lynn Female Antislavery Society as white women seeking “Black husbands” (fig. 1). This image combines what Leslie Harris (2003, 7) calls “a discourse of amalgamation” with the humorous exaggeration of white women as unattractive old maids and old ladies. The harsh wrinkles and stooped back of the woman in front mark her as an old lady, while the baggy eyes and lined mouth of the next woman in line suggest that she is an unattractive old maid. As the viewer gazes toward the margin, the women grow younger and more conventionally beautiful. This composition reverses the age-based expectations dictated by popular advice manuals that mapped a generational choreography through which young, marriageable white women should take center stage at social gatherings while their mothers, maiden aunts, and grandmothers stepped into the background (Heath 2009). In Clay’s hands, the members of the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society, who had been gathering petitions to demand that the Massachusetts Legislature repeal racially discriminatory laws, become not serious political lobbyists but spectacles of inappropriate aging, predatory old maids, and ridiculous old coquettes. Clay dedicated his print to “Caroline Augusta Chase,” an abolitionist whose real name was Aroline Augusta Chase. She was an unmarried white woman, thirty-two years old (Moulton 2015, 94–95).

Figure 1. Figure 1. 

Edward Williams Clay, Johnny Q., introducing the Haytien ambassador to the ladies of Lynn, Mass.: Respectfully inscribed to Miss Caroline Augusta Chase, & the 500 ladies of Lynn who wish to marry Black husbands, lithograph, New York: J. Childs, ca. 1839, Library Company of Philadelphia. Reprinted with permission.

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This line of visual attack exclusively targeted white, propertied women. Not a single Black woman, young or old, appears in Clay’s print. The “Haytien ambassador,” a fictional General Marmelade, is a man in the prime of life, but he appears oddly out of sync with the times, wearing an eighteenth-century military uniform that turns him into an anachronistic parody of monarchical pomp rather than the progressive representative of the world’s first Black republic. By addressing white women as “de charming rose buds ob Lynn,” when Clay marks them as ugly old maids and withered old ladies, he reveals a desire that confuses race and age boundaries. The old white man in the center, “Johnny Q.,” is Massachusetts Congressman and former President John Quincy Adams, aged seventy-two. The hat plume flopping down in front of his trousers may evoke an old man’s supposed lack of sexual vigor, especially in relation to Marmelade’s priapic sword, but Clay portrays Adams’s face and figure as dignified compared to the old women, old maids, and Black men.11 Adams had been fifty-seven when inaugurated for his first term as president. According to the US Constitution, Aroline Chase was not too old for high political office but rather three years too young to run for president.

When caricaturists wanted to poke fun at white male politicians, they did not exaggerate their baldness or wrinkles to emphasize that they were old men but rather put them in bonnets and shawls and called them old women. In Clar de Kitchen (1840), William Henry Harrison, who was at the time the oldest president inaugurated, appears as an overly excitable scullery maid (fig. 2). “Clare de Kitchen” was a blackface minstrel song, so the title of this satire references not only cross-dressing but cross-racial performance.12 In this satire, misogynistic representations of older women and anti-Blackness cohere to poke fun at Harrison without shaking the foundations of politics as the proper domain of mature white men.

Figure 2. Figure 2. 

Napoleon Sarony, Clar de Kitchen, lithograph, New York: printed and published by H. R. Robinson, Washington, DC, 1840, American Antiquarian Society. Reprinted with permission.

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Black women are notably absent from these graphic parodies of old maids and old women, yet Clay built his reputation as a popular artist by ridiculing the supposed pretensions of free Black people in Philadelphia (Cobb 2015). He drew Black women as unattractive and uncouth, always already not beautiful and not marriageable even when young, and thus impossible to ridicule as no longer pleasing when old.13 Clay’s American prints influenced other artists in the United States and Britain, such as William Summers, who produced Tregear’s Black Jokes in London in 1834 just as the Abolition Act went into effect. The series shows Black girls, young women, and old women all with the same racially caricatured features. In The Wedding Feast, for example, two women sit at the center of the picture, one recognizable as young because she is the bride, the other old because of her spectacles and a bonnet—but they have practically the same face, as do the groom and the groom’s father (fig. 3). When Summers portrayed a young Black bride as not beautiful and not desirable, he also rendered her mother as illegible within the visual tropes of old white womanhood as no longer young—in this visual iconography, a Black woman could not lose what she never had.

Figure 3. Figure 3. 

Tregear’s Black Jokes, The Wedding Feast, hand-colored aquatint, London: G. S. Tregear, 1834, British Museum, London. Reprinted with permission.

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Caricaturists in the 1830s thus created a visual culture in which white women supposedly lost their beauty when they became old maids or old women while Black women never attained beauty at any age. During this period the illustrated magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book began its meteoric rise to become the most popular women’s magazine of the nineteenth century, appealing to a female reading public eager to constitute themselves as part of the respectable middle class. The magazine’s engraved and hand-colored fashion plates acculturated women to the pleasures of looking at other women, and what they saw was a highly standardized representation of youthful white femininity (fig. 4). As sociologist Sabrina Strings writes, Godey’s editor Sarah Josepha Hale astutely blended “moral lessons in proper Christian conduct with instructions on how to appear in public as a fashionable lady of the new middle-class,” elevating a youthful, slender, white ideal of beauty (2019, 127). Older white women were not to wear low-cut, brightly colored dresses, which would make them old coquettes, but to buy them for their younger daughters, thus sustaining an intergenerational project to present beauty as youth and whiteness. Engravers represented this aesthetic ideal by leaving faces unmarked except for the most delicate lines to sketch features and a faint wash of crimson on the cheeks and lips. To caricature a woman as old or Black, in contrast, engravers cut deeper lines into the face, marking wrinkles and folds in the skin, rendering features more visible—noses longer for old white women, flatter for Black women. These visual distortions were in no sense the same or even analogous to each other—age caricatures retained whiteness but exaggerated oldness, racial caricatures removed whiteness but rendered age largely illegible.

Figure 4. Figure 4. 

Fashion plate, hand-colored engraving, Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1838. Reprinted with permission.

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When white audiences did focus on the oldness of Black women, it was through representations of “excessive aging” that rendered “Black age” hypervisible (Ibrahim 2016, 313–14). In 1835, P. T. Barnum exhibited Joice Heth, an enslaved woman from Kentucky, at New York Niblo’s Garden, advertising her as “Nurse to Gen. George Washington, (the father of the country,)” and a woman of “unparalleled longevity … age of 161 years!” Barnum invited white audiences to enter the racially segregated venue to see for themselves if “JOICE HETH is in every respect the person she is represented.” His marketing campaign tapped into a latent white Northern desire to publicly inspect the age of Black women, a form of looking that would once have been common at slave auctions in New York City but had ceased with gradual emancipation. Barnum especially courted the gaze of respectable white Northern women, advertising that “a female is in continual attendance, and will give every attention to the ladies who visit this relic of bygone ages.”14

As further inducement to see Heth’s age, Barnum commissioned a woodcut portrait that appeared on broadsides throughout the city and in newspaper advertisements (fig. 5). Deep folds mark Heth’s forehead and cheeks, darkened further to represent her skin color. Her eyes disappear entirely beneath drooped lids, and her prominent nose is both long, the mark of an old woman, and wide at the base, the supposed sign of African features. Her bare, wrinkled forearms, paralyzed and contorted, extend into absurdly long nails. Her upper body, covered in fabric, becomes a square block with no feminine curves. In every respect, she appears the antithesis of a Godey’s fashion plate.

Figure 5. Figure 5. 

Detail, “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World, Joice Heth,” promotional broadside, ca. 1835, Somers Historical Society, Somers, NY. Reprinted with permission.

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Her performances, which traveled from New York through the New England and mid-Atlantic states, evoked a powerful “array of feelings” that performance theorist Uri McMillan terms “mammy memory,” a linking of “childhood, race, and nostalgia” through the idea of an old Black woman caring for the nation’s infant “father” (2015, 26). Though some later news reports implied that she had been a wet nurse to Washington, Heth’s performance emphasized that she was already an old woman, past pregnancy and lactation, when he was born. As she told one visitor, “I was present at his birth, put him in his first clothes, and was to him a dry nurse.”15 What connected her to Washington was not what Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (2008, 36) calls the “milk line” of wet nursing but the temporal line of extraordinary longevity. As Nathaniel Windon (2019, 774–76) points out, Barnum both intensified and prolonged her superannuation, working her to the point of exhaustion in order to make her appear worn down while also providing her with enough care, food, and rest to sustain her.

If the Black body became a “fungible” commodity during this period, as Saidiya Hartman argues, “an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values” (1997, 21), a literal and metaphoric resource from which white people could profit both materially and emotionally, then Black women’s oldness also became a resource available for generating economic and affective benefits. Barnum could profit by exhibiting Heth’s oldness, and audiences could reap emotional rewards.

As a blind woman, Heth could not return her audiences’ gaze, but she did express herself in ways that evidence her power and skill as a performer. Her interest in singing hymns and relating religious visions hints at an interiority valuing the invisible life of the spirit as more significant than the age of the body (Reiss 2001, 73). But then, in a less pious moment, she blurted out that she knew nothing about Washington and demanded something to drink, offering a tantalizing hint of her own desires (McMillan 2015, 61). Whatever her interiority, her repeated insistence that her body was in fact 161 years old enabled her to claim a life outside of white patriarchal time, presenting herself as a living witness to history (Ibrahim 2016, 317). The hypervisibility of Heth in the 1830s solidified a representational vocabulary of Black female oldness as excessive longevity, an end of life counterpart to representations of young Black women’s excessive sexuality. In the 1870s and 1880s, when Sojourner Truth became the most well-known Black women’s rights activist, she faced persistent comparisons to Heth and questions as to whether she had “nursed George Washington.”16 Heth’s name circulated in popular culture as a shorthand for freakish longevity, a comparison that could be applied to white or Black women to mark them as excessively and spectacularly old.17

By the 1840s, illustrators and caricaturists had developed a visual iconography that represented youthful white femininity—the unmarked face of the fashion plate—as a cultural ideal and used heavy facial markings to exclude women from this ideal whether because of oldness—wrinkles, sharp features—or Blackness—dark skin, racialized features—or both—as in the case of Heth. When popular images highlighted Black women’s age, it was as hypervisible excess that turned old women’s longevity into a field for envisioning racial difference. To gain visibility in the public sphere, abolitionist feminists had to cut through these distorted representations of older women, and to do so they took up the very tools of visual culture that focused attention on the question of how older women looked in public.

What an older woman looks like: Abolitionist feminists change the picture

During the 1840s, both Black and white abolitionists began to use “portraits as politics,” in the words of Allison Lange (2020, chap. 3). These early images, at first printed as the frontispieces of books, offered new ways for Americans to envision how women could grow old in public with resilience and dignity. In 1843, women in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society commissioned a portrait of Lucretia Mott for the frontispiece of their yearly gift book The Liberty Bell (fig. 6). The engraving by J. Sartain was based on an oil painting by J. Kyle from 1842, the year Mott turned forty-nine.18 She did not appear as an old lady with heavy wrinkles and gray hair, nor did she have the unmarked skin of a Godey’s fashion plate; she posed as an experienced middle-aged woman, calm, resolute, a portrait of persistence in the antislavery cause.

Figure 6. Figure 6. 

Lucretia Mott, painted by J. Kyle; engraved by J. Sartain, 1844, frontispiece of Liberty bell, edited by Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1844), American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA. Reprinted with permission.

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In the same year that Mott’s image appeared in the Liberty Bell, the Black itinerant preacher Jarena Lee posed for a portrait that she later included in the revised edition of her spiritual autobiography with a caption, “Mrs. Jarena Lee, Preacher of the A.M.E. Church, aged 60 years on the 11th day of the 2nd month 1844. Phila 1844” (fig. 7). Born free in the North, Lee knew her birthdate, while many formerly enslaved women, including Sojourner Truth, did not. Nearly a decade after Barnum exhibited Heth, Lee told readers exactly how old she was, just on the threshold of old age, her seniority visible but not excessive. She also sidestepped the exaggerated fashions caricaturists used to ridicule both old white coquettes and free Black women, choosing instead the plain style of dress worn by Mott. Truth would also adopt this style when she posed for photographs in the 1860s, thus solidifying dark dresses, white bonnets, and shawls as a visual style of mature women’s leadership that linked preaching, antiracism, and women’s rights (Painter 1996; Ware 2019).

Figure 7. Figure 7. 

Alfred Hoffy, Jarena Lee, lithographic portrait, frontispiece, The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (Philadelphia, 1849), Library Company of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA. Reprinted with permission.

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As Frederick Knight points out, Lee, Truth, and other Black women preachers used their maturity to win white converts and claim respect as older women. “Once black women had become older and were no longer primary targets of coerced labor and sexual violence,” he notes, “mainstream white audiences could more readily depict them as embodiments of Christian virtue” (2019, 547). Lee and other Black women created “communities of care” that helped to sustain them as they aged through “material support” and “interpersonal healing” (2019, 553). Despite these efforts, Lee “lived a precarious life” and died in poverty at about eighty years old (Knight 2017, 68). The historian Martha S. Jones places Lee in the “vanguard” of women’s rights, arguing that “the rights of women preachers were women’s rights” (2020, 28). She also stood at the vanguard of age activism, challenging church “elders,” all male, who tried to block her from the pulpit. By winning a license to preach, she opened new possibilities for women to age in public as religious authorities.

For her first public portrait, Sojourner Truth chose to dress as a working woman, with a practical head wrap and no chair or writing desk in sight (fig. 8). As the only formerly enslaved woman to speak at early women’s rights conventions in the 1850s, she chose a style of self-presentation that emphasized a specifically working-class form of Black women’s resilience and mature leadership, a story of survival and perseverance that she detailed in the pages of her Narrative (Rohrbach 2012, 84–86; see also Washington 2009).

Figure 8. Figure 8. 

Sojourner Truth, engraved portrait, frontispiece, [Olive Gilbert], Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated From Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. With a Portrait (Boston: Printed for the Author, 1850), Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Reprinted with permission.

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As Mott, Lee, and Truth released portraits of themselves, caricaturists and hostile journalists continued to mobilize stereotypes of ugly old women and pitiful ex-slaves. In a remarkable 1853 letter to the Liberator, an observer in Kentucky frankly acknowledged that when Mott arrived on a lecture tour, “from the misrepresentation of the press, our people had expected to see a sour, disappointed-looking woman, who … was unhappy in her domestic relations.” Instead, they found Mott to be “mild, winning, and attractive. … Her own appearance and that of her husband at once gave strong presumptive evidence of a quiet, happy life.”19 Mott self-consciously cultivated this image of herself as a devoted wife and grandmother even as she complained that “a body can’t ascend the platform—without [James Gordon] Bennett’s Herald reporting her ‘an aged woman’” (in Palmer 2002, 186; Faulkner 2011, 2, 6).

Through midcentury, Bennett and other opponents of abolition and women’s rights retained the upper hand, flooding the market with ugly caricatures of political women (Lange 2020, 36–45; see also Bunker 1992). Caricaturists played with reversals structured by the intersections of age, race, and gender. For example, in Adam Weingärtner’s 1851 Bloomerism in Practice, a middle-aged white matron, Mrs. Turkey, smokes a hookah and lounges in bloomers that look like harem pants. She daydreams of the slogan “For President Mrs. Turkey,” while her husband, looking like an overworked old woman, wears a bonnet and hunches over his sewing in a rocking chair (fig. 9). Two young servant women, Black and white, burst through the door wearing bloomers and holding banners that proclaim, “No More Basement and Kitchen,” “No More Massa and Missus,” while a child, also dressed in Turkish pants, cries for his breakfast over a fallen banner that reads “No More Papa & Mama” (Lange 2020, 40–41).20 In this upside-down world, a white wife has been enhanced by age, her husband diminished, and young, working-class women have united across race to demand a voice in political culture.

Figure 9. Figure 9. 

Adam Weingärtner, Bloomerism in Practice, 1851, lithograph, plate 17 in Humbug’s American Museum Series, 1851, Nagel & Weingärtner, 1851, Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, MA, Long 19th Amendment Project Portal, Reprinted with permission.

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In “The Rights of Women,” or the Effects of Female Enfranchisement, famed British caricaturist George Cruikshank imagined a world in which white women had become voters and carried their aesthetic preferences from the social world of romantic courtship into the political arena of electoral campaigning (fig. 10). The “Ladies Candidate,” Mr. Darling, is a dashing young gentlemen surrounded by fashionable young women and a young girl who turn their backs on “The Gentlemen’s Candidate,” a short, portly, balding man with two wrinkled-faced supporters urging votes for “Screw Driver, the Great Political Economist.” In case readers miss the point, a young man in the front center of the cartoon gallantly takes a sign from a woman who engrosses his attention. The sign reads: “Do Not Vote For Ugly Old Stingy.” On the far left, an old couple turn their back on the scene, perhaps disgusted by the folly of the younger voters. This vivid fantasy of women’s electoral power implies that what men would lose with woman suffrage is not only their monopoly on political power but their implied freedom to not be judged on the basis of their looks, the privilege to be “old,” “ugly,” and eminently electable.

Figure 10. Figure 10. 

George Cruikshank, “The Rights of Women,” or the Effects of Female Enfranchisement, Comic Almanac for 1853, etching, Art Institute of Chicago. Reprinted with permission.

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The development of photography offered feminists and abolitionists a chance to sidestep the distortions of the lithographer and present a purportedly objective representation of the human face and body, even as patrons avidly consumed advice on how to dress, pose, and light themselves in order to appear more aesthetically pleasing. As cartes de visite enabled the circulation of photographs in the 1860s, Mott and Truth led the way in using the new medium.21 They eschewed the soft focus or diffused light that could conceal wrinkled skin and instead chose to record the marks of time. As historian Nell Irvin Painter points out, Truth’s photographic portraits offer the closest thing we have to a direct self-presentation because her illiteracy required her to depend on others to write for her, but her cartes de visite gave her more direct control over how she appeared (1996, chap. 20). Truth presented herself as a respectable middle-class grandmother, sitting with conventional props such as flowers, a book, and knitting.22 In 1863, she posed for a carte de visite with a daguerreotype on her lap showing her grandson, James Caldwell, who had enlisted in the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Colored Regiment (Grigsby 2015, 52). This evocative image placed an adult descendant, a citizen and soldier, directly over her womb, presenting a version of Black grandmotherhood that sustained a multigenerational fight for freedom (fig. 11).

Figure 11. Figure 11. 

Sojourner Truth with photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell of Co. H, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Liljenquist Family collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

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While Truth posed for photographs as a dignified grandmother, she also collaborated with Frances Titus, a white abolitionist and neighbor in Battle Creek, Michigan, to play off white curiosity about the freakishness of Black women’s age. In 1881, Truth published an edition of her Narrative in Battle Creek with a cheap paper cover that read The Oldest Lecturer in the World, a Graphic Volume about the Colored Centenarian. She also circulated a broadside advertising her lectures with the same claim.23 Newspaper stories, which she carefully clipped and placed in her scrapbooks, reveal her toying with reporters curious about her age, making both exaggerated and shifting claims.24 Truth thus took white Americans’ credulity regarding the excessiveness of Black age and turned it to her own ends. After patiently answering white people’s questions about her longevity, Truth would then tell them about her political goals—raising money for freed people, promoting temperance, winning woman suffrage.

Mott also posed for numerous photographs, though she did not market them in the way that Truth did, nor did she need to field such invasive questions about her age, still considered information impolite to ask of a white woman. From an early daguerreotype in 1851 through the end of her life she wore a similar white cap and gray or white shawl for photographs, projecting a steady commitment to Quaker simplicity even as she enabled cameras to capture the changing features of her face (fig. 12).25

Figure 12. Figure 12. 

Lucretia Mott [between 1860 and 1880], photographic print, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

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Cartes de visite enabled Truth and Mott to pose their own embodiment of old age but also made their images available for others to appropriate. Susan B. Anthony used Truth’s photograph to stir up sympathy for enslaved people during the war, though Truth had been free for nearly thirty years. Anthony held up a carte de visite of Truth, noting her disabled hand, and another of an ex-slave military volunteer named Gordon with a heavily scarred back, then “asked everyone to suppose that woman was her mother, and that man her father” (Painter 1996, 187; Grigsby 2015, 164). Anthony’s gesture demonstrated how fungible Black oldness remained in the 1860s—Truth’s seniority available for a supposed white ally to put toward her own uses.

Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also turned Mott’s image into a fundraising vehicle to fuel their own publishing venture. When they founded their women’s rights journal The Revolution, they offered Mott’s portrait to anyone who recruited ten subscribers. “It is a wonderful likeness of our great leader,” the editors puffed. “It should be a household picture in every family—favoring Woman Suffrage.”26 While championing Mott as a model leader, Stanton also set about changing how journalists described women’s appearance. As she explained in an 1869 editorial, the press had once called suffragists “old, and ugly, and badly dressed. … So we dried up our tears, schooled our dolorous facial muscles to express cheerfulness and content, and polished up our words and wardrobes.”27 Stanton’s polishing of older womanhood soon became class-bound and racially specific in ways that Mott’s own self-fashioning was not. The visual strategy of the monumental History of Woman Suffrage, published in six volumes beginning in 1881, presented white suffragists of various ages in the same poses as white male politicians. Black women such as Sojourner Truth appeared briefly in the text, but their images did not. Visually, the History of Woman Suffrage had become white, and Mott appeared abstracted from the interracial commitments that had defined her lifelong activism (Lange 2020, 91–101).

Feminist aging and beauty culture

Lucretia Mott died on November 11, 1880, and flattering obituaries filled the nation’s newspapers (Faulkner 2011), as they did when Truth died on November 27, 1883 (Painter 1996; Washington 2009), and then Lucy Stone in October 1893 (Kerr 1992). Having been written off as “old” in the 1850s by an antiabolitionist and antifeminist press, each woman gained respectful notice from journalists by the end of their lives, with popular sentiment turning more friendly to woman suffrage and the seniority of these women gaining them a modicum of respect (Banner 1992). But if we track how Mott, Truth, and Stone’s portraits continued to circulate in the 1890s and restore these images to their broader cultural context, we can see that despite the acclaim they received, the forms of ridicule forged at the intersections of antifeminism, anti-Blackness, and anti-oldness persisted in popular culture, reinvigorated by a nascent beauty culture promising that women could look younger and whiter if they just purchased the right product.

These competing trends emerged in high relief at the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893. The program for the department of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) turned Mott into a founding foremother from whom Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Anthony descended in order of seniority, all of them appearing as middle-aged or older (fig. 13).

Figure 13. Figure 13. 

“World’s Congress of Representative Women … Department Congress of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association,” May 18, 1893, Susan B. Anthony Papers, 1815–1961. A-143. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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Though erased from NAWSA’s visual propaganda, an image of Sojourner Truth was present at the Columbian Exposition. In 1892, Truth’s collaborator Frances Titus commissioned Frank C. Courter, professor of art at Albion College, to paint Truth meeting President Lincoln in 1864 and sent this painting to the Michigan pavilion in Chicago (fig. 14).28 By creating a posthumous image of Truth and Lincoln, both of their faces deeply etched with worry lines, as though scarred by the long struggle for emancipation, Titus placed Truth in the same frame of mature political leadership as a beloved president rather than the exhibition of freakery associated with Joice Heth or the marketing campaign launched at the fair by the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing company that used the image of the comforting Black mammy to sell pancake flour (Wallace-Sanders 2008, 61–62). Titus succeeded in placing an article about the painting in the Sunday Inter Ocean, a Republican newspaper friendly to women’s rights. An engraving of Truth’s most famous carte de visite ran over the caption “Sojourner Truth at Home.”29 Earlier in the same issue, an article about Fannie Barrier Williams, a leading Black clubwoman, appeared along with an engraving of her portrait.30 The paper thus offered readers a multigenerational picture of Black women’s public leadership.

Figure 14. Figure 14. 

A. Lincoln showing Sojourner Truth the Bible presented by colored people of Baltimore, Executive Mansion, Washington, DC, Oct. 29, 1864, R. D. Bayley, Battle Creek, Mich., ca. 1893, photographic print on cabinet card mount, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

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Larger and more prominent than both these portraits, however, loomed the face of “Mme. Yale” (fig. 15). Yale urged the “ladies of the world” gathered in Chicago to try her “Excelsior Skin Food—The only wrinkle cure known.” The advertisement invited women to come to her “Temple of Beauty” and “see for yourselves” how “Mme. Yale can make a woman of 40, 50, 60, and older look just as fresh and lovely as when they were young girls.” For women reluctant to remove the signs of age, Yale offered a dark warning: “the world has no use for an old or faded woman. You are valued by your age and appearance.”31 Thus, according to Mme. Yale, NAWSA’s leaders, Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Barrier Williams were all useless because they no longer looked young.

Figure 15. Figure 15. 

Advertisement, “Mme. Yale,” The Sunday Inter Ocean, September 24, 1893

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Other advertisements for beauty products placed in the African American press combined promises to lighten dark skin and remove wrinkles. In the Indianapolis Freeman, the first illustrated Black newspaper in the United States, advertisements claimed that “Mme. M. C. Turner’s Mystic Face Bleach” would succeed in “bleaching the face in eight or ten days, leaving it about two shades lighter. It gives the complexion a soft and youthful tenderness, thus causing the middle-aged to look young.”32 “Osline” hair product would “make the hair straight and restore it to a black, glossy appearance” (that is, remove tight curls and gray color), while the company’s face bleach would lighten and make “the skin as smooth and soft as a baby’s face.”33 These products offered Black women a claim to beauty—but only if they dedicated themselves to looking both whiter and younger.34

Patent medicines promising to restore youth from the inside also ran in Black- and white-owned newspapers, playing off fears of aging.35 The most ubiquitous of these were advertisements for Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. One of these, which ran in 1893, showed a young white woman anxiously gazing in a mirror above the caption, “How Old I Look and Not Yet Thirty” (fig. 16). Ironically, Lydia Pinkham had been a member of the Lynn Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s, an ally of Aroline Chase, caricatured in Edward Clay’s satiric print (Sterling 1991, 33). After her death, her heirs emphasized that her compound not only restored health but also preserved white women’s beauty, repurposing the idea that women over thirty were no longer young, no longer desirable, no longer pleasing—unless they purchased a rejuvenating compound (Stage 1979). The racialized and gendered devaluation of oldness that once hampered Pinkham’s political efforts became, by the 1890s, a marketing strategy for her heirs. The visual culture of anti-oldness folded into beauty and health industries promoting the use of antiaging products as the key to women’s future happiness. Yet woman suffragists, Black and white, continued to insist on the dignity of old age.

Figure 16. Figure 16. 

“How Old I Look, And Not Yet Thirty,” Advertisements for Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1893, Lydia Pinkham Medicine Company Records, Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, MA.

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Patent medicines and beauty products—“hope in a jar” as cultural historian Kathy Peiss calls them—offered a way around the antifeminist and anti-Black connotations of oldness through commercialized antiaging and whitening regimes (Rooks 1996; Peiss 1998). Whatever public respect might be gained through this strategy, however, came at the cost of marginalizing other women who were undeniably old (over sixty, frail), Black (darker skin, tightly coiled hair), or simply too poor to afford the high cost of these skin creams and hair treatments. Further, and perhaps most devastatingly, antiaging strategies purchased public respect and recognition at the cost of cutting women off from their own futures. If these activists were to survive and persist in public, it would be as “older” women.

How to forge an intersectional, feminist approach to aging remains an open question in the twenty-first century. Critical age theorists from Barbara MacDonald and Cynthia Rich in the 1980s to Toni Calasanti and Kathleen Slevin in more recent years lament the lack of attention paid to old women and old age by contemporary feminist activists and scholars (MacDonald and Rich [1983] 1991; Calasanti and Slevin 2006). May Chazan, Melissa Baldwin, and Patricia Evans, among others, further protest that those focusing on age too often limit their attention to white, cisgendered, often heterosexual women. Calling for a fuller exploration of “aging activisms,” they seek to jump-start interest in how aging shapes activist strategies and how older women link resistance to ageism, colonialism, racism, and heterosexism in their goals and tactics (Chazan, Baldwin, and Evans 2018). By looking back to the visual strategies of nineteenth-century feminists and abolitionists, we can develop a more nuanced history of how they confronted the anti-Black and antifeminist deployments of “old” as a pejorative stigma directed at old maids, old ladies, and old ex-slaves in distinct ways. We can also appreciate why finding a common ground upon which to challenge these representations of oldness proved so difficult and why trying to look younger and/or whiter often seemed like the most viable strategy for those who could do so. As we seek to imagine a different future, we will need to move beyond binary distinctions of young/old, Black/white, heterosexual/queer and instead focus on how these categories unfold differently over the course of life. Perhaps then feminists and antiracists can forge new coalitions across differences as they all continue, every day, to grow older, not in any way that can provide an easy age-based solidarity but in ways that might lead to new forms of mutual recognition, respect, and shared purpose.


This research was made possible by a Mellon-Schlesinger Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and a Drawn to Art Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. For their generous engagement with these ideas, I would like to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers at Signs, particularly Susan Ware, as well as Allison Lange, Lauren Hewes, Georgia Barnhill, Martha McNamara, Helen Horowitz, Daniel Horowitz, Margaret Gullette, Laura Ornee, Katherine Turk, Robin Bernstein, Malick Ghachem, Dana Sajdi, Tanisha Ford, Sarah Milov, and Justene Hill.

“The Rights of Woman Convention” (reprinted from the Pittsburgh Chronicle), Mountain Sentinel (Ebensburg, PA), November 7, 1850; see also Kerr (1992).

“Woman’s Rights Convention,” The New York Herald, October 25, 1850; see also Bacon (1980) and Faulkner (2011).

“Correspondence of the Charleston Mercury,” Richmond Enquirer, September 20, 1853; see also Painter (1996) and Washington (2009).

“Correspondence of the Charleston Mercury,” Richmond Enquirer, September 20, 1853; see also “Fig Leaves,” Yankee Notions, October 1853, 313; and Bunker (1992).

List of Presidents of the United States by Age:; American Leadership Database Life Course:

“Mme. M. C. Turner’s Mystic Face Bleach,” The Colored American, December 9, 1899; “Black Skin Remover,” Richmond Planet, August 5, 1899; “A Beautiful Complexion and Straight Hair Guaranteed,” Freeman, December 5, 1896.

For the longer history of negative representations of older women, see Covey (1991) and Botelho (2002).

See also Willis (2009), Block (2016), and Camp (2016).

See White (1985), Collins (2000), McElya (2007), Wallace-Sanders (2008), and Harris-Perry (2013).

10 See Bunker (1992), Lapsansky (1994), and Capers (2012).

11 I thank Martha McNamara for this insight.

12 Tom Rice, Clare de Kitchen, Or ‘Old Virginia Never Tire,’ Sung in Character with Shouts of Applause by Mr. Rice (Baltimore, MD: G. Willing Jr., n.d.), Music Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

13 Ideas about racial difference were also ideals about beauty (Willis 2009; Painter 2010; Camp 2016).

14 Great attraction at the Masonic Hall! Unparalleled longevity. For two days only. Joice Heth, nurse to Gen. George Washington, (the father of our country,) who has arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years!, broadside, New York Historical Society. In 1855, audiences flocked to an exhibit of another old Black woman, “Mother Boston,” who was “not less than a hundred and eight years old,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, September 22, 1855. On Heth, see Garland Thomson (1997, 58–60), Reiss (2001), McMillan (2015, 23–63), Edelstein (2019), and Ibrahim (2021).

15 “Smoking,” New York Commercial Advertiser, August 17, 1835.

16 Truth 1875, 224; “Sojourner Truth, Passing in Review a Century of Eventful Life,” clipping, New York Herald, December 16, [1878], in “Book of Life,” folder 9, Berenice Bryant Lowe Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI (hereafter BHL); Piepmeier (2004, chap. 3).

17 See, e.g., “Gone to Seed,” McLoughlin Bros, ca. 1880, nineteenth-century comic valentines, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA (hereafter AAS).

18 Joseph Kyle, Lucretia Coffin Mott, 1842, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

19 Mott speech in Maysville, KY, October 16, 1853, reported in Liberator, November 4, 1853, quoted in Palmer (2002, xx).

20 I thank Martha McNamara for pointing out the Orientalist imagery in this print.

21 John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier analyze how Frederick Douglass used photography to craft his maturation from young fugitive to elder statesman (2015). On popular photography, gender, and race, see Darrah (1981), Trachtenberg (1989), Smith (1999), Wallace and Smith (2012), and Willis and Krauthamer (2013).

22 See Collins (1983), Zackodnik (2005), Washington (2009), and Grigsby (2015).

23 Truth (1881); Lecture! The oldest public speaker in the world: Over ninety years of age: Sojourner Truth, 1878, broadside, Yale University Library.

24 Clippings, “Truth-Haviland” (no paper, n.d.), “Sojourner Truth” (no paper, n.d., repr. from Blue Rapids [KS] Times, July 18, 1878), in “Book of Life,” folder 9, Berenice Bryant Lowe Papers, BHL.

25 Marcus Root, portrait of Lucretia Coffin Mott, 1851, half-plate daguerreotype, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Tyson, carte de visite of Lucretia Mott, Philadelphia, PA, 1878, Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, MA; F. Gutekunst, Lucretia Mott, photographic print, ca. 1870–80, National Woman’s Party Records, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

26 “Given Away! A Grand Work of Art!,” Revolution, June 2, 1870, 349, quoted in Lange (2020, 78).

27 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Revolution, August 12, 1869, 88, quoted in Lange (2020, 76).

28 Frances W. Titus, “Sojourner Truth,” Sunday Inter Ocean, September 24, 1893; Ashley (1997, 42).

29 Frances W. Titus, “Sojourner Truth,” Sunday Inter Ocean, September 24, 1893, 27.

30 “Fannie Barrier Williams,” Sunday Inter Ocean, September 24, 1893.

31 “Mme. Yale,” Sunday Inter Ocean, September 24, 1893; Clein (2020).

32 “Mme. M. C. Turner’s Mystic Face Bleach,” Freeman, January 7, 1893; Gullette coined the term “middle-ageism” to refer to such negative attitudes toward midlife (1997).

33 “A beautiful Complexion and Straight Hair Guaranteed,” Freeman, December 5, 1896.

34 On the complex racial politics of skin creams and hair straightening, see Rooks (1996) and Gill (2010).

35 Afro-American, June 13, 1896.



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