Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ageism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice?

Ageism is a weird -ism in American politics.  It frequently goes unnoticed, even among the cultural left, and especially when it targets those who are old.

This is weird, because barring premature death,  we are all one day going to be in that group.  Self-preservation would seem to dictate that we would want to eradicate ageism before it hits us, right? 

What brought this topic back (1) to my attention was a recent Vox article (2) studying racism in the online knitters' community.   I quote:

The most common image of knitting is still probably an old white lady sitting in a rocking chair making a blanket (a stereotype that tends to grind modern knitters’ gears, with reason). But even though the stereotypical image has gotten younger over the years, the community is still perceived as very white.
Why does that stereotype (3) "grind modern knitters' gears, with reason?" 

My guess is that it's ageism.  Old ladies are...old (4).  They sit in rocking chairs and they make boring blankets, not exciting fashionable creations.  And they are not online, selling their creations on Etsy.  Young people don't want to be identified with that group.

A different way of thinking about age and knitting is to note that old knitters are often very experienced knitters.

Many of them were taught to knit in childhood, like my paternal grandmother (5).  She could knit anything, without patterns, from sweaters to hats, from scarves to socks  and from gloves to mittens.  She knitted with the intarsia technique and with the Fair Isle technique. She even knitted extremely fine lace for bed linens.  

And yes, toward the end of her life she sometimes sat in a rocking chair, knitting.  But to define her skills by focusing on just that part of her life really would be ageist. 

(1)  An earlier example of ageism in a feminist context is a review of Katha Pollitt's abortion rights book Pro in 2014 by Michelle Kinsey Bruns:

The abortion fight embodies social threats that most directly affect the millennial generation, alongside women of color, low-income women, and childbearing-capable people who don’t identify as women at all. It does them a disservice to designate a Reagan-era messenger to deliver the argument that the rollback of reproductive politics to a pre-Pill status is an urgent, active threat, right now.

Pollitt's answer to that was:

Finally, I have to say I bristle at Michelle Bruns’s characterization of me as a “Reagan-era messenger.”  I’ve had most of my writing life well after Ronald Reagan left the White House, and most of my thinking life too. I guess ageism is the last acceptable prejudice.  Fortunately, life has a way of correcting it.

All bolds are mine.

(2)  I am focusing on the small ageist bit of the article here.  You can read all of it at the link.

(3)  Is this stereotype perhaps based on the actual age-and-race distribution of amateur knitters in, say, the US?   In other words, would the most common type among knitters still be an older white woman (in a rocking chair)?

I found nothing on the race or ethnic group distribution of amateur knitters, and neither was I able to find age statistics on knitters alone.  But  a 2014 Craft Yarn Council online survey tells us the age distribution of those who knitted or crocheted or did both and who participated in that survey (3,178 individuals).  The age distribution of the respondents does tilt to older ages:

Note that an online survey is very likely to underestimate the number of oldest knitters and crocheters.

(4)  And old ladies, of all races,  who knit blankets are, I believe,  also more likely to be poor than wealthy.  Those blankets are probably made out of cheap acrylic thread, not expensive hand-dyed wool.

(5)  My maternal grandmother refused to have anything to do with knitting or needlework or other similar crafts.  A reminder not to generalize in the other direction, either.