‘When I am an old woman, shall I wear purple?’

‘When I am an old woman, shall I wear purple?’

Just like in the poem of Jenny Joseph, Laura Christ, proud member of the Older Women’s Network Netherlands (OVN-NL) and OWN Europe, reflects the fantasy of being a different person in old age – or shall we say a woman in old age – building up on her work for mainstreaming gender in gerontology, research and policy.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple” is the first line of the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph, a poet and writer from Gloucestershire, England. It is also the title of an anthology: a collection of 60 poems, reflections and stories about being old and pictures of women as they age, that was published in 1987*.

The poem reflects the fantasy of a middle-aged woman about being a different person in old age, casting off the messages of her upbringing: “not to be ‘someone smelly, a slut, making sure not to be too noticeable, a show-off, and above all, not silly”. The poem ends with a question:

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple”.

I started to ‘practice wearing purple’ in 1989, when – as an older student of 36 and mother of three children – I graduated in social gerontology realizing that a gender approach in gerontology was much needed. In the same year the Dutch Women’s Council (NVR) had published a special about negative stereotyping of women 50-plus, followed a few years later by the Dutch Equal Opportunities Council propagating the importance of a gender approach in policy and research. In the early 1990’s Older women’s networks, groups and projects were being set up like WOUW (wise old crones) and Grijs op Eigenwijs (saucy grey).

It looked like older women were really on the social and political agenda. When in 1994, I became director of the National Bureau to Combat Age Discrimination (LBL), this created an opportunity to campaign and cooperate with the Bureau Images M/F of NOS TV to raise awareness of gender differences, negative stereotyping and discrimination of older women in the media.

It is 2018 and although a lot has been achieved in the past 25 years, there is still prejudice, negative stereotyping and a huge lack of knowledge about differences between women and men as they age – about how policies affect women’s daily lives, differently often with negative effects (health, social and working lives, income, violence and abuse) cumulating in old age. Meanwhile equal opportunities – and older people policies have been mainstreamed, older women’s networks and projects decimated or stopped.

It did not restrain older women – as we always do – from carrying on, invisible, behind the scenes, often without funding. ‘We’, because I am proud to be a member of Older Women’s Network Netherlands (OVN-NL) and OWN Europe. Supported by AGE Platform Europe we will continue to campaign for ‘Ageing Equal’, defend our social and economic rights, encourage older women to tell their stories, acknowledge and make visible older women’s talents and their contributions to the community and society at large.

Today, aged 65, self-employed and a grandmother I take Jenny Joseph’s warning to heart: I shall continue to practice, shock and surprise, and ‘wear purple’ as I age.

Laura Christ, Netherlands


*Sandra Haldeman Martz (ed.), When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, Papier-Mache Press, Watsonville, CA, 1987

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2 thoughts on “‘When I am an old woman, shall I wear purple?’”

  1. Liz Mestheneos says:

    Very good Laura – next time at least have a purple streak in your hair! (washable in and out I think! See you somewhere soon

  2. Ilenia Gheno says:

    You gave me goose pimples, Laura! And well said Liz! Looking forward to meeting you both, and color together the atmosphere in purple 🙂

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