Is there in today's urbanized society a creature more pitiable than the woman who is no longer young? Barbara Walker's answer in "The Crone," her scholarly study of the older woman in pre-patriarchal cultures, is an unqualified "no." She finds modern society guilty of eliminating older women, making them invisible. "Women are socially and professionally handicapped by wrinkles and gray hair in a way that men are not . . . . Our society regards elder women as decidedly unbeautiful as well as useless."
The plight of the postmenopausal woman has become a familiar theme in both fiction and nonfiction ever since the new women's movement joined forces with a growing public interest in aging. Simone de Beauvoir in her classic, "The Second Sex" lamented the "sorry tragedy of the aged woman: She realizes she is useless." A reprise of this doleful refrain appeared in Susan Sontag's famous essay, "The Double Standard of Aging" in which women of "a certain age" and beyond are described as going through a "humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification." Kate Brown, the middle-aged protagonist in Doris Lessing's "The Summer Before the Dark," confronts her identity as an older woman with an attempt at matter-of-factness: Growing old is something that happens to everyone. Yet she knows in her heart that the years ahead will consist of desperate efforts to hold back the flood--tinting her hair, keeping her weight down, dressing carefully so that she would be "smart, but not mutton dressed as lamb."
In the preindustrial world, the scenario of aging for women followed a very different pattern. The woman past the child-rearing years occupied an important and highly respected place in the family and the community, although her influence had to be wielded with great subtlety. An anthropologist, discussing the power of a Yugoslavian matron in that most patriarchal peasant culture, described her as a "cryptomatriarch," or secret maternal ruler. Her control over her sons, daughters and daughters-in-law had developed over the years through the obligations she had created in those around her. But this power always had to be deployed cleverly, to maintain the social fiction that women were inconsequential and men were in charge. The Jewish woman in the shtetl and in the immigrant family in America played a similar dual role, deferring outwardly to her husband but actually managing the family's social and economic affairs. Today in many non-Western cultures, women continue to synchronize their two lives, carefully camouflaging their real power.
In modern industrial societies, psychologists and gerontologists agree that the aging process in women is especially difficult for the traditional housewife. As Walker observes, "what she has been taught to think of as her only true fulfillment, the wife-and-mother role, no longer provides satisfaction because it is no longer functional. Her children grow up and leave. Her husband is preoccupied with his career, which usually reaches a peak about this time. Thus, it is hardly surprising to find--as recent studies have found--that women are afflicted by midlife depression in direct proportion to their acceptance of the traditional feminine role."
How was this once-powerful and revered figure reduced to the debased image of witch, hag, or in today's pejorative label, "old bag"? Walker traces this extraordinary process of displacement from its source at the dawn of history when men first began to understand the male role in reproduction through the rise of the male-dominated medieval church. As the power of the church grew and spread over Europe, the male clergy took over many of the functions and powers of the older women, enriching their coffers in the process.
The stage was now set for one of the most heinous episodes in history--the so-called Great Witch Craze, during which it is estimated that, between the 15th and 17th centuries, 500,000 people, most of them elderly women, were accused of witchcraft and burned to death.