Linda Cool and Justine McCabe

There is indeed no one entity we can call the "aged." This is due to sociocultural as well as sexual variation. In this first article of its kind, anthropologists Cool and McCabe cross-culturally explore late adulthood from the female perspective. In doing so they attempt to go beyond the simplistic view of older women as either malevolent "scheming hags" or kingly "dear old things." They contrast the U.S. themes of the depressed middle-aged or older woman and the leveling of sex-role differences with the themes of growing dominance and power and role reversal of older women in many nonindustrial societies. Using their research experience in two Mediterranean societies known for their ideal of female subordination, the authors illustrate the paths by which women gain power and satisfaction in later life.

One of the most salient features in the research now available on human aging is that there is no one entity that can be termed the "aged." Yet, in spite of a call for its recognition (Maddox, 1969b: 7-8), the issue of the heterogeneity of experiences and interests among older people has been largely preempted by an apparent desire to focus on homogeneity in the aging process. As a case in point, although there are obvious and universally recognized differences in the biological endowment and in the social, cultural, and psychological experiences of men and women, surprisingly little attention has been devoted to the question of whether and/or how women and men differ in the aging process. In fact, the attention that has been focused on the condition of older women has tended to center on two stereotypes that appear at opposite ends of a power/weakness continuum. On the one hand, many societies (and the anthropologists who study them) represent older women as scheming manipulators of personal and magical powers--powers over which they may not have full control. At the opposite extreme lie the representations of older women as smiling, kindly grandmothers whose main interest in life is amusing and spoiling grandchildren. In actuality, the experiences of older women may lie somewhere between these extremes, and, as for most people, the differences that do appear among them are the result of psychological, social, and cultural variables. Often the particular representation of a society's older women is as much a cultural myth and even a creation of the anthropologist's expectations as it is a depiction of a "social reality."

The implicit challenge to anthropology in the area of gerontology is to question existing theories of aging by putting them to the cross-cultural test and to formulate cross-cultural models of aging as a universal phenomenon which transcends the immediate sociopolitical situations of industrialized nations. As Shanas et al. have observed, we must seek both to ask and answer "...the basic question: can a hypothesis about social behavior be considered proved by a study carried out within a single culture?" (1968: 7). This present work attempts to review, integrate, and evaluate the theories and data that do exist concerning female and male responses to aging. More importantly, this chapter provides, by means of detailed examples, a useful method of analyzing the aging process of men and women in the hope that new interest and dialogues may be kindled in this area.


Prior to the 1960s, Leo Simmons's (1945) monograph was the only anthropological work devoted to the subject of aging (Clark, 1973: 79). As one facet of his study, Simmons compared sex-role related differences in the aging experience. He concluded by denying the existence of any "feminine patriarchy" in later life, at least in terms of formal office holding. In fact, only two of the societies which Simmons examined yielded examples of women (young or old) who held office. Based on such findings concerning formal office holding by women, Simmons dismisses women's ability to exercise control functions in society. However, in pursuing this argument, he overlooks very important areas of potential control and dominance for women, namely informal networks and de facto power: gossip groups which control others' actions by their negative and public commentary, self-help groups, communications networks for the sharing of information, and private dominance in the households.

In a later attempt to estimate the extent of possible matriarchy among older women, Gold (1960) questioned 24 anthropologists about their observations of age variations in the sex-role patterns of the various cultures they had studied: 13 reported a matriarchal shift; 11 reported no change; no one reported an increase in dominance among older men. Gold only partly concurs with Summonses earlier generalizations:

Like him, I find that matrilineality coincides with old women being dominant over old men. there is also some  support of his finding that women tend to be dominant over old men in hunting-gathering societies, since two of the three examples in my sample [of 24] manifest the pattern (Blackfoot and Mohave versus the Pilaga).... The peasant communities (and urban middle class America), with their strong emphasis on ideal male supremacy but actual patter of old women dominating old men, conflict with his observation that where there is settled agriculture, old men tend to be dominant; if the people are peasants, the old women get the upper hand. (1960: II)
In a more recent attempt to study sex-role differences in aging by means of a large-scale, cross-cultural comparison, Bart (1969) selected 30 societies representing the eight culture areas of the world from data contained in the Human Relations Area Files. From these societies, she gathered information on the presence of "six post-child-rearing roles available to women" (1969: 2): grandmother, mother or mother-in-law, economic producer, participator in government, performer of religious or magical rites, and daughter of aged parents. Working from the belief that in American society women lose one of their most important identity-giving roles (namely mother) which results in a "mutilated self" (Rose, 1962), Bart sought to document the relationship between changes in status and the availability of important roles. In general, she found that when society has a multiplicity of roles available for older women their status "...not only does not drop necessarily at this stage of the life cycle, but in most cases also rises..." (1969: 15). According to Bart, only two of the six roles she examined are not associated with higher status for women, namely economic producer (" cannot be concluded that the mere presence of an economic role will keep women's status from declining" [Bart, 1969: 4]) and daughter of aged parents (a role found only rarely.

One obvious problem with studies of this kind involves definitions. For example, Bart says that she did not include housekeeping and food preparation as economic producer roles for they are so common. But, might not a woman's control and leadership in these activities in the context of her household or family be considered such a producer role, or at least provide the woman with a positive self-image? In a similar vein, Summonses, Gold, and Bart all include consideration of some formal aspect of control (Bart talks of "participator in government" and Summonses of "formal office holding") and conclude that women (of any age) rarely are allowed to fill such roles. Rather than focusing on public control through formalized offices, it seems that studies ought to deal with areas where women in a variety of cultures do seem to have some power: informal networks, the domestic situation, and personal attributes. These, of course, are difficult to recognize and code in nomothetic studies.

Finally, like so much of this nomothetic research, Bart's work has illuminated certain structural features of society which seem to be associated with a particular aspect of life. But she is unable to prove a causal relationship or deal effectively with individual manipulations of these structural features. For example, Bart has suggested that a woman's status does not remain static throughout the life cycle. However, she cannot illustrate how a woman undergoes such status variations. Is the change abrupt or gradual, is the woman able to control the timing of the status change or is she at the mercy of external forces? Even though Bart does examine six societies in more detail, the reader is not particularly enlightened in the dynamics of how and why the status changes come about. The remainder of this article will attempt to resolve these questions by examining structural and cultural factors which influence the female response to aging in a variety of cultures.


Studies carried out in the United States have not only failed to provide clear-cut answers to questions concerning gender differences in the aging process, but have produced confusing and often contradictory results. This becomes evident in the kinds of portraits painted of older women by a variety of researchers.

The Ignored Older Woman

Some studies characterize older American women as members of a minority group who see themselves as a social problem: a group of people who have been excluded from full participation in society, accorded an inferior position within it, and denied access to power and authority (Bell, 1970; Lopata, 1971; Palmore, 1971; Sommers, 1974; Sontag, 1972). In this perspective, women seem particularly disadvantaged as they age since the roles that are allowed them in American society either are never accorded real power or are rendered obsolete by time, for example childbearer or sex object. Older women's lack of power and status is reflected in their invisibility in American society and their absence as subjects in research endeavors. Lewis and Butler (1972) have pointed out that even the women's liberation movement has largely ignored the problems of older women by focusing on issues of special concern to younger women such as abortion and day care facilities. In all fairness, however, it must be stated that the social sciences are not the only area to render women invisible. Nancy Sheehan (1976: 59), for example, notes that most historical studies of women are written by men who seem to be bent on preserving the status quo and that "...while histories of men are written concerning their relationship to the environment, histories of women are written concerning their relationship to men."

The Depressed Older Woman

An indication of the difficulties that American women face in growing older is reflected in the incidence of middle-age depression among women. Although American folk wisdom (and often science) attributes such depression to biological changes occurring during "the change of life," Bart found no cross-cultural correlation between the biological fact of the menopause and depression: "Depressions in middle-aged women are due to their lack of important roles and subsequent loss of self-esteem rather than hormonal changes of menopause" (1972: 139). the roles that women are allowed to play in America (wife and mother) are such that a woman's sense of worth comes not from her own accomplishments but from the lives of others, namely her husband and children. As these people change or depart, a woman must be able to change her self-concept or face debilitating psychological stress.

Other social scientists (e.g., Davis, 1979; Dowty, 1971; Flint, 1975; Neugarten and Kraines, 1965; Neugarten et al., 1963; Silverman, 1967; Vatuk, 1975) have also attempted to distinguish culturally determined responses to menopause from those biological imperatives shared by women in all societies. Like Bart, Flint (1975, 1976) links a woman's status from midlife on to the attitudes and symptoms that characterize menopause. In contrast to the experiences of American postmenopausal women, Flint describes the situation of Indian Rajput women for whom menopause marks the end of purdah and the beginning of a freedom and power previously unknown to them:

When these women were asked if they had any problems associated with the menopause, a most unusual response was forthcoming. Few women were found who had other than menstrual cycle changes--there were no depression migraines, no incapacitations, nor any of the classical symptoms associated with what we call the "menopausal syndrome." Furthermore, these women informed the author that they were eagerly looking forward to achieving this event in their lives, if they had not yet achieved it, and if they had already reached the menopause, they were also most positive about this fact. (Flint, 1976: 48)
In general, the aforementioned studies have all suggested that high or unchanging female status in middle age will be related to a positive attitude toward and/or the absence of difficulty with menopause. In contrast, Davis (1979) emphasizes the emic perceptions of menopause and the total biosocial self of the Anglican women she interviewed in a Newfoundland fishing village. These women were found to have a very high status and positive self-image throughout adulthood. Furthermore, this high status persisted in the face of the negative physical symptoms and attitudes that the majority of women experienced in menopause. Davis (1979: 7) explains this by three factors: (1) that bodily, psychological, and sociocultural processes are not compartmentalized, (2) that menopause is viewed as a normal process, and (3) that the major symptoms of menopause are not considered unique to midlife or cessation of the menses. Within the anthropological literature on the menopause, Davis's study is unique in its treatment of the menopause as one more biosocial phenomenon--no more or less significant--within the context of all biosocial events of the culture in question:
Newfoundland women do not distinguish among biological, psychological, and social realms of experience. The folk notions of nerves and blood act in the conceptual integration of these realms throughout adult life. They have a folk system which explains what is happening to their minds and bodies at menopause and provides a female support system for those who experience difficulty. This effective support system reflects the continual high status of Newfoundland women which is characterized by extensive social networks, open communication channels, and a varied range of meaningful activities. (Davis, 1979: 13-14)
What about the Men?

While Bart and Davis have approached the study of menopause differently, both researchers' data suggest a similar theory to explain some depression among middle-aged men. Typically, those older American men who suffer depression, according to Bart (1972: 142), have immersed themselves in their jobs just as the "feminine" women have immersed themselves in their children and husbands. And, like the women whose children leave home, these men face depression upon retirement when all the public "props" to their self-esteem are removed. The severity (and disastrous consequences) of such depression is evidenced by the fact that in the urban American setting men die earlier than their female counterparts and also are more likely to commit suicide (Gutmann, 1980: 442). Similarly, Davis (1979: 5) indicates that because of the relentlessly strenuous physical life endured by the Newfoundland fishermen she observed, many of these men at middle age must relinquish the high status role of fisherman for the alien one of a land-based worker, supported by disability or unemployment insurance or work at the local fish plant. Thus it appears that in this case too, without the "props" to his self-esteem, and threatened by a loss of status, the middle-aged Newfoundland man--not the woman--is apt to become depressed.

The Older Woman as a Success Story

One general attitude fostered by some gerontological literature (see especially Cumming, 1964) in comparing female and male reactions to the aging process is that personal adjustment to later stages of the life cycle is somehow easier for women than for men because of the women's "smoother life cycle." The argument here is that from girlhood to death, a woman's key roles (wife and mother) remain essentially unchanged, while men suffer the sudden and complete loss of their core roles (worker and provider) when they reach retirement age. Although this situation is particularly dramatic in industrialized nations like the United States which have artificially created mandatory retirement ages, Cumming's implication is that women universally face fewer age-related social and personal adjustment problems than do their male counterparts because of this "smooth," continuous social development.

While apparently agreeing with Cumming that women are more successful at adjusting to age changes, Kline (1975) suggests that this success may be due not to social role continuity (the "smooth" life cycle), but rather to women's socialization to repeated role loss and to their ensuing adaptability to role change. Thus, according to this argument, women experience fewer adjustment problems as they grow older because they are more accustomed to dealing with status and role variations, of which aging is merely one more example.

Age, the Great Leveler of Sex-Role Differences

The research of Lipman (1961) and Cameron (1967, 1968) among aging populations in the United States generally provides a different outlook on the experience of aging. their studies suggest that old age is in fact a greater leveler of sex-role differences, for men and women become increasingly more alike as they grow older. Specifically, Lipman (1961: 271) finds that the retirement of the husband contributes to the apparent egalitarian character of the observed marriages, and that, consequently, such marriages appear to be happier. According to Lipman, this egalitarian state is fostered by the sharing of household tasks, which are no longer defined as the wife's duties, and by the emphasis on the expressive aspects of marriage, such as love, companionship, and affection. These trends lead Lipman to conclude that in such happy, older marriages, "...apparently role differentiation by sex is reduced with increased age and retirement" (1961: 271).

In a similar vein, Cameron's data indicate that the interests of the aged may be typed as feminine, while their basic personality is more typically masculine than that of a comparison group of young people (1968: 64). Although his data actually seem to support the concept that older men and women have convergent interests, Cameron interprets this tendency as a reflection of socioeconomic status rather than old age per se:

...accessibility to and success in various kinds of endeavors also determine interests. The lower SES and general physical weakening of the aged often preclude participating in the relatively expensive and vigorous masculine activities. One often has to be content with what one can do, and what one does is generally what one professes to desire. (1968: 65)
Unfortunately, Cameron provides no examples of these "expensive and vigorous" interests.

Sex Role Reversal in Old Age--The Dominant Older Woman

The research of Cumming and Henry (1961), Kerckhoff (1966), Lowenthal et al. (1975), Neugarten (1968), and Neugarten and Gutmann (1968) contrasts with the position of Lipman. For example, Lowenthal et al. find that middle-aged and older women become more dominant in the family, and Kerckhoff (1966: 179-80) believes that he has found data indicating

...a greater sensitivity to interpersonal relationships in the conjugal unit on the part of the husband and a greater concern with the practical activities of daily living on the part of the wife. If such an interpretation is acceptable, it would indicate a kind of role reversal from the presumed model of husband-wife relationship in our society which calls for the husband to emphasize an instrumental orientation and the wife to have more of an expressive orientation.
In attempting to make a comparison with non-American populations, one finds a relative dearth of cross-cultural gerontological literature with regard to gender differences in aging. for example, this possible "role reversal" among aging American men and women has been only alluded to in studies of other cultures.1 In one of the more detailed comparisons, Kardiner et al. (1945: 65) describe the older Comanche women:
Women, with few exceptions, had no power before the menopause. After the menopause a woman could acquire power as readily as a man. It was common for a medicine man to have his wife assist him, teaching her everything that was required for curing, except rituals for the actual transfer of power. Immediately after the menopause, the husband gave power to her.... After the menopause, the distinction between the sexes, as far as medicine power went, was largely disregarded.... As she grows older her security becomes greater.... In comparison with the male, therefore, the woman starts with initial disadvantage, but she has greater mobility as she gets older.
Similarly, Borgese (1964) and Gutmann (1974, 1977) note that over the life cycle women who had earlier been subordinate to men with regard to authority (Rosaldo, 1974), become quite dominant and powerful vis-a-vis men. In Gutmann's terms, men begin with active mastery of their biosocial environment and move toward passive mastery (characterized by dependence and passivity) with increasing age and lessening physical capabilities. Women, on the other hand, move from passive mastery (cultural deference to and resulting personal dependence on fathers and husbands) to active mastery of their social environments in later life. Gutmann argues that such inner subjective shifts together with their overt behavioral indicators are universal for men and women.

The Older Woman as Witch

A traditional context in which older women are seen as dominant and aggressive within the anthropological literature is the recurrent theme of the older woman as witch or sorcerer (for example, Evans-Pritchard, 1937; Fortes, 1962; Fuller, 1961; Harper, 1969; Kluckhohn, 1967; LeVine, 1963; and Nadel, 1952). In these cases, even implicit recognition by men of the power of senescent women can often be made only by ascribing evil motivations to their hegemony. Fuller (1961: 51) confirms this in her description of the Lebanese villagers she studied: "Men sense this invisible power of women. To older women, in particular, is attributed the power of witchcraft or of the evil eye, both signs of an uncanny force."

One possible explanation for this malevolent characterization of older women is a correlation suggested by Douglas (1966: 120):

...where the social system recognizes positions of authority, those holding such positions are endowed with explicit spiritual power, controlled, conscioous, external, and approved--powers to bless or curse. Where the social system requires people to hold dangerously ambigious roles, these persons are credited with uncontrolled, unconscious, dangerous, disapproved powers--such as witchcraft and evil eye.
Nadel's work among the Nupe of Northern Nigeria appears to support this viewpoint: older Nupe women occupy an ambiguous position in their society. They are female and therefore normatively inferior to men; yet, they resemble the male cultural ideal by possessing power (albeit de facto power). In other words, in these situations, because women are, in men's eyes, usurping what is "rightfully" male (i.e., the exercise of power), men "punish" older women by accusing them of witchcraft and other acts of malevolence.
The general picture is that of a sharp sex-antagonism, which assigns the evil intentions to the female, and to the male, a benevolent and ideally decisive--if somewhat utopian role.... Men are never blamed or accused of witchcraft, and the main collective weapon against witchcraft lies in the activities of a male secret society which, by threats and torture, "cleanses" the villages of witchcraft.... In the majority of cases the alleged witch is a woman, usually an older and domineering female, who would attack a younger man who somehow fell under her dominance.... the men, though on the utopian or fantasy plane the masters of the female witchcraft, are, on the plane of "real" incidents and fears, its main victims.
A second possible explanation is that this pervasive ascription of evil motivation to older women is related to their actual powerlessness and low status position. This reasoning is pursued by Harper (1969) in his study of the belief system of the Havik Brahmins of South India. In this situation, Harper (1969: 81) proposes that the dangerous nature attributed to Havik widows may be the result of guilt on the part of those who occupy high status positions (men) toward those who formally lack power and prestige and occupy the lowest positions (widows) in this social system.

Despite their explicitly inferior and powerless status, Havik women are, in fact, rather powerful, at least in a negative sense: They influence and affect the lives and behavior of others--especially men. In keeping with Hvik men's attitudes toward all women, it is possible that widows, who are mainly older females, are feared simply because they are believed to possess the ultimately powerful weapon--death through witchcraft. However, Harper's explanation of guilt on the part of high status Havik men could be made even more compelling. At present, it merely emphasizes projections of recent resentment of Havik widows, and their currently intolerable status; instead, this explanation could be extended to attribute males' fears to projections of long-hidden, accumulated anger which men could expect these mainly older women to feel and express in response to a lifelong inferior position.


An increasingly significant source of data with regard to women's power in society is found in anthropological studies of women's status. This growing body of literature (e.g., Collier, 1974; Friedl, 1975; Lamphere, 1974; Murphy and Murphy, 1974; Quinn, 1977; Wolf, 1972) indicates that female solidarity, flexibility, and a keen perception of male-female relationships characterize women with age, and enable them to adapt with increasing success to situations normally controlled by men. One emphasis of this literature is that, although the power of women--old and young--increases most dramatically in informal, domestic setttings, its expression is felt throughout the societies in question.

For example, Wolf (1972: 40) describes the influence that older Taiwanese women have on men's behavior in a family of which they are never a member but to which they are essential:

Taiwanese women can and do make use of their collective power to lose face for their menfolk in order to influence decisions that ostensibly are not theirs to make. Although young women may have little or no influence over their husbands and would not dare express an unsolicited their fathers-in-law, older women who have raised their sons properly retain considerable influence over their sons' actions, even in activities exclusive to men.... When a man behaves in a way that they consider wrong, they talk about it--not only among themselves, but to their sons and husbands.
By banding together in informal gossip and work groups, these Taiwanese women have gained a great deal of power to effect changes and maintain some independence in their lives--an ability unavailable to a lone woman living in the "foreign" territory of her husband's particlan. Without such an informal control mechanism, the Taiwanese woman would be as powerless and unsupported as the stereotyped image predicts.

We could continue to cite references to the increasing power of senescent women in many dissimilar societies. However, it becomes increasingly clear that two themes regarding gender differences in adaptation to aging that have been reported in research carried out in the United States are not apparent in the literature concerning the aging experience in other cultures. The first is the theme of the older woman becoming depressed with increasing age, and the second concerns age as the great leveler of sex-role differences. This latter theme emphasizes the male loss of power to being him down to the level of women, while much of the cross-cultural literature emphasizes the increased status of older women. This is not to say that these themes are "wrong." These situations may hold in the United States because of specific social and cultural features which must be determined. Whatever their cultural souces, these adaptations to the aging process are not a universal or biological fact of life to be faced by all older men and women.

Two conclusions appear from the cross-cultural evidence cited so far: (1) Women in many disparate societies become increasingly dominant and powerful as they age, and (2) with such a transition in female power and status, there may be a concomitant decline in the power and dominance of the older men in these societies. The remainder of this article will focus on a detailed analysis on two distinct cultures in an effort to determine the bases of self-perceived success in adjustment to growing older among men and women. In particular, we will focus on two of the adaptive strategies employed by women which were delineated earlier: (1) the self-assessed success of older women as based on the continuity of the core role throughout life or on their socialization throughout the life cycle to role changes, and (2) the question of the increasing dominance (both in terms of personality and social roles) of older women.


Following the anthropological principle that researchers can best discover the operation of a variable when its functions are observed in extreme cases, the ethnographic foci in the following analyses are two locales within the Mediterranean culture area: (1) the Niolo, a mountainous region composed of five autonomous villages in the center of the island of Corsica, and (2) Bayt al-'asir, a modernizing peasant community of about 600 people in southern Lebanon. These are "extreme" environments compared to the urban United States in several ways. First, the informants presented in the following analyses live in small towns where the traditional economy is based on transhumant pastoralism (the Niolo) or wage laboring with small-scale agriculture (Bayt al-'asir). In addition, both these locales are firmly entrenched in the Mediterranean culture area where one of the defining cultural characteristics is a seemingly obsessive (at least to Western eyes) concern with female modesty and submission, for male and familial honor is embodied in the chastity of kinswomen, especially wives. In this manner, it appears that these societies offer valuable cross-cultural checks on the general validity of some of the findings concerning the adaptive success and growing domination of women as they age.

In both societies, women perceive themselves (and are also considered by the men) to be aging successfully and to be better off than their male counterparts in old age. For example, aged Niolan men say that women adapt better to old age "because they have less desire to get out" and "because they are less independent." Older women are of the same opinion, but for different reasons: "Men find it harder to grow old well because they are not accustomed to resignation." The anthropologists' data agree with their informants' perception of the women's relative success in aging. However, in analyzing the perception of greater life satisfaction on the part of their female informants, Cool and McCabe tend to focus on different factors. Cool emphasizes the individual manipulations of a Niolan woman as she undergoes socialization to role change and personal adaptability in her move from timid bride to domineering older mother-in-law. McCabe stresses that this life-satisfying situation for older Lebanese women is the result of an accumulation of several cultural factors which are differentially emphasized at various points in the life cycle. With increasing age, Lebanese women become relatively more competent and confident in their roles than do men. There is a sense of control in their lives, which is absent in those of men.


Successful aging depends on the developmental cycle of the traditional Niolan household. It demands that a woman learn to adapt to changing roles and statuses2. Such socialization begins early for Niolan girls, for they learn the basic skills while helping their mother and sisters. The ideal was for all daughters to marry; but financial limitations of all but the wealthiest families sometimes prevented this realization. In the past, even the unmarried daughter who remained at home had important roles to perform: she first helped her parents and later her brother (the heir) and his wife. As a "blood" relative of the patricentric family, she had an important standing even though she would never be a "housewife," and often she developed a close, confidante relationship with her sister-in-law as the two women worked to increase the reputation of the household.

In the Niolo, a bride is expected to be fully capable of running a household upon marriage. This is the case even if the new couple is to live patrilocally. For upon arriving in her new home, the first person the young bride meets is her mother-in-law, the woman under whose authority she will live and work for the next several years. In this sort of patricentric household, the young woman must work hard to establish herself in her new household and to win even grudging approval from the mother-in-law who is convinced that no one can care for her beloved son as well as his own mother.

A period of expansion in the developmental cycle of the household arrives with the pregnancy and birth of the young wife's first child. Although she continues in her submission to her mother-in-law's authority, the young mother finally is recognized as having personal value other than that of "another worker." In the role of mother, the young woman creates emotional bonds and achieves positive status in her husband's household. From her, the infant receives the emotional ties and support of which the young wife must herself feel deprives, especially when her husband is away with the animals. In this regard, some old women mentioned that the most important part of their lives was giving birth to a son and then raising him so that they would be assured of affection and care in their old age.

The peak stage (arriving eight to ten years after the marriage) for the Niolan household begins when the young wife has several children, for she begins to prove her own ability as a housewife and domestic decision maker. Her husband begins to appreciate her more as a partner, and the complementarity of teh roles of wife and husband become clearer in the young couple's intense activity to support a nuclear family and a household. When she has reached 35 and has had five, six, or more children, her family may continue to expand but the older children have reached an age and a developmental stage where they can make useful contributions to the group. And in spite of the fact that this is the busiest period of her life, the housewife might have attained some peace. For by now, the mother-in-law, although still the priveleged head housewife, begins to entrust her younger counterpart with more responsibilities in the household's management.

When the wife is aged 45 to 50 years, her first child usually leaves the home to emigrate or prepares to marry. Although the household still includes children, the wife's childbearing years are over and the remaining children are her youngest and last. Gerontologists predict that this shrinking circle stage is the most difficult for urban women: The urban housewife loses prestige as she ceases to perform the housewife role at its peak. The Niolan housewife, however, does not seem to experience this letdown as she herself acquires a new status and role, that of mother-in-law, as she welcomes her own son's wife into her household.

Finally, when most of the children are either married or away from home, the Niolan wife faces the likely prospect of widowhood. In spite of the loss of her role as wife, she continues as mother, grandmother, and organizer of the home. Child care which was once just another burden among other tasks becomes a pleasure since grandchildren need only be loved, not trained. Although her knowledge of house and children may be common to younger women, her advice in an emergency can be vital. Such advice includes the ability to diagnose illness as to whether it was caused by the evil eye and to effect cures. Although younger women may also perform this role (signadore), older women are more sought after since they have more experience and, probably, more successful cures about which they can boast. An older woman's knowledge of the community and its inhabitants is unique, and she often is skilled in problem solving. In this manner, the elder female in the Niolo is in a position not only to maintain her prestige, but to actually improve her status as well.

Thus we have traced the developmental cycle of the housewife from the timid, subservient bride to the respected and confident head of the domestic unit. The basic role concept remained the same. However, the woman constantly underwent modifications in the characteristics of each assigned role. These variations occurred as the woman entered different stages of the life cycle and correspondingly changed her definitions of her roles. Having reached old age, the housewife can look at her children and her home with a sense of pride in accomplishment. Women are not the submissive, powerless creatures which are often portrayed in the Mediterranean. Rather they are manipulators of people, events, and the rules themselves.

What about the life cycle of Niolan men? The young man selected as his father's heir is under the older man's domination. The young man acquires the role of father upon the birth of his first child, but his relationship to his children is remote due to his frequent and prolonged absences from the home while caring for the animals. In fact, the most commonly given description of a traditional Niolan father emphasizes his rigidity and distance ":The mother is the person the child loves. The father has little significance. He commands the children, but he is less important to them than the mother. (62-year-old man)."

In time, a man's failing health requires him to delegate more and more responsibility to his son, and the old man must watch his role as the household's chief provider disappear. Some old men are able to assume the respected roles of advisor, arbitrator, or adjudicator in their later years. But, for the most part, the old men seem to be left with ephemeral authority as they tell their sons how best to manage the household's affairs. In changing from the aggressor to the negotiator, the aging Niolan male begins to show behavior that is less stereotypically masculine while his wife assumes more and more control within her own domain.

In analyzing such age-based changes in roles, Cottrell (1942) suggested that an individual will make an easy adjustment to a role change to the extent that he has undergone anticipatory preparation for the role. Kline attempted to pursue this viewpoint with regard to aging American women:

Women have had considerable experience in adjusting to age-linked changes (children leaving home, menopause) and have therefore become accustomed to change and impermanence. Thus, women are not as devastated as men are likely to be when old age, another impermanance, separates them from the productive, of middle age. (Kline, 1975: 490)
From the analysis of the life cycle of a Niolan housewife, it appears that Niolan women do undergo role changes throughout the life cycle to a greter extent than do their male counterparts. It is suggested that this is one reason for the apparent privileges of women in successful aging.


By the time a woman in Bayt al-'asir has reached her sixth decade of life, her ever increasing air of confidence has emerged with a rather bold and assertive countenance. Earler, as a middle-aged woman, for instance, it is likely that she had already become a controller of her household budget and appropriator of its funds; these responsibilities were earned through deference paid, services rendered, and the manipulation of her various cultural assets (e.g., her sexuality, kinsmen, and children). However, as an even older woman, she fills her influential position with increasingly less dependence upon and consultation with her husband.

Thus, it is this older woman--not her husband--whom grown and dependent children and kin approach with requests for new clothing or other material (and emotional) needs. Indeed, where a younger, middle-aged woman would still ask her husband for money when the local peddler came around, the (healthy) woman approaching old age would often tell her husband to give her the money or use funds which she herself has put aside.3

The manifestation of the power of female sexuality changes as a woman ages: Before menopause, she influences male honor largely by her own sexual behavior; after menopause, she influences younger women's status and reputations (and male honor) by what she chooses to say about them in the community. Older village women have the credibility in the eyes of both men and women and can effectively pass judgment on another woman's virtue; moreover, their advice, and especially their approval, are sought by their sons and other young men who are contemplating marriage. To vital older women, respect and a kind of homage accrue: from younger women, an empathetic recognition for their having weathered a hard life, raised children, and contended (usually successfully) with a normatively second-class, powerless status; from men, (especially sons) there is a gratitude and emotional dependency, and some recognition of the wise, prophetic, and mediating qualities of older women who are at the center of the community's daily social, culturel, economic, and political activities.

The first half of the life cycle of these Lebanese women is largely characterized by nurturance and attendance to the needs of others--husbands and children--rather than to personal needs and wants. As young wives and mothers, these women are so occupied with raising their children and maintaining their households that they virtually have no free time to devote to "frivolities" such as their own pleasure or interests. Although women of all ages extolled the virtues of "country" living, they wistfully spoke of the easier life of urban women or those depticted in Western television. By contrast, young husbands spent little time around their homes, coming and going with their male friends during nonworking hours.

With increasing age, village women realize that their strength, satisfaction, security, and invluence ultimately derive from the very source of their hardships and struggle: marriage and motherhood. Nonetheless, some women express resentment and frustration at having to remain at home with so much work while their menfolk are able to move about--like children--unfettered by teh demands of housework, children, etc. However, as the children mature and become independent and helpful, village women, too, have more time for themselves. Young and older women espouse the prevalent attitude of "better late than never" found among women in late middle age.

Accordingly, the psychological aging of the women of Bayt al-'asir is characterized by the Arab "masculine" qualities of self-assertiveness and confidence, at least partially replacing the "feminine" traits of self-denial and passivity. They not only approach equality with men, but appear also to surpass them at least with regard to the personal satisfaction of life task achievement (i.e., as mothers and homemakers).

Able older women in this community begin to be conspicuously more mobile, even going visiting or on errands out of the village. For example, some of the numerous visits by older women to the doctor in another community are regarded as "legitimate" desires for personal attention and/or somply for going on an outing. A village woman at this stage of life is even more candid in telling others that she does or does not like something that affects her personally, whether it is a kind of food, her child's spouse, or visitors. One 62-year-old matron rather eloquently expressed her perceptions of growing old: "As I grow older, I have more confidence in myself, more faith in only my ability to make myself happy. I find that there is a greater sensitivity and listening to my feelings, thoughts, and even to my body."

Also, societal norms (i.e., with regard to modesty) have a decidedly lesser influence on old women's behavior, although they may still pay them lip service where other women are concerned. Moreover, because an old woman is not longer able to bear children or menstruate, she is perceived as having moved from the realm of women and nature (to which "femaleness" is likened) toward that of men and culture, an analogy which Ortner (1974) has duly elaborated. It is the perception of this symbolic shift that at least partly permits the often audaciously bawdy and otherwise inappropriate behavior of older women to occur without societal sanctions.

This bawdy, sometimes brash behavior of old women was amply illustrated during the research period. For example, one summer day, McCabe was standing near her village home speaking with an elderly neighbor, Zayna, a very vivacious grandmother of 72 years, in the presence of a few young, unmarried women and men. The conversation touched on several topics, including her opinions on the scandalous type of clothing young women were wearing (a subject she raised). In so speaking, Zayna unabashedly hoisted her skirt a considerable distance above her knees to expose her bloomerlike underpants, all the while disapproving the skimpy panties she knew the young girls were wearing. The onlookers' obvious embarrassment did not seem to disturb her in the slightest; she eventually pulled her skirt down and acted as if nothing extraordinary had happened. McCabe later asked the young people whether such behavior was considered shameful. They stammered a bit and said yes, it was, but that it really did not matter because "...she is an old woman."

In sum, an older woman's public behavior and attitude acquires the stereotypically Arab masculine dimensions of self-indulgence and assertiveness. According to McCabe's observations, an older woman spends more time visiting her cronies for the sake of socialization and not just under the guise of doing work with them or going on an errand. She is more likely to get around to preparing her husband's meals or fulfilling his requests when or if she feels like it, rather than automatically kowtowing to him as before.

Simultaneously, a man of the same age acquires the stereotypically Arab feminine dimensions of passivity and patience. As his job retirement approaches, he begins to gravitate toward home more and more, sitting there alone or with a few friends. According to older village women, these men just seem to get tired of cavorting and always trying to have fun. In his home--his wife's domain--an older man's feminine side is most evident. McCabe observed older women telling their husbands to do this or that. The old men complied and obviously did not care enough about the issue to disagree, preferring instead to avoid any potentially hostile situation. In the face of his often vivacious, but sometimes irascible wife, an older man stays out of her way or tries to mollify her in an argument--just as she often did as a younger woman.

Therefore, over the lifetime of these Lebanese women, there ocurs a transition from a feminine influence that is implicit, covert, and marked by subterfuge, to one that is increasingly overt, and recognized by at least those in an older woman's immediate environment. Essentially this transition involves a change from de facto to de jure control; that is, feminine power in older women acquires an aspect of authority. By contrast, the power enjoyed by men in this society is de jure; they have authority over women. However, due to certain psychosocioeconomic components, this masculine power is tenuous. As men age, the fragile nature of the foundations of their authority is increasingly exposed and eroded.

In conclusion, among the several ways by which these life cycle changes in the hegemony and concomitant life satisfaction of women and men occur in this society are the following:

1. There is little incongruity between the ideal and real life task of a Lebanese village woman. In one form or another, mothering (of children and even husbands) is still the role not only idealized by society and a woman herself, but also the one actually attained by her. By contrast, for a Lebanese man there is considerably less consonance between what his society expects him to be, and what it actually allows him to be. Generally, the men of this community are not wealthy, important, or powerful in the public marketplace--the sphere to which they have been assigned by society. Consequently, by middle age, men perceive themselves as unsuccessful, women perceive them as unsuccessful, and men perceive women's perceptions of them as unsuccessful. Hence, they become increasingly impotent vis-a-vis the successful and confident older women.

2. Female solidarity and support are great sources of comfort and power for women individually and as a group. By contrast, the divisiveness of men and their perception of one another as competitors and exploiters of one another's kinswomen allow them to become increasingly isolated as individuals in their later years.

3. Finally, the locus and source of female power and satisfaction over time are a woman's home and her children. With increasing age, she becomes the focal point of the lives of her husband, her children, and their own young families. The support of children for their mother, even in opposition to their father, cannot be overemphasized. Moreover, this locus of power (the home) for a village woman in the first half of her life continues to be such in the latter half. Her expertise and confidence in the performance of her life tasks are manifest in the same place over time. By contrast, the working life of a man in this wage-laboring community is characterized by absence from village, family, and other men. When he retires, a village man retires to his wife's domain of influence and expertise. Also, he is without benefit of the equality-enhancing symbols of the skills and seniority he may have acquired in his own work place--one which is still separate from where he will live out his old age.


Based on the cross-cultural evidence presented here, it does appear that women, especially in the later life cycle stages, are not the powerless, submissive creatures that have often been portrayed in the literature. Rather, some sources of power are available to women in all societies, and women's ability to manipulate their own lives and the lives of others around them increases with the passage of years. This emphasis on women as capable, energetic members (and sometimes the recognized leaders) of society has typically been overlooked. Most studies focus on de jure power (or authority, the publicly recognized right to exercise control) which is typically a male domain. Therefore, most cultural descriptions fail to examine the full range of social interactions in a society, focusing mainly on the more active, public, and dominant relationships. As Hammond and Jablow point out, "...descriptions of curing concentrate on the medicine man, not the patient; accounts of government focus on rulers, not the ruled; we are told a gret deal about parental behavior to children and little of children's responses" (1976: 132). When anthropologists turn their attention to de facto power and control that is exercised in the private rather than the public sphere, the strengths of women begin to appear. Thus, we find today that cross-cultural analyses of sex roles such as Rosaldo and Lamphere's Woman, Culture, and Society (1974) and Schlegel's Sexual Stratification (1977), to name but two, are pointing to the relative power of women.

This article has focused on a cross-cultural analysis of women's greater adaptability and success in growing old and has indicated the sources of this success: women's socialization to continued changes in their roles and self-concept, their increasing expertise and confidence in their domain (the home), their move from covert use of power (in their manipulations of their children's affection) to overt and recognized control in the eyes of the larger community, and the strength and comfort they draw from female solidarity. Such an emphasis seems particularly compelling because the detailed ethnographic examples are drawn from the Mediterranean, an area of the world commonly thought to represent one of the extreme cases of the domination of men and the subordination of women. The message is clear. There is no biological imperative for a submissive (or powerful) female role. Women, like men, are products (and producers) of the particular culture in which they are socialized and live out their lives.


1. As just a few examples from the anthropological literature, see Fortes, 1962 (Tallensi of Kenya); LeVine, 1963 (Gusii of Kenya); Nadel, 1952 (Nupe); Spencer, 1965 (Samburu); Leonard, 1967 (Mexican-Americans); and Yap, 1962 (Chinese).

2. The stages of the life cycle of the Niolan housewife are adapted from the stages developed for an American housewife by Lopata (1966: 5-22).

3. With regard to the latter, McCabe discovered that from a younger age, some village women in the constant struggle for economic security and independence had found one way to put money aside. Having paid for the article or service, they would then tell their husbands that it cost twice as much as it actually did, and they then would pocket half of the amount for themselves.