Ashton Applewhite has written a manifesto against ageism and has set up a global resource for campaigners.
A few years ago, Ashton Applewhite had a conversation with her partner’s mother. She suggested Ashton write about older people like her who were still working but continually being asked when they were going to retire.
She started doing research. “I learnt in five minutes on the Internet that everything I thought I knew about being very old was a long way off base or flat out wrong,” she says.
She interviewed older people who were still working and blogged about them, modelling her writing on an anti-racist blog, Yo! Is this racist? The interviews showed her assumptions that getting old was something terrible and fearful were turned on their head. It made her question where those assumptions came from and how we can overturn them.
Several years later after growing the readers of her blog from zero and reading and attending conferences on old age Ashton gave a speech about ageing at her cousin’s arts festival in Massachusetts and hit a seam of public interest in the subject. “I gradually found my theme and my voice,” she says. She wrote her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism which she describes as “12 years of thinking out loud” after finding it difficult to find a publisher who would pay it the attention she believed the topic deserved. Two years later it was picked up by Macmillan.
Although Ashton is not a trained writer, the manifesto is not her first book. That was Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well which she wrote when she realised she couldn’t stay married. There’s a parallel between the books. She had assumed most divorces were initiated by men. It turns out that wasn’t true. Two thirds were started by women.
“What I learnt was that a lot of our fears about divorce and ageing are out of proportion and fed by forces that do not have the best interests of women at heart,” she says.
Ashton only wrote the divorce book because of her personal interest in the subject and says that the experience of writing was so horrible that she vowed never to write another. But 20 years later another subject close to her heart captured her. “I write because I feel I have something important to say,” says Ashton. She has spent the last four years since This Chair Rocks was first published promoting it, talking about it and leading what is becoming the beginnings of a mass movement against ageism.
Her perspective is firmly grounded in feminism and she says it is no accident that there is this stirring of activism now. She cites Australian journalist Jane Caro’s premise that the generation of women born in the 1950 is the first to make money and also to choose how to spend it. While many have prospered as a result, others have not, she says, citing the class and wage gap.
Ashton says demographic and other forces will oblige us to change our attitudes towards older people, harness their potential and change the way we think about age and ageing. “We need to wipe clean the deep fog of prejudice or we will not come up with solutions that are sustainable,” she states. She is quick to note that ageism is not something that only affects old people. She would like to see more attempts to bridge the generational divisions between old and young.
After the book came out, Ashton decided to set up a central repository for anti-ageism resources and joined forces with two other age activists to post regularly about research and developments in the area.
Www.oldschool.info was launched in 2018 and Ashton says the response has been fantastic. “The aim of the site is to collaborate and connect and to catalyse a global movement. It is not Ashton’s school. It belongs to everyone,” she states.
The site is inter-disciplinary and intersectional and has a campaigns section listing everything from Australia’s Every Age Counts campaign to the World Health Organisation’s age-friendly cities work as well as research information from around the world. “We want to reframe how we think about ageing and raise people’s consciousness about ageism,” says Ashton.
She adds: “Ageism affects us all, but for women it is worse. The way we treat older women is the unfinished business of the women’s movement.”