You never ask a lady her age

// 21 May 2013


4 generations.jpg

One day, when I was a small child, I asked my Grandma how old she was. A collective gasp arose in the room around me and somebody said, in hushed tones of vague outrage, “Philippa! You never ask a lady her age!”.

Obviously this made no sense, so I asked why and was told that it because it was rude.

But hold on… I was big enough to know “rude”: rude was barging in, interrupting, or not saying please and thank you. This made no sense. No sense at all. In fact, the more questions I asked, the more ridiculous it became.

I challenged the ruling, and I made an extra effort to be very polite. I definitely said both please and thank you when I re-asked the question, but to no avail. I left the room knowing the ages of my Dad, my Granddad and my Grandpa, but not my Mum or my Grandma.

I wondered how old you had to be when it started to be rude. People asked me how old I was all the time and that wasn’t rude. I wondered why it wasn’t rude to ask the men, but it was to ask the women. And I wondered what people supposed would happen if a lady’s age was ever revealed.

Some 30+ years on I still wonder about many of the same things. While I can’t describe myself as a lady, I do realise that this standard is supposed to apply to me now. But, despite turning 36 last week I still do not understand the desire to hide it.

I know plenty of women who lie about their age, but even this has seemed counter-intuitive to me. If I went round telling everyone I was 26, surely they’d just think, “Cor, she looks old for 26”. Maybe I should tell people I’m 46 so they revel in my youthfulness?

While I had to actively train my mind to reject the “numbers” associated with weight and clothes sizing, for instance, the number that is my age never required any such determination. Once I looked old enough to be served in bars, it lost all significance really, save an important birthday or two since then.

What is this thing about women and age? Are we still supposed to keep quiet about this arbitrary number that rises once a year? I understand that ageism is still rife, and that it may actually be advisable for me to start showing some kind of discretion in this regard, but I just can’t seem to find the energy that it would require.

[The image is a black and white photograph, taken in 1912 in San Francisco. It is of four generations of women and girls from one family, the Lipmans, and was made available by The Magnes Museum under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Fi // Posted 22 May 2013 at 8:34 am

It is perfectly simple Phillipa; at 36 you have experienced sexism but it is nothing compared to the poisonous mix of sexism laced with ageism. In polite, mixed company it is acceptable to call a thoughtful young man ‘an old woman.’ This phrase is objectionable (yes I always object) but it is fairly anodyne compared to the downright rudeness of people who openly ignore and dismiss older women.

Looking ‘young’ (hair dye, make up, sharp clothes) and not drawing attention to advancing years (mentioning illness, tiredness, age, birthdays etc) are important elements of a woman’s armoury to continuing to succeed in her career and promotion prospects. As social animals we do not operate in a vacuum.

My age is nobodies business and I do not enter it on job applications (they should not be asking anyway). This has never affected my career adversely. If people ask then I ask them, politely, why they want to know, they seldom have an answer. Having said all this my age is not particularly a secret.

If numerical age should not be important in an ‘equal’ society then why fall into the trap of allowing people to judge you on their ridiculous prejudices? I expect that our Grandmothers learned this social skill at their mother’s knee for similar reasons.

I am glad you asked this question because it is important that we do not feed the predilection of society to trivialise the choices and actions of women.

All the best…….

Philippa Willitts // Posted 22 May 2013 at 10:59 am

Thanks for your comment. I’m not in a position to be able to hide references to illness – that’s something that is highlighted all the time, and attention is constantly drawn to it, often in an aggressive way.

But otherwise yes, I appreciate your perspective, thanks.

J Whitehead // Posted 22 May 2013 at 4:10 pm

A good question, Philippa, and a good response, Fi. As a woman approaching her 33rd birthday, I don’t feel in any position to challenge Fi’s experience, all of which strike me as being depressingly real. However, I do challenge Fi’s sentence below:

If numerical age should not be important in an ‘equal’ society then why fall into the trap of allowing people to judge you on their ridiculous prejudices?

People judge and will continue to judge, on a wide range of issues. Challenging this can be exhausting – I’m thinking personally about having a same-sex partner – but ignoring or denying my particular reality isn’t making the bad stuff go away and I don’t consider it to be “falling into anyone’s trap”… surely, the only way progress can be made is to talk, educate, challenge, think… I hope I continue with this line of thought as I grow older.

Fi // Posted 22 May 2013 at 5:48 pm

Hi J,

perhaps I have not worded my comment very carefully, I do try: What I am saying is that I politely challenge people. There is a short film doing the rounds called “When did you choose to be straight?”

ie asking the flip side of the question that perhaps you have been asked. A polite way of making the point “why do people ask others when they decided to be gay?”

I don’t think that I have experienced more sexism or ageism than anyone else but studying people’s behaviour is what I do so I notice the social constructs that people use to make their judgements; it is their lazy logic that I challenge. It is not exhausting and it does start some interesting conversations.

Anita // Posted 22 May 2013 at 7:09 pm

perhaps stating the obvious here, but it all stems from the biological clock issue does it not? “how old are you?” “28” “oh and still single? better get cracking and find a man start a family, you’ve not got too many childbearing years left”. i am paraphrasing obviously but have experienced this sort of response to my age. i assume once you disclose that your age is above that of ‘acceptable’ child bearing years and are single and/or childless you must receive all manner of offensive and awkward responses.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 22 May 2013 at 8:57 pm

Hi Anita,

That’s an interesting thought. Weirdly (or perhaps not so weirdly when I think about it) many people stopped fretting about my choice not to have children when I became visibly disabled, so I haven’t had that so much in the last couple of years. But yes, prior to my impairments being more obvious, there were always assumptions that I was “running out of time” (because I was bound to change my mind – which of course I didn’t do!), as if I should have kids just because.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 25 May 2013 at 5:12 pm

I think the reason why its rude to ask a women their age (at least historically) is absolutely about woman’s ‘ticking clock’, but it’s more than that – it’s based on the idea that women are only valuable to men during their fertile years (as potential mothers and as attractive sexual partners). Once a woman ‘ages out’ of that potential, she has no more value. Thus, we don’t ask a woman her age so she can remain ‘valuable’ as long as possible. And, I think this subtly informs why women can also ‘age out’ of public life as their value is so tied to their sexuality that once they are visibly ‘not of childbearing age’, then we don’t want to see them.

Anon // Posted 27 May 2013 at 10:42 pm

I have a different take on the question of whether women should be asked their ages. For one thing, I know men also (in Western cultures) who are not happy or who at least feel put out by being asked their ages. During the last few years, I have been living in various parts of Asia and the Middle East, and it was during this time that I developed more insight into the situation. Despite what is surmised in the West, age is not generally respected, at least these days, in eastern cultures. There is much more ageism there than here, and much stereotyping. People believe over there than one ages much younger than is believed in this part of the world. I recall hearing people in their late 20s in China, for example, telling me themselves very matter-of-factly that they are now “old” and incapable of learning new information, so cannot for example be successful in academic studies. This is the opposite to what we know in the West, in which mature students are admitted more easily into academic programs and their being generally found to understand and absorb academic material much more quickly and easily than younger students.

I found during my recent experiences abroad that Western men were just about as uncomfortable as Western women at being asked their age in those countries. The reason locals asked one’s age was to determine in which category to put the one they asked. They would in the same breath ask if the person were married and their number of children, and then become astounded were the person to say they were still single if they were in their middle 20s or older. They did not treat someone respectfully were they to respond with their age or other information.

In these countries also it was considered that the woman’s only worth was as a wife and mother. Were she not pursuing these things at the moment, she was often forcefully told that she should be, even if she were a stranger. But men also received some of the same.

These cultures behave in much the way we did up until around 50 to 100 years ago. I believe the idea of women (and men often too) not revealing their ages in our cultures was to respect us, and particularly to respect women. In eastern cultures, our ages as asked to learn if we are suitable for producing babies for some man, and also, very often I found, to see if the woman is worth having a fling with. I tend to look younger than my age, but when I talk, I reveal a certain amount of maturity and life experience. Here is the West, people just observe me, listen to the information, and probably make a rough guess in their minds. In eastern culture the idea was to ask me directly, and it was usually men who asked and sometimes wouldn’t even let up when I was clear that I wasn’t going to tell them.

I am not something to be valued for purchase in a market. For this reason, I totally agree with women not giving out their ages. Why should we? We are people, not things to be used by men. And no one has the right to ask — that is total disrespect for me as a human being. If persons only see us as numbers and not individuals then I have no time for them. I also think it is too bad that some people have given to answering people and telling their ages, since this makes it worse for the rest of us, since the idiots then try even harder.

When women ask, it is often to compare themselves with the woman being asked. We are not in a competition. And this also revolves around being of some worth to men.

We can often, but not usually, guess whether someone is on the same wavelength as us from conversation. We don’t require the number. I’ve met very young people who were either aging faster or who were very mature, and I’ve met quite older people who either looked and acted extremely young for their ages while being mature, or who acted extremely immature.

To me the best answer is, I am a person, not an object to be purchased, and what the H___ does my age have to do with you? If you are going to base any sort of association on that then you might as well look elsewhere.

Fi // Posted 28 May 2013 at 4:10 pm

Yes, Anon has hit the nail on the head, age is a trivial and misleading measure with which to commodify a person.

The whole stream of comments was interesting too.

CurmudgeonlyWoman // Posted 7 October 2015 at 5:09 pm

Glad to see sexist forms of ageism being discussed here.

Nothing “bizarre” about “Never ask a lady her age” (sadly). As other comments have alluded to, it’s a social sticking plaster to help us “save face” under a patriarchy that values us less as we age. True emancipation would be “a lady’s age does not matter” but we’re not there yet because we continue to be judged as objects for assessment/possession while young and then increasingly seen as ‘in the way’ as we age. It takes a thick skin for this not to impact on our quality of life.

Embarrassingly, the pleasantries received when your age isn’t known are sometimes slightly preferable to the chilliness that can set in when it’s revealed. I think secretism over age often comes from a weary desire to stave off a degree of social exclusion. Sometimes, already facing other oppressions means dreading topping them up. Recognising the power of social pressures and cutting each other a break is more helpful than scoffing like a privileged dude who takes sneaky pleasure in making women feel uncomfortable. The ones who act incredulous and say “well, I don’t mind if people ask ME! What’s the big deal?”

Treating female age stigma as a curiosity to be faux-innocently “wondered” about from a distance seems like a perplexingly individualistic thing to do on a feminist website. Must say I’m curious myself: why would a feminist choose to take such a position? It’s admirable that you haven’t been compelled to avoid revealing your own age – particularly when, as you mention in your comment, you’ve been discriminated against in other ways. But claiming you “still do not understand the desire” of some women to hide their ages seems willfully insensitive to me.

Ro // Posted 19 December 2016 at 6:37 am

It seems like you’re assuming your experiences are similar to most other women. But all women have different experiences. Asking a woman her age is appropriate in some contexts, like if you’re in a one and one convo and it either is really relevant to the convo, or you’re already good friends.

I think that the way you were told it was rude as a child is an old fashioned experience. For me, once a woman gets to be very old sometimes she does brag about her age. My grandmother loves to tell people she’s 90 because she looks 70. However most of my experiences of people asking my age is a complete stranger asking out of curiosity because they cannot figure out if I have smile lines around my eyes or they’re imagining it. Usually younger men will ask me because they’re checking me out. I don’t like being checked out by strangers. Also no one should just walk up to you and ask you any random question. It’s very strange. I am not some animal at the zoo. Then, whether it’s a man or a woman they are then curious as to whether I want to have children soon. But if I lie and say I’m younger, they then don’t take anything I say seriously. People make assumptions of others and often age is a factor. Maybe you are mature looking and people respect you because you look like a professional adult. Maybe young guys are not hitting on you wanting to know if they should try to ask for your number. The context in which you’re asked your age could be much different. And if you look your age then it’s not a surprise. I don’t look my age so it becomes a topic of conversation and completely shapes the way they see me. I am now the younger looking girl who is surprisingly older and now they are not listening to anything I’m saying. It’s an irrelevant question and you don’t realize how much people judge you by your age if you look your age because you don’t get separate reactions from people when they know your age and when they don’t.

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