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Biography History Humanities Journal/Diary Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

From the third age to the third sex: A feminist framework for the life course

By Susan Pickard, 2019

Understanding of the latter part of the life course in age studies takes place largely through the lens of the third and fourth ages. Counterposing successful ageing with the failure of the fourth age, there is little conceptual room for the possibility of paradox or the co-existence of good and bad, gain and loss. Sociological studies of the life course also gives little attention to embodied subjectivity, focusing rather on structural and material aspects of inequality. All of these factors mean that women’s experience in moving through the life course is inadequately conceptualised. In this paper I suggest an alternative feminist framework for the life course building on the work of Simone de Beauvoir and focusing particularly on the concept of the third sex. The paper is structured as follows. After introducing the need to construct an alternative, feminist life course framework, I review the texts and countertexts that represent women’s ageing alternatively in negative and positive tones. I then turn to Beauvoir’s work, focusing particularly on the ‘third sex’ concept as a means of mediating the embodied experience of later life. I then use it to illuminate women’s accounts of their lived experience, via three themes: bodily changes; narratives and plots; and sexuality. Overall the paper seeks to show that that new insights introduced by the third sex concept can enrich cultural gerontology whilst both age and gender studies will benefit by being brought into closer alignment. Keywords: Feminism; Life course; Memoir; Narratives; Simone de Beauvoir; Third sex.

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