The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Seminar Recap: Paying For “Freedom” with Her Health

On Thursday evening, October 13th, the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender welcomed Helen Zoe Veit of Michigan State University who presented her paper “Paying For ‘Freedom’ with Her Health: Rising Life Expectancy, Women’s Aging, and American Youth Culture,” with comment by Brooke L. Blower of Boston University. Veit is an historian of food and nutrition whose first book, Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War (forthcoming in 2012) examines the modernization of food through home economics, food science, and self-discipline. While conducting research for Victory Over Ourselves, Veit discovered the work of Eugene Fiske and the Life Extension Institute, during the 1920s, in promoting the concept of self-discipline over “the one thing you couldn’t possibly apply [self-control of the body] to – that is, death.” “Paying For ‘Freedom’” examines the changing attitudes towards aging in the interwar period, with particular attention to the ways in which notions about the consequences of aging – and advice on anti-aging strategies – were framed differently for female and male audiences.

In comment, Blower commended Veit on her “classic cultural history objective” of seeking to understand how the discourse of self-discipline over the body as a means for extending life (and even defeating death?) has cast a “long shadow” over the 20th century. She pointed out how Veit brings our attention to the fact that, in the 1920s, Americans had to be sold on the idea that growing old could be a positive thing. One of the ways the fear of old age became managed was through separating the idea and performance of youth from one’s numerical age – the notion that acting young could actually make you physically youthful, no matter how many years you had been alive. Blower raised the question of whether the growing emphasize on youth in American culture may not, in fact, mask the reality that political and economic power remained in the hands of the late-middle-aged: “’youth’ rules; the young do not,” she suggested. Finally, she challenged Veit to provide more context – particularly exploring the way in which life extension efforts might relate to Teddy Roosevelt’s advocacy of “the strenuous life,” to fears of neurasthenia, and to the work of eugenics advocates. She was interested in popular reception of ideas concerning life extension, and whether Fiske’s advice had any noticeable effect on public practice. Given the gendered nature of the debate, she also wondered whether any women might be found pushing back against the new rhetoric of yourhfulness, and where and how they did so.

The discussion period was lively, as audience members discussed how persuasive Veit had been in her argument concerning the differing expectations of male and female youth and vitality. The consensus seemed to be that while the idea had promise, more evidence was needed. A number of suggestions were made for further exploration of context: Christian Science theology from the period, discussions of fertility and motherhood, the connections between nationalism and public health, the development of the life insurance industry and modern statistics collection, and scientific research on hormones.

The seminar series at the Massachusetts Historical Society are open to the public free of charge, with a small subscription fee for those wishing to receive the pre-circulated paper. We welcome you to explore our offerings, and hope to see you at upcoming sessions!

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 8:00 AM


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