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Life Stages, Gender and Temporalities. Historical and Sociological Reflections

Aline Charles et Laurence Charton
Traduction de Valentina Baslyk
Cet article est une traduction de :
Âges de vie, genre et temporalités. Réflexions historiques et sociologiques


Cadre de la recherche : Longtemps menées en parallèle, les études sur les âges de vie et sur le genre convergent davantage depuis quelques années, mais laissent encore de vastes territoires à découvert. Certaines analyses traitent encore le sexe comme une simple variable qui n’exige pas de problématisation. D’autres perdent de vue le fait que grandir et vieillir génèrent des catégories et des trajectoires qui sont le résultat d’interactions de sexe et d’âge. L’arrimage entre genre et âge reste ainsi encore à être resserré.

Objectifs : L’article introductif du numéro « Âges de vie, genre et temporalités sociales » propose d’explorer les interactions entre rapports d’âge et de genre en examinant les constructions sexuées des âges et les trajectoires de vie structurées par le genre.

Méthodologie : Sont recensées dans cet article des études de sociologues et d’ explorant les arrimages genre/âge.

Résultats : Les articles présentés contribuent à montrer à quel point les rapports de genre et d’âge s’imbriquent et interagissent dans l’élaboration des inégalités sociales durant toute la vie des individus. Ils participent également à remettre en question la hiérarchie sociale qui se fonderait « mécaniquement » sur le genre et certains marqueurs liés à l’âge.

Conclusions : L’analyse conjointe des rapports de genre et d’âge progresse, mais lentement, et demeure encore dans l’angle mort des perspectives intersectionnelles. Si les recherches actuelles reconnaissent désormais le genre et l’âge comme des systèmes qui interagissent constamment, elles abordent trop rarement les rapports de pouvoir et les inégalités cumulatives qu’ils génèrent.

Contribution : Cet article introductif ouvre de nouvelles perspectives de recherches, tant au regard des processus genrés favorisant le développement de caractéristiques physiques sexuées, que des codes sociaux dominants qui façonnent les expériences et temporalités hétéronormatives. 

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1In the 1980s Joan Scott advocated for gender to become a "useful category of analysis" (Scott, 1986; 2009). A little later, Margaret M. Gullette (2004) argued that age should be elevated to the analytical category as well. Studies on life stages and gender, long conducted in parallel, have been converging increasingly in recent years, but large areas remain to be explored (Soland, 2001; Taefi, 2009; Diasio, 2012). Although a number of researchers have opened up this path, there is still a long way to go before gender and age are truly treated as social relationships that are both distinct and interrelated – or even "mutually constitutive" (Bilge, 2009). Some analyses that focus on individual trajectories, phases or transitions in the life cycle still treat sex as a simple variable that does not require problematization. Intersectional feminist approaches, on the other hand, make a point of interconnecting gender with other social relationships (class, race, etc.), but frequently neglect age (Rennes, 2016). Still other studies lose sight of the fact that growing up and aging themselves generate categories and trajectories that are the result of both gender and age interactions (Danely and Lynch, 2013; Van de Velde, 2015). In short, historians are saying it (Charles, 2011; Kramer, 2017; Beaumier in this issue) and sociologists are confirming it (Bessin, 2014; Legrand and Voléry, 2013): the connections between gender and age could be strengthened.

2Exploring these two forms of social categorization underscores the similarities they share, the differences that separate them, and the interactions that connect them. Age, like gender, is regularly naturalized or even "biologized;" it shapes collective organization and individual trajectories, generates complex power relationships, and gives rise to norms and representations that are highly sensitive to its relevant spatio-temporal contexts (Jyrkinen et McKie, 2012; Hearn, 2001; Greig, 2014). For M. Lamboley, age therefore functions as one of the main systems of oppression, the equal of patriarchy, capitalism, "white supremacy" and heterosexism (Lamboley et al., 2014). It's not all about similarities, however: important specificities also emerge. Gender remains relatively fixed, while age is necessarily mobile and fluctuating: although it is possible to change our sex or gender, we move inevitably from one age to the next, from one phase of life to another. Age categories are also more relative than those of gender: an individual can be considered "young" or "old" depending on the age of his or her interlocutors or the given circumstances (Jaspard et Massari, 1987; Rennes, 2009). Lastly, the principle itself of making distinctions based on age is characterized by ambivalence, much more than in the case of gender. Age criteria may be deemed acceptable or discriminatory, promote social protection or exclusion, or lead to equality or inequity (Caradec et al. 2009; MacNicol, 2009).

3This issue of Enfances Familles Générations proposes some leads. Exploring the interactions between age and gender reveals both gendered constructions of ages and gender-structured life trajectories. Viewing relations as a whole in terms of age or generation, shifts the emphasis to issues of adulthood and old age that have not yet been addressed. It also challenges the standard analysis of masculinity in relation to age. This allows a better assessment of the impact of demographic changes, cultural norms, education systems, pension plans, social safety nets, migration, and even the medicalization of the body (Kergoat, 2010).

4Articulating age and gender also leads quite naturally to a better awareness of the passage of time. An analysis of female or male trajectories, the evolution of (inter)generational relations or of gendered temporalities in terms of work, family, leisure, sexuality, necessarily makes us feel the weight of the passing of time. This issue therefore brings together contributions from both sociologists and historians. This seems all the more relevant since, over the last four decades, these two groups have followed different paths to reach the same conclusion: the profoundly social nature of sex/gender and life stages, as well as of the boundaries both mobile and structuring that they create. However, history and sociology do not intersect much in this field, despite a recent decompartmentalization (Rennes, 2016). Without claiming to engage them in a systematic dialogue, this issue proposes some advances in this direction.

5The article by Marie-Laurence B. Beaumier tackles these issues head on, assessing how history and sociology have articulated gender and age since the 1960s, particularly in Canada and Quebec. She begins with a brief review of the studies on life cycles as a whole and of on the various stages of life. Beaumier embraces the decline of androcentric approaches to life and argues for further analysis of the asymmetry of female and male timelines. Although she applauds the work being done on the gendered aspects of childhood and youth, she regrets that interest in the adulthood and old age of both men and women remains low. She then hightlights on another type of life phase, parenthood. This is a particularly promising area for gender and age-related studies. Many scholars, however, treat motherhood and fatherhood as if they existed independently, forgetting that both these states are shaped through their interactions with one another. Many also dwell on the early stages of motherhood and fatherhood: the pregnancies, childbirth and infant care of young mothers, and the role of fathers as providers in the prime of their lives. This often results in a truncated image of parenthood, of incomplete family cycles, and of parents and children who never seem to age. There has, however, been progress in other areas. In sociology, the notion of parenthood is being freed from gender and age prescriptions, heterosexual norms and biological filiations, to explore single parenthood, pluri-parenthood, co-parenthood, homo-parenthood or trans-parenthood. In history, studies on grandparenthood articulate gender and age by renewing analyses of femininity, masculinity, family solidarity and intergenerational relationships.

6The state of research having been outlined, the articles in this issue reveal gender/age linkages in a broad and varied range of contexts and topics. Time and space range from colonial India and nineteenth-century France through contemporary Switzerland to present-day Quebec and Senegal. Topics encompass intersectional reading of an individual male life path, gendered aspects of intergenerational solidarity, problematic adult dependency and old-age pension, as well as the mobility of retired women and the children of separated parents, and the predominant disease of aging men (prostate cancer), as well as trans temporalities.

Constructing the articulation

7Combining an analysis of one stage of life with one gender is a first step in the articulation of age and gender relationships. In sociology as in history, this approach has generated a great deal of research, while at the same time creating certain imbalances. Although youth of both genders has long been a popular field of research, old age is less so, and adulthood is just emerging as a subject of study. Ironically, an overemphasis on the model of the productive man in the prime of life gloss over its gendered nature, while delaying a real problematization of adulthood. The study of male and female versions of a specific life phase has therefore lost none of its relevance.

8In this issue, one author in particular illustrates this approach. From the perspective of identity, Louis Braverman explains how a disease specific to aging men – prostate cancer – causes conceptions of masculinity to collide. His analysis sheds light on both caregiver practices and patient experiences in France: age thresholds used to assess the appropriateness of an operation, the phallocentrism and heteronormativity of impotence treatment, the feeling some men have of ageing suddenly when they lose their virility, the reinvention by others of their gender and age identity. This "aging man’s disease" thus provides a fertile ground for studies, which are still scarce, on male identity and male old age in general, and on the health and sexuality of men at this age in particular (Kampf et al., 2013; Thompson, 2018). This disease – still rarely discussed in the public sphere – stands in stark contrast to its female counterparts. Female genital cancers had a much higher profile and attracted the attention of doctors as early as the nineteenth century. Heated debates quickly ensued on the sexuality and morality of women of reproductive age, as well as on the loss of femininity due to preventive hysterectomies (Löwy, 2013).

9More recently, other studies have tended to articulate the relationships between age and gender by comparing female and male versions of a given life stage. Sherry Olson and Peter Holland drew on letters that boys and girls ages 6 to 19 sent to the New Zealand weekly, the Otago Witness, from 1886 to 1909, to paint a portrait of the tasks and jobs of these young people, their health problems and physical changes, their daily lives and their perceptions of themselves. Anne Perriard also probes the sexual dimensions of a specific age. She reveals the deeply gendered nature of the figure of the "independent adult" that so profoundly permeates the reintegration policies of the Canton of Vaud, Switzerland. While the use of social assistance by adults aged 18 to over 60 is seen as a sign of problematic dependence on the State, other forms of public support are considered acceptable. These include vocational training scholarships for young adults of both sexes, family allowances for single mothers with children under the age of 16, and “bridge annuities” paid before statutory retirement to former workers deemed too old to continue working, to over-50 mothers with no work experience or to aging women facing separation. Replacing social assistance benefits with scholarships, allowances or bridge annuities is intended to help move some men and women out of the group of “problematic adults”. Yet this practice reinforces the dependency and inequalities they face because of their age and gender.

10Other articles take yet another path in constructing the articulation between age and gender: they choose to study life trajectories by highlighting their feminine or masculine dimensions. This is the approach adopted by Caroline Henchoz. Her study analyzes the reform of the Old-age and Survivors' Insurance (AHV) in Switzerland, which in 1997 replaced a couple's joint pension with two individual pensions. Contrary to expectations, this reform did not lead to much equality. Providing women with an individual old-age income does not automatically increase their economic power, nor does it necessarily reverse the power relations within a couple. The explanation is both simple and subtle. While the Swiss state no longer supports the old principle of the male breadwinner, it persists in treating the married couple as an economic unit in which expenses and income are equitably distributed. However, the income of wives throughout their life trajectory, before as well as during retirement, is still perceived as secondary and remains allocated to current expenses or care. C. Henchoz reiterates that it is not enough to promote male/female equality at a given time: gendered life trajectories as a whole must be taken into account.

11The article by Benoît Hachet also highlights the effects of gender on age over time. Focussing on present-day France, it sheds light on the temporalities that explain why separated parents make alternate residence arrangements with their children, or not. It is the combination of age and gender of both parents and children that shapes the choice of such a family organization over time. In general, children are more likely to reside with their mothers on the premise that women's parenting skills are considered superior to those of men. Alternating residences, however, becomes more common as the children grow older, before being reassessed again when they express their own preferences in adolescence. The age of both parents also plays a role, if only because it situates them at a time in their career trajectory that more or less favourable to work-family balance and parental task-sharing between women and men. In short, gendered conceptions of parenthood, the growing up of children, gender-structured employment relationships and the aging of parents overlap and collide here in a complex dance.

  • 1 Peggy Bette. 2017. Veuves de la grande guerre Itinéraires et combats, Edition Peter Lang, 325 p.

12Peggy Bette’s1 book Veuves de la Grande Guerre, highly recommended by Élise Feller in her book review associated with this issue, also focusses on the interlinking of life stages in order to address the relationships between gender and age. Bette treats the World War I widowhood of women in France as a stage of life that, for many in this particular context, started at the beginning of their adulthood and extended into their old age. Initially described as young women, recently married and mothers, they are seen coping with changing bereavement practices, employment opportunities, forms of support and their own proactivism as they grow older. This virtually longitudinal way of understanding widowhood is all the more appropriate as the war prolonged this stage of life more than was normal at the beginning of the 20th century.

13Stacey Renee Davis’s article, rooted in the history of 19th century France, examines old age as an extension of individual life journeys, both male and female versions. Her subject is particularly suited to this. Thirty years after Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'état in 1851, thousands of senior citizens received a pension as reparation for the persecution they had endured because they were critical of the coup. What emerges are profiles of men and women whose difficult old age is presented and perceived as the direct consequence of a youth and maturity devastated by political reprisals (exile, imprisonment, family dislocation, ostracism, etc.). Like Bette's book on French widowhood, the article by S.R. Davis echoes historian Helen Yallop's call to separate aging from old age and to explore advancing age as a gendered process, without necessarily constituting the final years of life as a specific and defined phase (Yallop, 2016). Thus the value in the work of all of these authors lies in their focus on young girls as they grow up, adult women as they age, and older women from the perspective of their youth.

Making inequalities interact

14Although the impacts of age and gender are becoming more widely recognized (Arber et al., 2003; Bessin, 2014; Rennes, 2016), studies on social inequalities still too rarely take into account that the dominant positions are the joint product of a system of gender and a system of age (Langevin, 1999). Several show, however, the extent to which gender and age relations are intertwined and interact in shaping social inequalities over the course of people’s lives (Legrand and Voléry, 2013). This can be seen, for example, in recreational, relational and intergenerational practices (Dorfman, 2013; Octobre, 2014).

15Mathilde Bigo adopts this perspective in her article. She analyzes the retirement and old age of women who have settled in Brittany from the point of view of their residential mobility before they entered a retirement home. What she finds is a mobility very much affected by gender relations, in which women receive lower pensions than men, are discouraged from getting a driver’s licence, must follow their retired husbands or are encouraged to move in with their children. However, retirement can also provide real freedom of movement to women who live without a spouse or who renegotiate their couple relations to assert their own choice of residence. As they age, time reshuffles the cards and generates a new form of residential mobility, this time designed to temper the effects of aging for women. Widowhood, failing health and isolation accentuate women's preference for an urban environment, make them opt for better adapted or cheaper housing, and motivate them to return to a familiar and chosen territory.

16The article by Sadio Ba Gning highlights the generational and gender inequalities that are intertwined in the care of the elderly in Senegal, at a time when demographic ageing is surging. This is also a time when husbands may be 15 to 20 years older than their wives, resulting in very high rates of widowhood. Ba Gning’s study is based on several dozen interviews conducted with elderly parents and caregivers of both sexes, and explores the various asymmetries that underlie these intergenerational relationships. The tendency to recognize and promote financial support for men and to underrate the services provided by women in the family characterizes the helping relationships between (step)sons and (step)mothers, (step)daughters and (step)fathers. The assistance provided to elderly parents-in-law can also lead to power games between older and younger sons, or between daughters-in-law and the paid caregivers they hire. The support expected by and provided to elderly parents thus reinforces pre-established social statuses based on gender and position in the family line, and is perpetuated in their complementarity and interaction.

Blurring, negotiating and breaking norms

  • 2 Translated by Valentina Baslyk
  • 3 Translated by Valentina Baslyk

17Many authors are now questioning a social hierarchy based "mechanically" on gender and on certain age-related markers such as number of years lived, retirement, grandparenthood and so on (Arber and Ginn, 1995; Arber et al., 2003; Caradec, 2012). Women who use oocyte donation, for example, are in fact negotiating the biological limits of their fertility, resetting their biological clock to some extent and challenging "the strong relationship between youth and female fertility [while at the same time contributing] to the concept of motherhood as queer" (Bühler, 2014 : 26-27)2. A similar blurring of age norms occurs in the later stages of life. Legrand and Voléry (2012:10) note that, with regard to ageing, "social and gendered distinctions appear to be becoming more a matter of subjectivity and intimate experiences. The social and gendered components of ageing are now to be find in the way a life story is (re)worked so as to reorganize a life in material and social as well as relational and psychological terms."3 According to Rose-Marie Lagrave, this confrontation with new physical and social realities even allows some older women to shake up the dominant social codes by harmonizing their old age with their sexual desire:

  • 4 Translated by Valentina Baslyk.

Excluded from the gaze of male desire to which they have frequently conformed, they can also experience the gaze of female desire, less trapped by dominant social codes, when they realize that heterosexuality has been a norm that has channeled their desire. As such, there is something in the experience of old age that resembles adolescence. Social and sexual norms are destabilized, become uncertain and unpredictable in the way sexual encounters take place, just as they are often still largely undetermined in adolescence. These are two ages of availability, indecision and possible bifurcations in sexual orientations (Lagrave 2009 : 121)4.

18Swapna M. Banerjee also singles out negotiated age and gender norms, albeit in a very different context. Taking up the challenge of intersectionality, she demonstrates the emergence in colonial India of a new form of masculinity that encompasses not only gender and age, but also "race," ethnicity and class. The contours of this masculinity – both complex and sometimes unprecedented – are captured through the life path of an influential Bengali thinker, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). As a child, his sex and wealthy background earned him many privileges and a first-class education despite his rebellion against colonial schools, while his status as a son placed him under the strict rule of his father. As an adult, Tagore became a pater familias, marrying an 11-year-old girl and arranging for the marriage of his own daughters at an equally early age. His bias in favour of a new "colonial modernity," however, led him to violate a number of social norms. He developed a real intimacy with his young wife and children, closely supervised the education of the latter regardless of their gender, invented a pedagogy that was very different from that based on Western principles, favoured the education of girls and acted as a symbolic father to all his pupils. There was therefore a continuum between his childhood and his maturity, between his family life and his public life: the model of a masculinity at once paternal, educating and intellectual, which reinforces gender and age norms while feeling free to violate some of them.

19Finally, the contribution by Alexandre Baril shatters both the binary categories of gender and cisgendered conceptions of life stages. He draws on his experience as a trans man as well as on a perspective that blends intersectional, queer and crip approaches, and sheds light on the temporalities of transgender and transsexual people, to demonstrate their distinctive characteristics. These marginalized temporalities deviate, for example, from cisgendered perceptions of the life cycle in which childhood-youth-adulthood-old age follow one another, with no possibility of turning back the clock; while the hormonal treatments of a physical transition in fact induce a "second youth," which is experienced both physically (appearance of new sexual characteristics) and socially (self-discovery, integration of a new gender self-identification, etc.). Trans men's masculinity is problematic at any age, and they are further shaken by the cisgendered norm that associates aging with loss of virility. Baril also underscores the slowness and waiting that characterize trans temporalities, hampered by the steps required for any transition (undue delays in access to care, complex procedures for changing civil status, etc.). Finally, he reflects on this public "time of hyperexposure" that is characteristic of trans life trajectories. Impatient to display an identity that has long been concealed or denied, people in transition certainly contribute to this phase of overexposure. But it also stems from the sensationalism of the media, which is obsessed with a specific moment, that of sex changes and bodies in transition. As a result, the actual identity of trans people remains in the shadows.


20The joint analysis of gender and age relations is progressing but at a slow pace, and still remains in a blind spot of intersectional perspectives. While current research now acknowledges gender and age as constantly interacting systems – whether they reinforce each other or telescope together – it still addresses power relations and the cumulative inequalities they generate too rarely. This perspective highlights the need for a review of past studies on gender, particularly those basing this concept on the distinction between biological differences between the sexes and the social relations that give them meaning. Several recent studies (Achin et al., 2009 ; Rennes, 2016), as well as some articles in this issue, show that biological differences between the sexes are themselves also constructed, which raises the question of how relevant such a distinction actually is. Systematic consideration of the articulation of gender and age thus makes it possible to better understand how bodies and gender identities are socially produced and generated. It also opens up new research perspectives, in terms of both the gendered processes that promote the development of sexualized physical characteristics and the dominant social codes that shape heteronormative experiences (Lagrave, 2009). This issue of Enfances Familles Générations is devoted to life stages, gender and temporalities, and thus ultimately calls for an increase in studies that link age to gender, both in history and in sociology.

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1 Peggy Bette. 2017. Veuves de la grande guerre Itinéraires et combats, Edition Peter Lang, 325 p.

2 Translated by Valentina Baslyk

3 Translated by Valentina Baslyk

4 Translated by Valentina Baslyk.

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Aline Charles et Laurence Charton, « Life Stages, Gender and Temporalities. Historical and Sociological Reflections », Enfances Familles Générations [En ligne], 27 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 août 2017, consulté le 02 mars 2021. URL :

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Aline Charles

Professeure, Département des sciences historiques, Université Laval,

Laurence Charton

Professeure, Institut national de la recherche scientifique, Centre Urbanisation Culture Société,

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