We’re Not Nice Old Ladies: Records of the Alma Unit for Women and Ageing

by Susan Feldman – Adjunct Associate Professor, Monash University.

University of Melbourne Archives recently acquired records relating to the establishment, work and achievements of the Alma Unit for Women and Ageing  a ground-breaking scholarly endeavour at the University of Melbourne that sought to shed new light on the connections between gender, ageing, health and wellbeing.

The Alma Unit was named after the mother of Fleur Spitzer OAM. In 1989, Fleur used her inheritance to embark upon a series of philanthropic ventures. Her particular interest and concern was to support women and girls in the community in areas of social justice. Fleur was committed to what she has called focused giving or progressive philanthropy. As she became more familiar with the ways of the philanthropic world, Fleur was increasingly frustrated. As a conservative city Melbourne is a place where people traditionally thought it impolite and indecent to speak about having money. Fleur showed her determination and courage by going against the established trend, talking about philanthropy in a range of public forums. Fleur has spoken publicly about her approach to philanthropic giving, explaining that she ‘would like women to see philanthropy as a way of supporting something that they believe in’. She was also keen to encourage other women to introduce their daughters to the value and importance of philanthropy. This she believes can be achieved by acknowledging generational change coupled with providing younger women with the opportunity to build on the great work of previous generations of women who have seen themselves as change makers.

However, Fleur has always had a realistic view about how money can impact on the quality of opportunity and choice in people’s lives. Leading by example is how Fleur conducted all her public activities. She worked tirelessly to encourage her peers and women in her own networks to follow her example and consider how sharing their wealth is much more than getting tax breaks or having a plaque on a building erected in your name.

Fleur was just 60 years old when she became acutely aware of how growing older was seen as a problem, most particularly for women. She was concerned about current thinking that has produced a dread of growing old and a denial of what is happening. For the most part, ageing has been constructed as a time when individuals become a burden to family, community and society.

Drawing on her experiences in the women’s movement Fleur understood very well the damage and danger of stereotyping women and she recognised that the negative images of older women in our society were very similar to those of women in general.

She wondered why feminists had not taken up the issue of older women, why they were ignored within the feminist rhetoric, and why gender was absent and did not seem to matter in discussions of or research about growing older.

The timing was perfect. It coincided with the release of Betty Friedan’s latest book in 1993, The Fountain of Age.[1] The publication of this book provided Fleur with the inspiration and impetus to ask the hard questions and challenge popular beliefs and stereotypes about women, only this time around, in regard to older women.

Fleur set about talking to policy makers, gerontologists, academics and even tackled government ministers on why they had not given thought to the health and wellbeing of older women beyond aged care settings. At every opportunity Fleur asked why gender had been neglected in their discussions about growing older. She challenged the status quo by asking whether a gendered view of ageing mattered or not.

The establishment of the Alma Unit for Women and Ageing in 1993 at the University of Melbourne gave Fleur the opportunity to make her most significant public philanthropic donation, the naming of which honoured her mother Alma. Professor Lorraine Dennerstein, Director of the Key Centre for Women’s Health, University of Melbourne, appreciated Fleur’s generous financial offer, and the opportunity it provided the centre to champion the development of a unique and much-neglected area of research and study, both in Australia and internationally.

American feminist and writer Betty Friedan (left) with Fleur Spitzer (centre) and Dr Lorraine Dennerstein, Director of the Key Centre of Women's Health (right) at the opening of the Alma Unit for Women and Ageing in March, 1994. Alma Unit for Women and Ageing Archive, 2016.0037, University of Melbourne Archives.
American feminist and writer Betty Friedan (left) with Fleur Spitzer (centre) and Dr Lorraine Dennerstein, Director of the Key Centre of Women’s Health (right) at the opening of the Alma Unit for Women and Ageing in March, 1994. Alma Unit for Women and Ageing Archive, 2016.0037, University of Melbourne Archives.

In a bold letter to New York publishing house Simon and Schuster written in 1993, Fleur explained, ‘I read “The Fountain of Age” eagerly, because it endorses everything the Alma Research Unit hopes to achieve.’[2] And indeed, who could have been a better choice than Betty Friedan to announce the official launch of the unit in 1994? During the launch, Fleur explained how ‘banded and bonded together with other like-minded women’[3] in the women’s movement to understand the reality of women’s lives and to dispel myths and stereotypes. Now, she would once again be prepared to work actively to promote the reality about all aspects of women’s experiences of growing older.

The unit was the first of its kind in Australia, and indeed the world, with a focus on the quality of the ageing experience for older women. By taking a broad psychosocial approach to ageing, and in recognition that gender does matter, the research undertaken by the Alma Unit was innovative and ground breaking with relevance to the broader community, policy makers and service deliverers, as well as for academic research, teaching and the student community.

Over the following years academic staff at the Alma Unit provided substantial input into academic and community knowledge, publications, teaching and research as well as public forums, exhibitions and conferences about the ageing experience for women from a diverse range of social and cultural backgrounds. Staff at the Key Centre were involved in teaching of international students through a successful series of short courses on women’s health. The contributions of the staff of the Alma Unit to these courses focused on older women’s health and wellbeing.

The collection of documents now held at University of Melbourne Archives contains materials documenting the thinking behind and the negotiations for the establishment of this innovative unit at the University of Melbourne. Papers include many of Fleur Spitzer’s public speeches, strategic planning and evaluation of the progress of the unit. In addition, the archive includes minutes of meetings, financial papers and budgets, and correspondence between Fleur Spitzer and the university.

Newsletters reporting on visiting academics, research undertakings, conference presentations and media interviews and programs are also included in this archive, alongside documents relating to the launch of key publications, and the curriculum for international students interested in older women’s health and wellbeing.

The archive provides an interesting and informative insight into how a philanthropist provided the financial and intellectual resources for the establishment of an influential and unique research and teaching unit that has made a significant contribution to understanding older women’s health and wellbeing needs.

Fleur has contributed to other scholarly projects celebrating the lives of Australian women, among them the Australian Women’s Archives Project (AWAP) , which was established in 2000 as a project by the National Foundation for Australian Women in collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical Studies providing leadership in the area of historical research and technical innovation and support provided by research fellows in the eScholarship Research Centre.


[1] Freidan, Betty (1993). The Fountain of Age. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[2] Letter from Fleur Spitzer to John Cody, 6 December 1993.

[3] Spitzer, Fleur (1994). Public Speech at the Launch of the Alma Unit for Women and Ageing, University of Melbourne.

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