14 Jan In Praise of Old Women
Susan Zerinsky, age 66 and 5’1” tall, has just become the first woman to head the legendary CBS News division. Yes, that CBS News, as in Murrow and Cronkite, which once set the gold standard for broadcast journalism, of late severely tarnished by #MeToo scandals necessitating the firings of Charlie Rose and Les Moonves. Zerinsky came to CBS at age 20, worked her way up, has produced “48 Hours” for years, exercises seven days a week, boxes, lift weights, does Pilates, and has taken SLT classes because she heard they might make her taller. Of the sexual misconduct at CBS, she vigilantly declares, “#MeToo isn’t behind us, it’s part of us.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is working from home since being released from the hospital after surgery for two malignant nodules on her left lung. She’s 85 and this was her third bout with cancer. She expects to be back on the bench shortly.
Florida Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, ran for this seat at age 78, because she was tired of getting mad at Trump and not doing anything. She is the oldest ”Freshman” in her House of Representatives class.
There is enormous press coverage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest woman in that class (just 29), but little about Shalala, while much press attention to the once and now again Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 78, has been devoted to wondering if she’s too old to do the job. Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California, 80, who now chairs the influential House Financial Services Committee, breathes fire. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the popular vote for the Presidency at age 69, watched the election get stolen from her, picked herself up after a grueling campaign and devastating disappointment, and now continues doing work mostly in the cause of women’s equality and empowerment.
In praise of old women? You bet. Notice the “old,” not the euphemistic ”older.” Older than who or what? Let’s free the word “old” from all cutesy, infantilizing euphemisms—“senior,” “golden age,” “oldster,” and similar sins against the English language. Not for nothing was the archetype of the Crone born from poetic imagination. After all, what is perpetual youth but arrested development?
Recently, Jessica Bennett, prize-winning journalist, author, and gender editor of the New York Times (at a mere age 38), wrote a terrific piece that reminded me I hadn’t addressed this issue in far too long. Bennett noted of course that men lead major organizations and nations well into their seventh and eighth decades, retaining power and prominence—and, I’d add, welcome or unwelcome access to much younger women. The current “demographic revolution,” as termed by Prof. Susan Douglas of the University of Michigan, is the result of a half century of Women’s Movement activism from the 1970s straight through to #MeToo. And lifespan has a lot to do with it.
Such a demographic shift was unthinkable when women faced a high risk of dying in childbirth or could enter careers political and otherwise only after their children were grown. But in 2016 the average lifespan of women in the US was 81.1 compared with men’s 76.1, and some 18 percent of women age 70 to 74 are employed. Having a job later in life is more common among women with higher education and savings, Bennett reminds us, while those not employed are more likely to have poor health and low savings, and be dependent on Social Security.
We live in a youth-obsessed culture that propagandizes girls of 13 they need to be anorexic to look glamorous and should shave their pubic hair to seem even younger. The Women’s Movement itself has followed this trend by prioritizing the concerns of younger women and supporting emerging young leaders. That’s perfectly understandable, since the future is theirs, as is the task of carrying on the work. But like everything else, it shouldn’t be an either/or choice, especially when we can opt for both/and.
In some people, age can certainly atrophy a capacity for experimentation, risk, energy, and openness to new ideas, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Furthermore, age has compensatory gifts. Not so much “wisdom,” which some folks, old or young, have and some frankly don’t. But with aging you accumulate experience that you simply couldn’t have acquired earlier. It depends on what you do with it, yes, but you need to have acquired experience even to make that decision. Skill, which is formed by practice—another form of experience—can be another privilege of age. For instance, except for the rare Mozart, the longer an artist can manage to live, generally the better her or his work will become.
Then there’s sex. Some women blossom into a fuller or even entirely different sexuality. Others luxuriate in being alone, able to sprawl diagonally across the bed, and pleasure only themselves. One recently widowed friend chuckled to me, “If I miss cuddling, I’ll get myself a puppy.” There’s also such relief at not sweating the small stuff like you used to, because you’ve learned it passes and is ultimately unimportant. In fact, in retrospect you can’t believe you expended such “passion in a waste of shame“ on certain undeserving crises or persons. In any case, there’s a rejuvenation in energy and intellect that resembles the feminist epiphany, when you realize you actually like who you are.
Christiane Amanpour, 61, says a whole new chapter of her life has opened in replacing Charlie Rose on PBS (there is justice after all). My sister-cofounders of the Women’s Media Center, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, are respectively 83 and almost 85, and they tire their younger aides out. Oprah Winfrey is 65. I could go on but you get the point: we don’t lack role models; we lack consciousness of ageism, particularly when combined with sexism. Actor Dame Helen Mirren quipped, “As James Bond gets more and more geriatric, his girlfriends got younger and younger. It’s so annoying.”
In fact, although US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that more people over 65—almost 20 percent—are still employed than at any point since the 1960s, women over 50 have the hardest time finding a job. (Not that they don’t work, even when jobless, given all the unpaid, invisible labor women perform lifelong at home and in their communities.)
This is not plain ageism like discrimination against old men who are neither wealthy nor powerful. Ageism against women is uniquely bound up with reproductive capacity and patriarchal sexual preferences. It always comes back to sex and reproduction, which is why those two basic human rights to self-determination remain both starting place and goal for feminism.
Me, I turn 78 in a few weeks, and the reason I can’t quite believe that’s true is not denial but because inside I am basically, oh, 39-40ish. Do I wish my body was younger and without pains in places I didn’t even know I had? Absolutely. But although I’d willingly exchange this body for one of my younger ones, I would not exchange what’s in my mind and spirit for younger versions by even five seconds. I’m busier and happier than I’ve ever been. I love younger women—mentoring them and learning from them—and I’m grateful for and relieved by their unapologetic, fierce feminism. I’m optimistic and cynical at once. I’m no longer fearful of getting furious when I want to be, and I seek approval only from those I truly respect. All this—plus having had decades to develop a wry sense of humor, a practiced capacity to be mindful of every moment of every day, a fascination with humanity’s growing knowledge of the universe (including the thrills of science and awe at the universe), and a sense of absurdity regarding my creative, clumsy, adaptive, cruel, evolving species—gets me through.
So this is in praise of old women. Especially because this spring, 84-year-old Glenda Jackson is bringing to Broadway what theater critics abroad have unanimously declared the greatest single performance of our era: King Lear herself.
So offend, trivialize, or ignore old women at your peril. Respect, support, and welcome the talents and years we have to offer, and together we become women (and men) for the ages.