Forty-five years ago, my generation was involved in the Women’s Movement – in fact, we were the Women’s Movement. Now, in our sixties and seventies, we’re at the age when women typically have been seen as over-the-hill, too old to matter. Until recently, there were almost no films or books about older women, or clothes and products designed for them, or articles about their concerns, and there were no positive roles for them except “grandmother.” Women over sixty were essentially invisible in the culture, and no one seemed to notice they were missing.
In the past, women seem to have accepted this indignity; or at least, went along with it. Not us. We faced similar efforts to diminish us before. Then, our male-oriented culture told us, “You’re a woman, you’re not important, you’re weak,” and we said, “No way!” Now, our youth-oriented culture tells us, “You’re an old woman, you’re not important, you’re weak.” Well, we know what to do with that!
Aging, like any experience, is shaped by how we think about it. Unfortunately, many of us were taught to think of it as a defeat, a curse to be feared or fought. This is not surprising. Young and middle-aged adults have dominated our culture and their needs and interests set the standards for all. For example, Winnie, seventy-two and retired, has overcome fears and obstacles and knows the peace of fulfillment, but to eyes focused on achievements that matter to younger people, she looks out of it, useless. Helena, at sixty-nine, radiates understanding and compassion, but to those obsessed with the beauty of youth, she is seen, if seen at all, as merely gray and wrinkled. Even if she is considered “attractive—for her age,” it’s likely she’s being complimented for looking young.
Stereotypes about aging don’t simply affect how we see other people. I’ve sometimes felt them looming over me like some giant cookie cutter ready to drop down and form—or deform me. And they could; stereotypes have a nasty habit of turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. They also have a way of hiding inside us. For example, if I tell you a woman is dancing, riding a rolling beat with languid sensuality, how would you imagine her? As young and attractive? What if I told you she has white hair? Would you be surprised? Would you think an old woman looks ridiculous behaving like that? If you’ve swallowed our culture’s dread of aging, there’s a good chance you would.
LESSONS OF THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
Thanks to feminism, my generation learned a thing or two about negative stereotypes: we can recognize them and we can reject them. The first time we objected to the status quo, we found ourselves in a world that favored men. Traditional women’s work like homemaking, childcare, and service, was low-paid, if paid at all, and not respected. If a woman did manage to get into what was regarded as men’s work, like carpentry or law, she was considered less capable than a man and criticized for being unfeminine. There was a wall between the worlds of men and women and only the male side was valued. This time, we find ourselves in a world that favors youth. A wall separates us from younger women and again, only one side is valued. Guess which.
LEVELING THE WALL BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
The wall that kept women ‘in their place’ — i.e. out of activities and qualities that had traditionally belonged to men–was built, not of facts, but of biases. Once we realized that, we knocked it down and entered what had previously been male territory. We became police officers, pilots, entrepreneurs, and did all sorts of other things women supposedly couldn’t do. We also proved that so-called male characteristics like assertiveness and rational thinking were, in fact, human characteristics that belonged to women as well as men.
LEVELING THE WALL BETWEEN YOUNG AND OLD
The wall that separates young and old women is also not as solid as it might seem; it’s made of outdated, age-averse ideas. About the time our grandparents were born, the average life expectancy at birth was forty-eight —forty-eight!—and those who made it past that age were often frail and feeble. But women are getting old in a new way. First of all, we’re living longer. Now, at birth, we can expect to live to eighty and by sixty-five our life expectancy climbs five years beyond that.  We’re also staying fit and energetic longer. The physical decline that used to set in at about age forty-five has been steadily moving up–to fifty. . . fifty-five . . .sixty . . . sixty-five. . . seventy–and it’s still climbing.
That’s why the current generation of older women is a new breed. Chronologically we may be what used to be called ‘old,’ but we don’t act ‘old’—not like people our age used to act. At sixty, for example, Mary, a retired French teacher, is back in school learning to become a web designer. Carla, sixty-three, works out at a health club and recently started dating someone she met there. These are the sorts of things only younger women used to do. There always were exceptions who were active and productive in later life, but now such exceptions are becoming the norm.
As a result, we don’t have to drop off our culture’s radar screen anymore just because we’re past middle age. Instead, we can enter a totally new stage of development, a stage that never existed before. Like any other time of life–childhood, young adulthood, middle age–this new period, variously considered “late middle age” or “early old age,” can be a rich, full time with its own unique challenges and benefits. Most of us, however, have been so brainwashed by our culture that we can only see the challenges: We lose the bloom of youth, become more vulnerable to disease, lose loved-ones—and on and on. This new stage of life does indeed have its share of difficulties but so does every stage. Need I remind you of the excruciating self-consciousness of adolescence? The grueling pressure to succeed in young adulthood? The point is to deal with difficulties in a growth-oriented, life-enhancing way, regardless of age.
If all we did during the Women’s Movement was prove that women could be like men, we would merely have affirmed our culture’s entrenched pro-male bias. It was just as important to affirm what had traditionally been regarded as female–qualities like the ability to be receptive, intuitive or nurturing. In a culture that only valued an active, take-charge attitude, for instance, an open, receptive approach looked weak. We had to turn that view inside out to appreciate that it took great courage and trust to open and receive. In fact, once we validated the so-called feminine way, people began to realize it was a powerful alternative to the controlling attitude, an alternative that should be available to men as well as women.
Similarly, if all we do is prove that older women can be like younger women, we would merely reinforce our culture’s pro-youth bias and not much would change. It seems we still have a way to go, however, before we fully appreciate what’s good about getting old. Have you noticed the eruption of offers to help people “conquer” age? All the “anti-aging” potions and treatments that promise eternal youth? There’s a war going on against getting old and it’s the old who are in the front lines. Sure, I want to stay vital as I age but trying to stay “young” is a losing battle that no aerobics class or face-lift can help us win. It’s easy to become obsessed with this battle—unless we also appreciate the benefits that come with age.
Learning to see what’s good about getting old is like exploring an unseen world. It can feel like groping in the dark, bumping into shapes that have no names. Terms like “wisdom,” “serenity,” “post-menopausal zest” and “new freedom” have surfaced, but as a culture, we’re a long way from appreciating what they mean.
At seventy-two, I’m still learning about this new world. What have I found so far?
• Emotional maturity: Sometimes when I’m about to be drawn into one of my typical emotional upheavals, I see it coming and can decide to let it pass me by. Such bursts of self-awareness do happen when we’re younger but can become more common as we age. After five or six decades of playing and replaying the same psychological dramas, they can finally get boring.
• Self-acceptance: Relentless dissatisfaction made me constantly strive to improve myself when I was younger; now I’m comfortable with the way I am.
• Inner peace: When I was younger, I was too busy “doing” and “becoming” to enjoy or even allow the spacious stillness of just “being.” Now, sometimes I can.
• Courage: I’m more confident and secure than when I was younger. A lot of women my age seem to feel the same. Perhaps it’s because we’re not so concerned about what men think of us anymore, or what anyone thinks.
• Perspective: Decades of experience make life patterns more apparent. I see the trajectory of younger people’s actions, long before they see it themselves. No wonder the insight of elders can be so invaluable.
These are only glimpses of what we may find in this newly evolving stage of life, but they raise the possibility that we’re not over the proverbial hill when we get here, but at its peak. What this means is that older women can have the vitality of middle age plus the maturity that can take five or more decades of experience to develop. It’s a dynamite combination!
Being an older woman is turning out to be a lot better than many of us expected. In fact, it may be the best time of all. Older women may have always known this, but didn’t talk about it. Or if they did, no one paid attention. Now, my generation is talking about it and people are beginning to listen, perhaps because there are so many of us. The number of people over age sixty-five is projected to explode from 35 million in 2000, to 85 million by 2050. Already, one in six persons is over sixty and the huge wave of aging “Baby Boomers” is still rolling in. As the wave swells, so does the power of our voice and our opinions. More and more books, movies, politicians, magazines and businesses are catering to our interests. I’ve even seen birthday cards that don’t make fun of aging. And it’s just the beginning.
What all this boils down to is this: it’s time to throw out everything we think we know about being old because “old” is new. Where this can lead is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that a liberating change is happening, a change as momentous as the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. It brings respect for older people, appreciation for maturity and the promise of a more balanced culture.
So we shouldn’t be surprised if we see a white-haired woman dancing, riding a rolling beat with languid sensuality. And if anyone thinks she looks ridiculous, it could reveal more about that person’s own limitations than hers. Besides, at her age, she probably doesn’t care whether people approve of her or not.