Reading: In Praise of Older Women

Second Acts

In Praise of Older Women

Great second acts that prove the best is yet to be.

By Marlene Wagman-Geller

Photo by David Bazo

It is essential that we do not go gentle into our twilight years. Ladies who experience late-in-life reinvention are the embodiment of what Antony said about Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her / Nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”

Conventional wisdom holds that, if a person does not write Wuthering Heights, paint “Starry Night,” or climb Mt. Everest before a varicose vein makes its appearance, chances are it ain’t gonna happen. The over-fifty set need not compare themselves to those who set the world aflame before their twenties: the French Joan of Arc was freeing her country from the British at age 18; the Romanian Nadia Comaneci received three gold Olympic medals at age 14; the Pakistani Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Prize at age 17.

Our youth-obsessed culture, which tends to assume ingenuity wanes as the years go by, fosters this idea. Hence, late bloomers arm-wrestle with powerful prejudice as they face those who think they are no longer viable. The message: Age delivers, along with Poligrip and orthopedic shoes, a drying of the creative juices. In such a climate, older folk may easily succumb to the belief that the great imaginative leap remains in the realm of yesteryear. The mindset becomes that it is too late, followed by the painful pang of it-could-have-been. Dorothy Parker expressed this sentiment when she wrote, “Time doth flit; oh shit.”

Feisty after Fifty

Fortunately, the long-established paradigm of older women being beyond our expiration date for achievement and sanity has received a well-deserved shakedown as women have obtained late-in-life success. After all, the rings on a trunk make for the most majestic of trees. An important idea to keep in mind—and yes, we still have one—is that the golden years can be rewarding creatively, emotionally, and romantically.

Maggie Kuhn, an octogenarian who proved frail bodies can mask iron spirits, called herself a little old woman. She celebrated her forced retirement—a gesture of out with the old and in with the new—by founding the Gray Panthers, a name derived from the radical Black Panthers. In 1972, she told the New York Times, “I have gray hair, many wrinkles, and arthritis in both hands. And I celebrate my freedom from bureaucratic restraints that once held me.” Kuhn refused to be defined by the year on her birth certificate.

Anna Mary Robertson, forever known as Grandma Moses, was in her late seventies when arthritis made her beloved embroidery a hobby of the past, and her sister suggested she switch to painting. Her folksy canvases of the quieter, gentler New England of her childhood sold for thousands of dollars—a princely sum in the 1930s. Presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy lauded the little lady, and a 1950 documentary about her life received an Oscar nod. Despite the accolades, she retained her modesty. She wrote in her autobiography, “I look back on my life like a good day’s work. It was done, and I feel satisfied with it.”

No Country for Old Women

Ageism coupled with misogyny came into play when the 68-year-old Hillary Clinton made a play for the Oval Office, although the mindset of many was that a lady of a certain age is generally rendered invisible. Maybe a wise grandfather made sense, but a grandma? Ruling the roost of the White House? Did. Not. Sit. Well. One voter described her to The Washington Post as “an angry, crotchety old hag.” The election proved that America is not a country for old women. The gender stereotype is alive and kicking because, although we worship youthful femininity and idolize good ole’ Mom, we fall short when women do not fit into either of these roles. Being forced into silence is as palpable as a physical blow, but that has happened to marginalized seniors. What about all their wisdom, experience, and insights? Females—along with killer whales, the only other species to go through menopause—have passed through the rite of reproduction and have come to a time in their lives when they should be able to shepherd the younger generation. Thankfully, there exists what stayed in Pandora’s box: hope. At age eighty-five, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is so respected that she received a street name: Notorious R. B. G. The former head of the Federal Reserve, Chairman Janet L. Yellen, seventy-one, and the International Monetary Fund Chief, Christine Lagarde, sixty-two, prove ladies know more about money than how to spend it. The time to shed the garment of invisibility has arrived. Lives well-lived help shatter the mindset that older gals either are off their rocker or belong on one.

It may be an eye-opener to learn that one who praised older women was Benjamin Franklin; the Founding Father was actually into the Founding Mothers. When he wasn’t busy wiping his bifocals (which he invented) or flying a kite in a rainstorm, our nation’s first Postmaster wrote a letter to a young friend, advising, “In all your Amours you should prefer old women to young ones.” In the letter, never mailed though likely shared in ye olde locker-room, Ben suggests it’s best to wed and bed matrons rather than virgins, “Because when women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. Because there is no hazard of children. Because they are so grateful.”

Rather than viewing wrinkles as a mark of shame, ladies of a certain age should embrace their lines—testimony to laughter, love, and life. They should not stress if they did not merit a mention in Forbes’s Under-Thirty list or see their names on the best-seller lists. Hope must spring eternal: There is still time to pursue dormant dreams and to wallow in the joy of proving the naysayers wrong.

Excerpted from Great Second Acts: In Praise of Older Women by Marlene Wagman-Geller, copyright 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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