All too often, in our youth-obsessed culture, we think of aging – especially the aging of women – as a closing down or a shutting off. But it can be the very opposite.
Age should be personal, not political, but we’re not quite there yet. There is still an idea that women are valued mostly for reproduction, and men should be older and in authority. That’s why youth in women may still be more valued than experience.
We ourselves internalise a life structured by gender. For instance, even though I didn’t have the goal of having children, gender still made me feel that I didn’t have the power to plan my own future. I was doing what I loved day by day, but it seemed temporary. Even without the demands of husband and family, I was still expecting some mysterious force to take over.
The same is true for making a home, something women are supposed to do for others, not for ourselves. As my friend the photographer Jill Krementz once said after many years of doing work she loved, yet living in a temporary way, “If I’d known life was going to be like this, I would have bought a lamp and a rug.”
Female human beings may be more ourselves before we are 10 or so, before gender expectations begin to kick in, and perhaps again after we’ve passed the age of having and raising children. As Carolyn Heilbrun explained so well in Writing a Woman’s Life, a woman may become a completely different person after 50. That’s because she is at last free to be the grown-up version of the little girl she once was, climbing trees and saying, I know what I want, I know what I think. The best indication of who we will be after 50 may be who we were at 10.
This is why there are so many outrageous and brave older women out there. From what I see on the road, they are especially likely to be women of colour, perhaps because the dependent feminine role was always less possible, since black men weren’t allowed to be as powerful as white men. Whatever the reason and whoever the women, if I could wish any single group into power in the world, it would be these strong, funny, and wise grey-haired women. One day, an army of grey-haired women may quietly take over the Earth.
Now more young women are also questioning the old ways and figuring out how to withstand the tyranny of expectations. Since the women I work with every day are younger than my blue jeans, I experience the pleasure of escaping age segregation, which is as wrong and divisive as any other form of segregation. For instance, because I am older and remember when things were worse, I bring them the gift of hope and optimism.
Because they are younger, they see how unjust things still are and have a stake in the future, they bring me the gift of anger and impatience. I can’t think of a better combination.
Now that I’m usually the oldest in a group, I found a poem, one of the very few I’ve ever written, from two decades ago when I was just beginning to discover the blessings of aging.
Dear Goddess: I pray for the courage
To walk naked
At any age. To wear red and purple,
To be unladylike,
To the very end.
Now all I have to do is live up to my own expectations.
This is an excerpt from The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off by Gloria Steinem published by Murdoch Books $24.99.