I'M AN OLD WOMAN, HEAR ME ROAR
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In medieval times, they called older women "hags" and taught children to be afraid of us. As civilization progressed, we were called "witches" and burned at the stake. When we started agitating for our rights, we were called "feminists" and put in jail. Then we were called "women of a certain age." We were ignored, and we disappeared from the culture.
Now we're the next big thing. We're the newest trend. We're powerful. We're hot. We're happening.
I'll be 64 in a few days, and I don't have any illusions about living to be 128. But believe me, I'm not even halfway finished with my life. I exercise. I dance. I write. I have a healthy sex life. I hang out with my friends. Will you still need me, will you still feed me? Looks like the answer is a big resounding "Yes."
In a Parade Magazine cover story a few weeks ago by baby-boomer chronicler Gail Sheehy, we're "the experienced woman - open to love, sex, new dreams and spirituality and committed to revitalizing marriage... Now is her time." We're called "seasoned." We're called "spicy." And what does Sheehy think we want? Same old thing - a man.
In this month's Town & Country, we're the "Woman of the Year." "She's the most powerful consumer in America," the magazine says. "And as she starts to turn sixty this month, the affluent baby boomer is doing what she's always done -redefining herself, reshaping society and making us all think again." And what does Town & Country think we want? More expensive consumer goods.
It's funny, all those magazines, movie studios, television networks and newspapers that have been eating their young in an effort to chase 18-to-35-year-olds? It turns out they've been barking up the wrong demographic. Older women are the ones with the time and money.
According to Town & Country, approximately 42 million women are aged 40 to 60. Women solely or jointly own 87 percent of homes. Women control or influence 80 percent of consumer purchases. Boomer women are six times more likely to share responsibility for savings and investment than their mothers were. Full-time college enrollment by older women has increased 31 percent in the past decade. By 2010, 60 percent of the wealth in this country will be controlled by women.
There is no precedent for this. Both my grandmothers, for example, were done with their lives by the time they were 50, even though one lived to be 89 and the other to 94. After their children married they had nothing left to do but care for their husbands, baby-sit their grandchildren and cook a few festive holiday meals. Maybe they played cards or mah jong. To my horrified eyes, they spent 40-odd years killing time.
Me? I don't know the meaning of the word "retire." Why would I stop writing? Why would I stop prodding the world to be a better place? Why, for that matter, would I want to stop paying my bills?
None of my friends talk about retiring. They're running corporations, starting new businesses, courting clients, doing art, planning their futures.
To tell the truth, I don't know what age is. When I was 35 people told me I looked 25 and I shrugged. When I was 50, people told me I looked 35, and I still shrugged. The other day someone told me I didn't look a day over 50 and I wanted to slug her.
Role models are hard to find. Town & Country points to Diane Keaton, and while I adore her, I didn't look like her when she was Annie Hall and I don't look like her now. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has best platform in the country for her opinions and what does she choose to write about? Finding a man. Wimp!
Give me Shirley McLaine. Or Katherine Hepburn in "Lion in Winter." Sharp-tongued, truth-telling, unafraid-to-be-unattractive, unafraid-to-be-wrong, don't-give-a-damn-if-people-like-me, raunchy, amused, bemused women - these are women you can sink your teeth into.
Let's remember that there's a huge down side here. As Martha Raye famously said, "Old age is not for sissies." Strange things happen to your body. My heart has a murmur. I have to do pelvic floor exercises. Who knew your knuckles could rise up like mountains and eat your fingernails? My knees? Let's not even go there.
I've been to too many funerals. Friends whom I love like I love my life are struggling with cancer. I've been so through many dramas with my mother that I count a day when she says, "Everything's fine" as a day when I am allowed to breathe.
Still, there are many benefits. Through painful trial and error, I know who I am. I know what I like, whether it's in music, food, clothing, hair color or bed.
True, I've never given that Academy Award acceptance speech. Or, come to think of it, the one I wrote for the Miss America pageant when I was a hopeless teen. I may have given up hope of a Nobel Prize for Literature or that damned elusive McArthur "genius" grant, or something even more elusive to freelance writers - discretionary income.
One truth you won't read about women like me? We can drop dead at any time. Heart disease and cancer hover over us. A stroke can stop us cold. We have to live our lives at full speed now, because in actuarial terms, we've just come on death's radar screen and he's starting to stalk us. And believe me, he's even scarier than that guy our mother's warned us about when we were little - the one with the lost dog and the candy.
So welcome, popular culture, welcome to my world! I'm having a great time. What took you so long?
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.