I’ve followed with interest the recent onslaught of articles about “seasoned” women. After all, I am one of the “older women” the first generation of women who broke into traditionally male preserves who are supposedly coming into their own and are all the rage these days. Even if we haven’t broken through the corporate glass ceilings, we are women of accomplishment and achievement beyond the dreams or imaginations of previous generations of women. Some of us have managed to “have it all,” though for most it has been a matter of sequencing: beginning a career, dropping out to marry and raise children, then returning to the marketplace to resume our careersthough on a different track with more limited possibilities but plenty of challenges.
Gail Sheehy, who wrote a book about seasoned women, described them as “marinated in life experiences.” According to Sheehy’s research, many men who have stayed on the same career path all through adulthood are thinking about retirement when they reach their 50s, whereas women feel like they are just beginning to reach their peak. In contrast to men who become more nurturing as they grow older women in their 50s, said Sheehy, tend to “become more focused, more managerial, more aggressive and more political.” As the boundaries of the human lifespan widen and extend, women who are “somewhere between 40 and death” are just getting their second wind, and they are less likely, according to Sheehy, to have an agenda than are younger women. They have learned to separate possibilities from illusions and are more willing to realistically embrace new opportunities because they’ve learned from past failures and false starts.
Certainly, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf age 67 the just-elected president of the West African nation of Liberia and first woman president on the continent of Africa, had marinating experiences that led her to spectacular success. She won 60 percent of the vote against a popular soccer star in a nation that has just come through 13 years of civil war and tribal strife. Even in the youth-oriented culture of television news, stars like Lesley Stahl, Andrea Mitchell and Diane Sawyer continue to excel at professionally demanding, on-screen careers. Barbara Walters is still the interview queen in her 70s. In the entertainment world, Oprah remains the top draw, though she is well past the usual age and over the usual weight of celebrities especially television stars. At age 95, Kitty Carlisle still sings to sold-out audiences in America’s top supper clubs. These women have seen, as Longfellow predicted, that “as the evening twilight fades away, the sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Demographers tell us that during this decade, for the first time Americans over age 65 will outnumber those under age 20. With a longer lifespan, it is important to learn how to live well in those extra years. A “life coach” advises everyone to invent a new dream for every decade after age 50. Another way of saying the same thing is a wise pastor’s advice that everyone must be re-born in middle-age. Julia Child, the celebrity chef, didn’t begin cooking school until she was nearly 40 years of age, and her television cooking program as well as the publication of all of her cookbooks came after she turned 50. Psychologists report that women who continue to develop new interests and chart new paths during their 50s and 60s gradually become wise; those who stagnate or regress in an effort to reclaim their youth, the psychologists claim, become foolish. Perhaps there is great truth in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ words: “To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.”
Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse is an author, columnist and commentator who is also Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.