Between March 25and April 3, Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall, and Nancy Pelosi all had birthdays. Nancy is the spring chicken: she turned 79 on the 28th of March. When she turns 80 next year, she will be in good company: Toni Morrison, Yoko Ono, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Maxine Waters, Martha Agrerich, and of course our queen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all in their 80s. Lily Tomlin turns eighty this fall; she is slightly younger than Jane Fonda, her co-star in “Grace and Frankie,” in which they play best friends who are in their early 70s.
What do all these birthdays signify, besides a combination of good health, good genes, and good luck?
This constellation of women heralds a golden age of powerful old women. And yes, I mean old. Not in the “they look great for their age” old, or the “80 is the new 70” old. I mean old af; I mean older than your granny (probably); I mean old as in seen it all, done most of it, and not finished yet.
Why is it a compliment to tell a woman she doesn’t look her age? Why is it praise-worthy to say that someone isn’t really that old, as if having aged is something that needs to be explained away or denied: what’s the point of a compliment if it comes with erasure?
That erasure is how America—and Western culture more generally—handles the question of aging. To be old is invisible, to be silenced. It’s a catch-22: no one wants to be seen as old, so we try downplay that reality—and then by downplaying it, we make aging seem like something to be avoided at all costs (and of course, it costs a great deal to avoid the appearance of aging).
It’s the dirtiest word in the lexicon: old.
But I think it’s time to reclaim our time, which is to say, our age.
Let’s make “Crone” hashtag squad goals.
Think about it. What if instead of the crone being the pointy-chinned bearer of poisoned apples we all remember from “Snow White,” we saw crone as a powerful wise woman who exists outside of, and independent from, the stranglehold of public opinion? Gloria Steinem told Oprah that when she turned sixty, she felt liberated from “the feminine prison,” and that sense of freedom expanded as she aged.
We are all used to fairy tales that end with “happily ever after,” and while there are increasing numbers of tales that challenge or queer that ending—the YA novel Ash comes to mind, or the picture-book The Princess Knight—there are still very, very few stories about the part of life that happens way after the “ever after.” But we need those stories to help ourselves map the future; we need the perspective and the advice of those who have been there before us.
The Crone has traversed the complex landscape of womanhood: she can tell us where the landslides are, how to skirt the quicksand. She knows what happens when the scrum of motherhood fades; she has re-invented herself mid-career; she shows us that a mid-life crisis might not be a crisis but an opportunity. She reminds us that it is possible to survive—even love—after loss. And even more importantly, the crone can help us to see the end of life as full of grace, resolve, and fulfillment.
A few months ago, on my fifty-fifth birthday, I had the good fortune to be invited to a lunch honoring Jane Goodall (who turned 85 on April 3rd). It was a small luncheon as these things go, and I was lucky enough to be seated across the table from Jane and the small stuffed-toy chimpanzee she brings with her everywhere. At one point, someone asked if I would like to move closer to Jane so that I could have a private conversation, but I didn’t move. I mean, what does a person say to Jane Goodall? “Um, hi, you’re amazing, thank you for trying to save the world?”
All I could offer her was my mute admiration, but her presence became the gift I didn’t know I’d needed. Turning fifty-five had not brought me joy; I’d spent the morning wondering if I could MariKondo my age. Fifty-five felt slow and uninspiring; the list of things I hadn’t achieved seemed far longer than the list of accomplishments.
Now, it’s true that on the one hand, sitting across from Jane Goodall can make a gal feel wildly inadequate—but on the other hand, she also reminded me that at 85, a woman can still be engaged, vibrant, and visible.
Maybe fifty-five didn’t have to be the beginning of the end.
When Amy Schumer’s skit about “the last fuckable day” went viral a few years ago, we all laughed (probably so we didn’t cry). I don’t know a woman over the age of fifty who hasn’t felt herself rendered invisible by the combined forces of the advertising and entertainment industries: “fuckability” remains a woman’s primary marker of value. That’s why the media can’t stop talking about whether the female presidential candidates are “likable.” Likeable is just the (slightly more) polite version of fuckable.
But Crones don’t give a fuck if they’re likable. They’ve got more important things on their minds—and an awareness that they don’t have time to waste with your delicate feelings. Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior, says that aging reminds her to be deliberate, to think about what really matters to the world. Crones understand the urgency of Mary Oliver’s question: what will you do with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver’s question is often used in graduation speeches as a kind of encouragement to the young—but Oliver published that poem when she was about fifty-five. I like to think of it as a reminder that wildness and preciousness can be ours, even as we round the bend on sixty.
We celebrate transitions to the next stages in life with graduations and commencements—my eighteen-year old son has had graduation ceremonies for nursery school, kindergarten, fifth grade, eighth grade, and high school. There are all sorts of rites and ceremonies that mark “coming of age” but as life wends on, those ceremonies vanish. Maybe some of us will have retirement parties, but those mark a withdrawal, not a beginning.
I think we need Cronemencement parties when we hit 70. We won’t ask for gifts, because at 70, we know that the last thing we need is more stuff. Instead, we’ll put on our comfiest or our fanciest clothes, whatever we want, because at 70, you wear what makes you happy. We’ll tell stories about where we’ve been and even more importantly, we’ll tell stories about where we’re going.