On Medium today, I wrote about Harris and Warren…and their tote bags. Which satchel wins?
On Medium today, I wrote about Harris and Warren…and their tote bags. Which satchel wins?
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.
The image of the veiled woman remains a potent symbol of the “mysterious” Middle East and the question of “do you have to cover…” is almost always the first question that anyone asks me when I tell them where I live. It’s easy, particularly in the West, to lose sight of the fact that behind the veil is a person, and to keep in mind that gender politics are complicated here — but then again, point me to a place where gender politics aren’t complicated.
I wrote about Gloria Steinem and feminism the other day, and then the other day, at the ice rink, of all places, I was reminded that “feminism” has many different forms. I had gone to the ice rink in the ginormous sports complex where Liam and Caleb play football because Caleb and I had to wait for Liam to finish practice, Caleb was hungry, there is a pizza place inside the ice rink, so off we went…only to be told that Caleb couldn’t come inside. It was Ladies Night, no men allowed, not even nine-year-old men.
Inside, the place buzzed with energy as girls of all ages skated, watched the skaters, or walked around gossiping with each other, safe from the eyes of the men working in the restaurant kitchen:
I bought Caleb’s pizza and brought it to him outside on the patio. I’ve never seen so many people coming to the ice rink as I did that night, including some who were clearly coming for the gossip and a night out, and not for the skating, at least judging from her shoes:
The girls in the skating rink seemed entirely delighted to be there, and many of the girls on the ice were twirling and jumping and speeding around with the ease that comes only with a lot of practice.
Did it seem strange that “ladies night” kept out my little boy? Yes. Am I reminded that change happens incrementally, in loops and swirls and swerves, and not in a straight unbending line? Yes.
Because that night at the ice rink, sitting outside with my son, I was reminded that the girl in the abaya isn’t a metaphor but just a chick with a wicked slapshot, who perhaps daydreams about an Olympic medal in women’s hockey.
Gloria Steinem spoke at my college graduation back in 1986.
At the time, as a graduate of a woman’s college, I thought to myself “oh good lord, her. Couldn’t they find someone more relevant?” It was the era of “divest now” and “free Mandela;” we’d just spent four years at a single-sex college where “gender issues” were as pervasive as the scent of the clove cigarettes many of us smoked.
Yes, it was the mid-1980s: there were shoulder pads, bad perms, Billy Idol on the radio, and we all smoked like our lives depended on it. We thought that abortion rights were sacrosanct and that surely there would be a woman president before we turned 30, which was about as old as any of us could imagine being.
Now I’m fifty and Gloria, omigod, is eighty and we all of us, men and women, should hope that we do eighty the way that Gloria is doing eighty. Because her eighty would exhaust my fifty, that’s what I gotta say about that.
But how wrong was I—about so many things — lo those many years ago: we’ve recovered from clove cigarettes, bad perms, Billy Idol, and shoulder pads–but women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work. Mandela was freed, apartheid was overthrown — but the statistics for sexual violence against women in South Africa and elsewhere in the world continue to rise. We’ve seen the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S. and elsewhere; we’ve seen health care programs for poor women and their families slashed from state budgets.
And ironically, on the same day I was
reading gossip on the internet researching very important researchy things, I saw an article on Jezebel about New York State’s new educational guidelines, which have been overhauled to fit with the new Common Core History Curriculum.
I know, I know, it sounds so totally exciting! But you have to understand: I’m a literature professor. I actually like to think about things like “curriculum” and “reading lists” and “rubrics.” Well, okay, not so much rubrics, but the other stuff? Love it.
So I read the article and here’s the gist: in the pages devoted to all the elements that students in high school will have to learn about US and Global history, would you like to know how many women get name-checked? About seven. Would you be shocked to find out that on the lists of What You Should Know there are many, many more men? Jezebel doesn’t connect the dots they way I do, though, in their discussion of the women who are mentioned on this list: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe. All of them are writers and reformers. None of them are, you know, world leaders.
I’m just wondering … if you’re talking about English history, I’m thinking that Liz I (Tudor, not Taylor) might be a name to consider; ditto Isabella of Span, who I guess maybe didn’t do anything except, I don’t know, bankroll the guy who stumbled into North America? And what about in the category of “imperialism?” Dontcha think maybe Queen Victoria might have warranted a mention?She’s got an entire era named after her bad dowager self.
A person could read through this list and come away thinking that women have never been involved with any aspect of world governance, anywhere in the world, at any point in time.
I realize lists like these can fuel the “what about” arguments for days; I’ve fought with myself about what to include or leave out, as I write syllabi for my classes (upside? I always win the fight). I am sure that these guidelines are the product of hours, months, maybe years of people meeting and talking and yelling, of sending endless emails back and forth, of cutting-and-pasting and then cutting-and-pasting some more. And I know these are “guidelines” and “conceptual” and not meant to be proscriptive or definitive or absolute.
If I’m a busy, probably underpaid teacher (yes, I know, hard to imagine but just imagine, okay?) and I were being asked to re-vamp my curriculum for the next school year, I might just scan these guidelines and zip zap zoop, add some names from the list, swap some titles on my current reading list for the ones mentioned here and be done with it. Yes, we’d all hope for more thoughtful and considered revisions but I know how hard it is to write a syllabus and I know that it is really tough to teach a brand-new course, much less make sure that I can get all my students to pass a set of proscribed exams as a result of my brand-new course—all of which suggests that following the guidelines to the letter becomes really, really tempting.
That’s how “convnentional wisdom” starts, I think: not with conspiracy or patriarchal malice (okay, maybe a little of that), just an insidious, easily overlooked neglect, and then suddenly there we are (again): women do the soft stuff, men do the hard stuff; women write books and news articles, men write treaties and doctrines and foundational texts; women report on things, men do things.
Happy Birthday, Gloria. I wish I’d been right, all those years ago: I wish you were irrelevant. But you’re not.
Gloria at my commencement
Next week I am teaching Virginia Woolf’s brilliant and amazing essay A Room of One’s Own.
So on my list of “to do” for the weekend is this note, jotted down while I was in a meeting: “find a way in to Room.”
Of course, what I meant (I think) was that I need to figure out how to help my students tackle this long essay.
But the metaphor?
Woolf says that if each woman could have her own income (which Woolf pegs at being about 500 pounds a year) and a room with a lock on its door (one assumes locking from the inside, not outside, which is to say locking out and not being locked in), then it would be possible to develop “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.”
Wouldn’t that be nice?
It is a room of independence, I guess you could say; and Woolf was smart enough to understand that without freedom from economic worry, it’s very difficult to feel the freedom to create.
In this house that we’re renting, there’s a little room tucked in between the entrance to the garage and the laundry room. On the floor plan of the house, this room is designated “maid’s room.” Lots and lots of people have live-in help in Abu Dhabi, in part because if you hire someone full time, you have to sponsor the person’s visa–and in order to get a visa, you have to have a place to live. We don’t have any live-in help (I don’t want any witnesses), so I have adopted that room as my office.
My god. It’s another room-based metaphor: my “room of my own” is…the maid’s room.
And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In between driving and errands and laundry and housekeeping, in between earning money and making lists and going to meetings, somewhere in all that, a person should find the courage to write exactly what she thinks.