Stop Telling Older Women to Step Aside

Douglas is an enthusiastic booster for the pioneering activism of the women’s movement, and another chapter, “Why the Seventies Mattered,” highlights the galvanizing role of crusaders like Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Gray Panthers after being forcibly retired at 65. The author believes that boomers ought to reassert their influence: “We once changed the world. Let’s do it again.”

That should, theoretically, be easier this time around. The feminists of the 1970s were an embattled minority, but American culture has since assimilated many of their values into the mainstream. “According to a 2016 Washington Post poll, 68 percent of women aged 50 to 64 and 58 percent of women over 65 identify as feminists,” Douglas reports.

The actual meaning of that word is much simpler than you would think from the toxic stew of ageism and sexism proffered by angry misogynists like Rush Limbaugh, who broadcast his contempt with epithets like “feminazi” and “slut.” Dictionaries define a feminist as someone who believes that women deserve social, political, legal and economic rights equal to those of men. In other words, a feminist is any person who is not a bigot, since bigots think some people are second-class citizens.

And yet such bigotry remains pervasive and systemic; the opponents of women’s rights often pay lip service to equality, but American culture remains deeply hostile to the idea that women are autonomous. Their most basic needs are routinely ignored by everyone from politicians, advertisers, the media and the entertainment industry to the older men on dating sites who won’t consider partners their own age. As one analysis of the data concluded, “Statistically speaking, a woman’s desirability peaks at the age of 21,” according to men.

Although this prejudice limits our romantic prospects, its economic toll is far more consequential. Women may still be raised to believe that salvation lies in finding Prince Charming, despite the fact that the old blueprint left many women stranded if their husbands died or divorced them. When my grandmother was born, women’s average life spans were half what they are now; these days many boomers have already celebrated their mothers’ 100th birthdays. The need for a cultural overhaul is obvious, but our society remains stubbornly invested in what Douglas describes as its “utterly ossified notions of what it means to be an older woman.”

Her solution is that women should embrace a “life-span feminism” that addresses the interests of the larger half of the human population “throughout the entire arc of a woman’s life.” We’re pathetically far from her prescribed utopia; Douglas admits that we still live in “a cultural and media environment that is, for the most part, either clueless about this transformation or does not wish to recognize it.”

Umm, that’s putting it mildly — unless “does not wish to recognize it” is synonymous with “wants to crush it like a bug.” But why is this the case? Whose interests might be served by limiting women’s freedom and access to resources? Let’s see, could it possibly be those of the men who guard their stranglehold on the levers of power and the spoils of plunder so fiercely?

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