I’ve always been attracted to women who are assertive and have confidence – qualities older women possess. They’ve been on the Earth a little longer. They’re more seasoned. They don’t play games. They know what they want, and they’re not afraid to tell you.” ~ Taye Diggs
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ~ Robert Frost
I’m really interested in older women, to be honest, because they have lived a life that I’ve not yet lived. So I really want to learn from them, and I think culturally we tend to dispose of women once they get to a certain age and they don’t look a certain way. ~ Amanda de Cadenet
“My standard in this is: I’m going to support the most progressive candidate that’s leading the party, and right now, that is Nancy Pelosi, in terms of the running. I would like to see new, younger leadership, but I don’t want new leadership that’s more conservative.” ~ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Watching the struggle of once and future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in getting the votes to rise once again to one of the most powerful positions in the country — and potentially the world — reminded me of the struggles of older women in both the public and private sectors as they (finally) reach the pinnacle of power — and try to hold on to it.
Discrimination and Fear of Women
Discrimination, misunderstandings and fear of women has for centuries kept the so-called softer sex boxed in to what men defined as women’s roles. These included but were not limited to wives, mothers, housekeepers, cooks, low-level factory and other types of workers, nannies, nurses, secretaries, assistants — essentially servants of men.
Thus, it has taken women, in excruciating stages, centuries to break out of these roles exclusively and achieve some levels of — but not full — equality with men. It took American women to the brink of the 19th century before they could own their own property as well as not to be considered property of their fathers or husbands. (Note: single women enjoyed more liberties in this regard than married women, who once they married became the property of their husbands).
It took women 144 years after the Declaration of Independence to win the right to vote!
During wartime, such as the Civil and the World wars, women took over men’s jobs, thus proving that they could serve as soldiers (disguised as men during the Civil War) wield a rivet and run a forklift as well as a man. But as wars ended women were thrown out of those jobs and forced back to their traditional women’s roles.
The 1970s changed American women and their roles forever. For the first time, women were protected by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act; sexual harassment was defined and made illegal by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and the outcome of Roe v. Wade granted women the right to control their own bodies by being able to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or end it. On the social front, women made wearing pantsuits common in the workplace and at social events, asking men out on dates and picking up the check. The key to women advancing in the workplace was tied to their being admitted to colleges and universities, something that did not occur normally until Oberlin College began admitting women in 1837. By 1970, women made up 42 percent of college attendance. Currently, more women than men are graduating with degrees.
By and large, society has accepted that women are now equals in the workplace. But, in too many instances women’s presence and power are still feared by men and even some women, and they certainly continue to be discriminated against in mostly covert ways.
This is especially true of older women.
As a result of such discrimination and fear, many women of the Silent and Boomer generations have usually been late — or at least later — bloomers and have taken longer to achieve career heights than their male counterparts. With some exceptions, by the time women reach the top rungs of the corporate, professional or government service ladders they are much older than men who are on the same top rungs, and because of this phenomenon women have spent more time learning the ropes and crucial strategies, producing generally more experienced and savvy managers and CEOs, whether they head a large corporation or their own small entrepreneurial empire or any entity in between.
Such women are often — to use a colloquialism — tough old birds. They are mentally tough, superbly confident, deeply experienced and have honed their hard and soft skills to a fine and shiny point. As such, they should be valued more than they are, because quite simply, such women are pure gold to any organization, institution or government. They are role models from which to learn how to do whatever needs doing. They have been there, done that; they have been through many rodeos and have learned how to stay on the back of that bucking bronco. But those savvy female bronco busters are not as revered as male bronco busters.
To prove this point, take a look at a small sampling of past and present male politicians who served well into old(er) age and how they have been revered or at least their aging issues tolerated and sometimes defended and protected from criticism and public scrutiny:
- Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) served until age 100
- Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) served until 92
- Senator Carl Hayden (D-Arizona) served until 91
- Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah) served until 84
- Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) served until 82
- Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) served until 77
- Representative Ralph Hall (D-Texas) served until 91
- Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) served until 86
- President Ronald Reagan (R-California) served until 77
- President Donald Trump (R-New York) still serving at 70
Yet, while the ages of male politicians historically have been honored, currently the ages of female politicians are being mocked:
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-New York) at 69, the first woman to be nominated for President by a major Party
- Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) still serving at 85
- Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, still serving at 85
Female versus Male Achievers
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is the most recent example of a woman’s age being used as a weapon against her. While Speaker Pelosi has had a political career as successful as any man’s — although she put up with gender bias and put her career on hold to rear her children — she continues to hit her stride even as she approaches her 79th birthday. It’s true that she was born into a politically connected Baltimore family, but Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi has worked her way up to the position of historical ground breaker and powerhouse in the United States Congress largely through her own grit — a feat that the world celebrates when men are the achievers but tends to resent and reject such accomplishments in women. The idea that Nancy Pelosi is a liability to the Democratic Party has its roots in the Republican Party’s efforts to vilify her when she visibly rose in the ranks of Congress 15 year ago and they have never stopped.
Attacks on Speaker Pelosi are similar to the way in which another powerhouse female politician, Hillary Clinton was constantly criticized for her age, her looks, her lack of stamina, etc. Remember the dust-up during the Presidential campaign over her falling ill during the 9/11 memorial in New York? Nancy Pelosi, a stateswoman by any measure, has also been targeted for decades by the opposition — and sometimes within her own Party and even by those who agree with her political positions! Now that she is at the top of her game, like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi is now being attacked over her age.
Why is this? One theory is that women cannot compete in arenas formerly dominated by men and be likable. People prefer their leaders and heroes to be likable. Thus, women who achieve great heights — and to date they often have been women of a certain age — are considered to be too assertive and bold to fit society’s image of the ideal woman — even in 2019 — as feminine, soft and nurturing.
But society doesn’t have to accept this centuries-old branding of women. For their own good and for the good of civilization women should keep on achieving and reaching for the top of their respective professions. Older women in particular should not let their leadership be questioned or allow anyone to push them aside on the basis of their gender or age.
After all, considering their accomplishments for civilization, what would we do — or have done — without such women as the aforementioned as well as others who began careers, achieved success or continued their work into their older years, including Elizabeth Warren, Ginni Rometty, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mother Teresa, Marie Curie, Helen Gurley Brown, Clara Barton and, of course those heroines of yesteryear without whose dedication to women’s rights until their dying breaths at ages 86, 87 and 75, respectively, women would not be where they are today: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone.
These women represent a larger number throughout history and up to our modern age that have worked well into their so-called golden years, and all were and are worth their weight in gold. Today, older women across the nation and around the world in many fields are working into their 70s and 80s and even beyond, although not always without the continued problems of both gender and / or age discrimination.
Accountants, actresses, clergy, executive assistants, journalists, lawyers and physicians to name a few vocations, know that their age and experience are solid assets in increasingly complicated professional and social environments. But that fact is not always appreciated.
Whether women have been successful and productive most of their lives and wish to continue in their careers indefinitely, start a new career after retirement or wind up hitting their stride in their 70s, they should be allowed to carry on unfettered by age or gender. We must keep working to make that happen.
And now, speaking of dynamic older women who are carrying on, it’s time for me to watch Season 5 of Grace and Frankie – again.
Until next time,
5 thoughts on “The Grit — and Power of Older Women”
I can’t wait to dive in and read every word of this article.
Thank you, Bonnie, for your support and your hugs! They are so appreciated.
Congratulations on writing such a great article! I grew up with powerful older women, so am quite familiar with these ’new’ concepts for men. I would like to share this article by linking to it in some way. Do you have a preferred way? Will a simple hyperlink work? Thanks again. My best, Jay
Thank you, Jay! Love that you grew up in such an environment and that you “get it”! We need more such understanding in the world. Also love that you want to share this post – thank you, again! At the very bottom of the article you can click on various social media choices at which to share it, or as you say a hyperlink in an email will work as well, or you could simply forward the article if you received it in an email. Let me know if you have any problems with any of these methods. Hope all is well!