A recent article in The Atlantic, titled “The Invisibility of Older Women,” by Akiko Busch, struck a deep chord. Having turned 65 last month, I have been welcomed, on more than one occasion, to the age of Medicare. In addition to this milestone, I became a grandmother for the first time in late January. This blessed event brought with it as many questions about whether I’d be called “Grandmom or Granny” as it did about my eagerness to babysit and prepare freezer meals for the busy new parents.
At a time when younger women have a wealth of female role models over 60, ranging from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (85) to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (78) to Angela Merkel (64), why do so many women of my generation continue to feel compelled to raise awareness and sensitivity to ageism in 2019? Many close friends and I have recently reinvented ourselves in new careers, despite encountering along the way colleagues and a supervisor or two guilty of prejudiced phrases such as, “at your age,” “at this stage in your career” or one of the most infuriating, “isn’t it time just to slow down and smell the roses?”
Take the recent Michael Cohen hearing the morning of Feb. 27, as an example. Eleanor Holmes Norton, appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the first female chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1977, has gone on to serve 15 terms as the delegate at large representing the District of Columbia in the U.S. House of Representatives. At age 81, she asked sharp and probing questions during the Cohen hearing. Doing the meaningful work of a civil rights advocate is nothing new to Congresswoman Norton. Ironically, hers was not the media focus in the day’s coverage of Mr. Cohen’s testimony. That was 29-year-old superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who emerged once again as the media darling and designated “future” of the Democratic Party. Not to pit young against old, but with age comes experience. One can only hope that the “future” will stand on the shoulders of experience and wisdom.
Open-minded millennials realize this, explaining partially why Justice Ginsburg has achieved superhero popularity. A younger colleague of mine told me, “RBG is every girl’s dream Bubbie. She’s progressive, famous, brilliant and beautiful in her younger days.” The young colleague then wisely added, “No, not only in her younger days. RBG is still a beauty.”
It is important to note that ageism isn’t necessarily limited to the “invisibility of older women.” My husband admits to being guilty of repeatedly stating his concerns about a Joe Biden presidential bid. I’ve lost count of the times he has commented with exasperation, “The man is 76.” To that I always come back with a well-memorized litany of heroes: “Winston Churchill served until age 90”; “look at the queen still going strong at 92.”
My baby boomer friends and I aren’t superstars, but I can vouch for the fact that many are doing exciting new things. One runs marathons; another is researching and writing a book. Another longtime colleague with a distinguished career in education now chairs a board. Beyond the traditional roles in retirement, I have female friends who are now political activists and fundraisers. Those who have chosen to spend their days babysitting grandchildren are doing so because not only are they enriching their grandchildren’s lives, but also providing much-needed support to their own sons and daughters working hard in important careers. These are anything but “invisible older women.”
Only last week, I learned of the passing of a former colleague and friend, a nun with whom I worked over 30 years ago. This sister lived as a member of a supportive and loving religious community until her death at age 98. She donated her body to science for research on aging among religious women, many of whom have spent their long careers as teachers. Perhaps the findings of this research will further validate the importance of living one’s life with a sense of purpose, free of ageist social bias against older women.