A recent article by Akiko Busch in The Atlantic, titled “The Invisibility of Older Women,” 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 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (78) to German Chancellor 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” and “at this stage in your career,” or one of the most infuriating questions: “Isn’t it time just to slow down and smell the roses?”
Take the recent Michael Cohen hearing 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 House of Representatives. At age 81, she asked sharp and probing questions. Doing the meaningful work of a civil rights advocate is nothing new to her.
Norton was not the media focus in the day’s coverage of Cohen’s testimony. That was 29-year-old superstar Rep. 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 Ginsburg has achieved superhero popularity among them. 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 supposed invisibility of older women. My husband admits to being guilty of repeatedly stating his concerns about a Joe Biden presidential candidacy. 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. And look at Queen Elizabeth II of England, 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. A longtime colleague with a distinguished career in education now chairs a board. Beyond the traditional roles of 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 they are also are providing much-needed support to their own sons and daughters working hard in important careers. These women are anything but invisible.
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.
Carolyn Buck is a writer and teaching artist at Baltimore Center Stage.