Ice Floes and Invisible Women

The wind has been howling for two days, making the windows rattle, the house creak. Shaking the rose bush by the kitchen window so it sounds as if something is trying to get into the house, angry and demanding.

This past week we’ve had several days of warmer weather and sunshine. So much sun that the solar lights along the path to the house and the solar tiki torches on the back deck were in full blaze last night. They’ve been covered in snow for weeks. Today, everything has changed again. It’s grey once more and snow flurries are flying by my window. Winter hasn’t left us yet. The earth must wait a while longer before rebirth begins. A study in contrasts.

Grow old with me!  The best is yet to be.  ~Robert Browning

Yesterday was my birthday. I love birthdays, especially when they’re mine. Not because of the presents although I do love presents. But because they bring together my family in joy and laughter and love. Sweetie greeted me with breakfast in bed, and promised me a day of gifts and song. He presented me with a poem that spoke of his love. He bought me tickets to a show I’ve been wanting to see. He danced and sang to a Rolling Stones song… something I wish I had been able to record. It was hilarious.

Yesterday was also a work day as most birthdays are. I spent it on conference calls and working on a training manual for a union course on collective bargaining. All in all, it was a fine day. And yet….

I struggle with aging. I struggle with the age that shows in my face and body. I struggle with the intensely annoying symptoms of menopause. And I struggle with being firmly planted in that stage of life where women become invisible. 

Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.–Gloria Steinem 

When my first marriage ended, I was 48. Convinced that men my age had no interest in women my age. Resigned to a life of quiet but harmonious invisibility. Sweetie proved to be the exception.

North American society would have us believe that women at middle age have lost their power. They cease to be desirable. They are forgetful, hormone-ridden creatures no longer able to reproduce. They become figures of fun – in movies, on television, even in conversation. I know, I know, there are lots of examples of powerful women who came into their real power in middle age. But the majority of us, even those who achieve some measure of success in our professional lives, become invisible to society generally. And those who do achieve greatness are subject to a scrutiny and image bashing society would not tolerate if the bashing was because of race or disability. Just think Hilary Clinton.

I was born at a time when feminism was just entering its second phase. Despite the efforts of women before me which gave us the vote, we hadn’t really come that far. I grew up when women were burning their bras and embracing sexual freedom. But I still needed my husband’s signature when I wanted a bank loan. I entered a profession where women were making inroads. But I was denied a job reading the news on radio because my voice apparently lacked the weight and authority of a male voice. It was fine for me to handle traffic reports and weather. And I watched male colleagues with the same or less experience than mine be paid more. Be groomed and fast-tracked for promotion. (It wasn’t about talent or ability. I am good at my job. I have won multiple awards for my work. I am respected by my colleagues. At least I think I am. Insecurity shows itself once again.)

Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.  ~Mark Twain

Do I mind? You bet I do. By the time women get to my age, society is no longer interested in us. We are not the people marketers chase. Most clothing stores are filled with clothes aimed at young women with a body shape we will never see again.

When I went shopping for a wedding dress two years ago, there was nothing aimed at women my age. Wedding dresses were all white, strapless princess affairs. The other option was mother-of-the-bride dresses. I didn’t want to wear white. I didn’t want to be some sailing ship of burgundy taffeta. I wanted classic elegance. In dark blue velvet. I had my dress made.

Cars are another example. They’re aimed at couples with growing families, young people who want speed and style, man’s men who want hemis and half tons. I have yet to see an ad for a stylish but safe, peppy but practical car for my gender and demographic.

Ads on TV rarely feature middle-aged women unless they are promoting retirement products (in which case they are supporting their husbands). Or they’re getting into one of those bathtubs with the doors on them. Or they’re running out into the snow in shorts because they’re a little too warm. And although we occasionally see great movie roles for women my age, they are far from the norm. Even the Meryls and Annettes and Juliannes have lamented this publicly. They too are women “of a certain age”.

What about “Desperate Housewives?” you ask. “Isn’t that a show about four strong, beautiful women over forty?” Is it really? Doesn’t the title say it all?

In the nineties, there was a television show called, “L.A. Law”. If you watched it, you may recall an episode arc dealing with a love affair between one of the male lawyers and an older woman. She was strong and beautiful. He was not. Until an episode when she undressed. The only image we saw was her naked back. A back that showed classic signs of aging… sagging muscles, back fat, slightly padded hips. The episode was considered ground-breaking. I haven’t seen anything like it since. And I am ashamed to admit that my reaction that fifteen or so years ago was… ew. How would I react today, knowing that the back in the image could now be mine? Sadly, a modified ew, but ew nonetheless. Conditioning is hard to shake, even when we’re aware of it.

Tina Turner, herself a remarkable woman who succeeded in transcending invisibility, sang about love and women of a certain age. Sadly the only such woman in her video is herself, at least as near as my aging eyes can make out. We are sometimes our own worst enemies when we perpetuate certain images, join in the denigration of older women, and reject the principles of feminism.

If you want to know more about the origins of “women of a certain age”, William Safire wrote a great piece about it in the New York Times. Although by the definition espoused here, it suggests I am now beyond even that category.

This rant (because I fear this is what this post has become) is not just about images. It’s also about what happens in real, everyday life. I think the first time I realized that I had shifted was the first time I was Ma’am‘ed. I was filling up my car at the gas station and the young man helping me called me Ma’am! Ma’am??? What happened to Miss? Where did it go? I looked around me in panic but Miss was indeed nowhere to be found.

I travel a lot for work. When I enter a restaurant alone, I am usually seated by a door or next to the kitchen even when there are better tables available. When I check into a hotel at the same time a male colleague checks in, he always gets a bigger and better room. It’s not for lack of trying on my part. I am warm and friendly at check-in. I smile. I am patient and cooperative. If Sweetie is with me, it’s a different story. Everything – restaurant seating, room assignment, late check-out – magically changes.

Youth is a disease from which we all recover. ~ Dorothy Fulheim

This isn’t all just about being a middle-aged woman though. It’s also about aging generally.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a union conference call. A young man new to union activism commented on how his department uses new technology and how the older people don’t get it. Yet management has told him they can’t just get rid of them. And how that has to change. Clearly some education on the role and philosophy of unions is required. But the disrespect his comments showed for people who’ve spent years building careers, for their knowledge and skill and experience was astounding. I said to a friend later, himself middle-aged, that I suppose this young man would be much happier if we could all be sent out to sea on ice floes.

That call reminded me of a meeting with management last year where a young manager began talking about the so-called creative arc theory. That people peaked in their ability to be creative in their thirties and early forties and after that, the ability to be creative declined. He was soundly thumped for his suggestion, not only by the union but by his own management team. Especially when it was pointed out he was quoting theory more than forty years old, theory that had since been found wanting. Given that almost everyone on both sides of the table was over forty, you might have thought he’d have considered his audience. Ah, the impetuosity of youth!

It could be argued that these are simply two people who didn’t know better. Or that they weren’t the norm. And if that were true, well, okay. But it’s not.

So if I’m sounding a bit blue, or a bit angry, or a bit frustrated about getting older and about being a woman who’s getting older, it’s because I am. As Sweetie routinely points out, though, it’s better than the alternative.

One of the best parts of growing older?  You can flirt all you like since you’ve become harmless.  ~Liz Smith

Is being invisible all bad? If you asked my mother, she would say no. She has laid claim to invisibilty for years. She says she hears things people would never say if they thought she was really there. She says there’s freedom in invisibility. You don’t have to worry about what you look like or what others might be thinking.

As for aging, that too has its advantages. Seniors’ discounts. Special treatment. People carrying stuff for you. When she wants something or needs help, my mother is not above playing the old lady card. Sometimes the somewhat dotty old lady card. It works. She is a wise woman. But I wonder if this particular piece of wisdom is how one rationalizes aging and invisibility to make them tolerable. Or maybe it just comes down to attitude. 

Old age ain’t no place for sissies.  ~Bette Davis

At one time, it was believed people were at risk of attack from evil spirits on their birthdays, hence a loud and noisy celebration. To keep the evil spirits at bay.

As another year passes and a new one begins, so too will I push back the spirits of belittlement, disparagement, impertinence, insolence, contempt and disregard. (A thesaurus is a handy thing!) I will speak up loudly. I will challenge others when I am treated with any of the above. I will challenge myself in creativity. I will educate when the opportunity arises. I will resist, with everything in me, the efforts to sideline me on a virtual ice floe. I will share what wisdom and experience I have fought to acquire – gently and upon request. Well, maybe not always gently. Or on request. There’s a limit after all. But I will do my best to appreciate every line, wrinkle and sag as evidence of a life being lived. I am not yet in the winter of my life. I am clearly past my spring. My early autumn? Perhaps. I’m not quite ready to play the old lady card. And I’m still thinking about that facelift.

A study in contrasts.

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About saxbergonstuff

I'm a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. When I'm not focusing on that, I'm an educator, facilitator and content designer. When I feel like it.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Aging Gracefully (or trying to), In Search of Wellbeing, Life and Family Stories, Music, Unions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ice Floes and Invisible Women

  1. Juliana says:

    Well, I try to stay out of the Boomer bashing, but its out there and I am afraid it will get worse. I’m more interested to see how your generation deals with aging. I expect that you will transform the golden years in the same way you transformed the world in the 1970s. How will you do it? A couple of things seem obvious. More emphasis on health and active living. Developing an enthusiasm for technology. (I note these strategies are both straight out of your mother’s play book). And, I am sorry to say it, you’re going to have to rethink the idea of retirement. Leaving the tenuous financial viability of pension plans aside, its frankly absurd that the biggest, most skilled, most financially powerful group of workers (thats you guys, Boomers) expects to check out of the workplace with 20-odd good, able years left to do … what? Travel? Garden? Read books? Come on. You’ll all be miserable and you know it. Work is absolutely fundamental to one’s self esteem and feeling of being relevant and connected to the world. I seriously doubt that you’ll be that anxious to turn over the reigns to the younger generation anyway. You will see how badly we are screwing things up and you won’t be able to resist getting back into the game, if you retire at all. I expect to see Boomers in their late 60s and 70s still active and influential in the boardrooms, the court rooms, the class rooms ….and I expect to do the same when I am in my 60s and 70s too, because you will have left your footprints, your millions of footprints, for me to follow in ….

    And as for the loss of idealism, your experience resonates with mine. I wish we had more answers. I like Sweetie’s suggestion that we do it together. I know you guys are the good ones. I just wish there were more of you left.

  2. saxbergonstuff says:

    Just when I thought there was a good discussion going!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your point of view, Juliana. You raised some really interesting points that have caused me to think through more thoroughly my own remarks. Let me try to respond to some of your comments.

    What’s frustrating for me in my efforts to remain idealistic is the constant pressure to be pragmatic. I hate it when people tell me something won’t work because it isn’t realistic. I can’t accept that until I know we’ve asked why? and why not? and what if? and have thoroughly canvassed supposing…

    Unfortunately idealism is often equated with pollyanaism and dismissed as such. And while I admit that’s a prevalent attitude within my generation, I’ve seen much evidence of it amongst Gen X’ers and Ys.

    I think much of my frustration over what I perceive to be a lack of respect for my age is that I know I still have much to offer. I am thinking seriously about how I will continue to go about doing that when I retire in a few years. I like to think I’m smarter and wiser and more creative that I was even ten years ago. And I would hope that someone might be interested in taking advantage of that.

    Many boomers I know share this belief but certainly not all. I have friends who would love to be able to retire now. But if they don’t want to end up needing support from their kids, they need to accumulate sufficient resources. And I’m not talking about saving enough for a fancy lifestyle, just one that’s comfortable.

    As for hogging all the top jobs, that’s not been my experience in my workplace. Just the opposite in fact. The top jobs are being populated by younger workers while the older ones whose experience shows in their faces are being pulled out of the public eye and into jobs they mastered years ago. Perhaps that’s a unique feature of the business I’m in but when it comes time to hire, I know few companies interested in hiring anyone in their fifties. And those are the people being let go to make room for younger, cheaper workers.

    I guess the point is that the problems we face aren’t necessarily caused by a single generation nor is a single generation responsible for the solutions.

    What’s clear to me in reading your comments and thinking about the people in the anecdotes I related is that there are frustrations on all sides. Rather than pit generations against each other, it seems to me our energies might be better spent coming together and working to change a system that believes in divide and conquer.
    How exactly we do that I have no idea. But it’s something worth thinking about. I’d love to hear your thoughts about that. Hope this doesn’t feel like piling on.

    And thanks for the birthday wishes!

  3. Juliana says:

    Ok for sure. Ps. Happy Birthday Auntie Barbara!! xoxo

  4. Sweetie says:

    I think Juliana means “WE” have to do something about this fast. As someone who has fought for social justice, decent incomes, health and retirement benefits through much of my life I am considerably reluctant to accept the blame for not creating world peace. That job is still open but I have to admit I don’t see a lot of people in North America rushing to fill it. If this role falls on a single generation god help us. Some of us keep trying but it’s an uphill battle.

    For the record I don’t drive a Lexus although there is nothing wrong with owning one. I make no apologies for continuing to work, for exploiting my skills and earning an income. I also make no apologies that after more about four decades of slugging it out I can now enjoy an Arizona holiday or trip elsewhere. There were lots of years I couldn’t, where I missed birthdays and anniversaries while out keeping a roof over my families head. As we hit our sixties no one should be surprised that we obsess somewhat on pension plans and the like.

    We did fail in some ways. For example we often raised kids that didn’t hear the word no often enough and where we created a sense of entitlement that unfortunately continues.

    We do share a common cause I believe, making growing old dignified and meaningful. A lot of boomers these days are finding themselves the meat in the sandwich, with kids and parents needing financial and other assistance. We are unique is someways. But don’t be kid yourself the issue of a decent retirement income has been an issue for decades. Many boomer I know base their concerns not some much on their own retirement situation but on that of their parents and what their children will face. So I guess we can point fingers at generation this or that but my view is the only way we are going to figure this out is by doing it together. Oh, and we still want to give peace a chance.

  5. Juliana says:

    This was an interesting post. I’ve certainly noticed examples of what I might call “Boomer backlash” – blatant ageism and resentment towards your generation (who, I will note, are still firmly in charge of things and seem poised to remain so for some time). You might see these comments in articles about the state of CPP or the future of pension plans, for example. My generation, “Generation X”, continues to flounder about in a state of “sad grad” post-university settling well into our thirties and even forties, warily watching this new younger generation (Generation Y, or as I like to say generation whine) come up, slowly realizing that we are the Prince Charleses of the workplace (we will never be king). Its not the fact that you guys are hogging all the top jobs and refusing to retire that makes me angry at boomers, however. For me its the complete 180-degree reversal from the idealism of the 60s and 70s, when you were going to change the world with love, when you were going to give peace a chance? What happened to that? Many of the boomers I know are most interested in their own financial positions (the obsession with pension plans), the consumption of luxury goods (the Lexus, the timeshare in Arizona, the vacation one-upmanship (a month in China? Six weeks in India?)), and cementing their own power. Its clear we have a lot to learn from you about change, about activism, about the institutions you have built … but its hard to find the Boomers who still really believe in the ideals (not impossible, but you are definitely in the minority). Anyway. Either way we are looking to you now to make growing old dignified and meaningful … because if you don’t, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. This new generation – say what you will about it – is giant numbers-wise, and is different from us and from you in ways we don’t really understand. And if they are resentful towards you boomers, they’re not going to let us Gen-Xers hang around in the workplace after you’re gone! They’re not going to care if we are being neglected and abused by our sullen and underpaid elder care workers! My point is you better do something about this and fast. Don’t let us down again like you did with the whole flower child ‘revolution’.

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