winter 2004
table of contents
Letter from the Editor
Articles Online

Election Postmortem
A Center of One's Own
Abortion/Breast Cancer Link?
The Russian Wives Club


From Gadfly to Nobel Peace Prize
DemocraShe in Northern Ireland
Women's Film in Palestine
Networking Corner

Cover Story
Women of the Year
Jersey Girls | Jessica Seigel
Samanta Power | Catherine Orenstein
Betty Dukes | Ellen Hawkes
Saudatu Mahdi | Stephanie Nolen
Kathy Najimy | Ellen Snortland
Maxine Waters | Lisa Armstrong
Lisa Fernandez | Michele Kort

More Features

Women, Democracy and Hope | Kathy Sheridan
The End of Feminism's Third Wave | Lisa Jervis
The Fuck-You 50s | Suzanne Braun Levine
Rocking the Cradle of Jazz | Sherrie Tucker
Cheers and Cringes: The Year in Review
Women Who Made a Difference


Back to the Kitchen
Decoding anti-feminist writer Caitlin Flanagan | Hillary Frey

Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary | Rebecca Brown

It was a Good Year for Dreams | Cortney Davis
the seahorse as transubstantiation
|Quan Barry

Activists, actors, academics, athletes, writers and a great chef

Book Reviews
Patricia Cohen on Marilynne Robinson's Gilead; Jenoyne Adams on Michel Wallace's Dark Designs and Visual Culture; Debra Spark on Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World; Bernadette Murphy on Mary Gordon's Pearl; Valerie Miner on Alice Munro's Runaway

Plus: Winter Must-Read List

We Must Frame the Debate - Now! | Donna Brazile

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FEATURES | winter 2004

Suzanne Braun Levine
photo / Heather Weston

The Fuck-You 50s
We’re loud, proud and 37 million strong

Such a critical mass of older women with a tradition of rebellion and independence and a way of making a living has not occurred before in history.
— Gerda Lerner, historian

Jyoti, a jungian therapist who has studied native cultures around the world, had a dream about our generation. In it, she said, “We were donkeys and ponies, and we were a big dust storm going over the desert. Then, the dust settled and there was something new growing. That was what the wave of us had come to do. Until now, when we’ve gotten to a new stage, we’ve looked around and said, ‘We don’t like this; this is just crazy …’ and we’ve changed it. Why should we use our elder years — our wise years — any differently?”

Saving the world may not be what most of us have in mind for the next chapter in our lives, yet the journey we are on — mapping our Second Adulthood — is taking us from a most intimate inquiry outward to the way we express ourselves in the world, the way we connect with other individuals and generations, and ultimately to the impact we can have on society.

We 37 million women in our late 40s, 50s and 60s are part of a sea of change that can lift a fleet of boats, not just our own. But we are only just beginning to become aware of the tidal wave we represent. Not only are we gaining strength both as individuals and as a group, but our influence is compounded by our attitude.

“Women get more radical with age,” Gloria Steinem frequently points out, because for one thing, we have had more years of experience coming up against false assumptions about what we are capable of, and for another, we have the daring that comes with what I call “the fuck-you 50s” to defy those barriers.

Economists, politicians, corporate executives, sociologists and medical researchers are waking up to the thundering herd of “ponies and donkeys” headed their way. And we should be too.

Throughout our First Adulthood we experienced the validity of the phrase “the personal is political”; that what made one woman feel stifled, oppressed or just uncomfortable, often to her own shame, would turn out to be part of a larger pattern that needed to be changed. And then, no longer isolated and guilt-ridden individuals, but an activist lobby of dissatisfied citizens, we set about to change it.

Just remember how the inability of thousands of young athletes to get themselves taken seriously created the groundswell that opened up Little League competition to girls and produced the Title IX legislation.

The potential for that kind of cultural shift exists today. Thirty- seven million doses of what Margaret Mead named “postmenopausal zest” make quite a potent brew. We have the voting power, economic clout, the leadership skills and the organizing experience to reshuffle the priorities of our society — and not just for ourselves.

Voting Power

Every politician has an eye on us. The gender gap — the divergence of women’s votes from men’s — was first observed in 1971, when a poll by the Louis Harris organization — commissioned by Virginia Slims cigarettes to confirm its “You’ve come a long way, baby” slogan — showed a growing unrest and assertiveness among women voters.

Harris found that “there are signs that women are now playing for keeps in politics, more than any time in the past, and that this activism will accelerate.” Over the next 30 years — our First Adulthood — the trend has solidified, and the gap has been shown to increase with age.

That wasn’t all Harris observed. Women are “more inclined … to vote and to become active not only for their self-interest, but for the interest of society, the world, and most of all, out of compassion for humanity,” he reported.

Since then, the pattern has been documented over and over again. Polls show that the issues women consider priorities — abortion, the environment, gun control, social programs — are lesser concerns for men. In general, we envision a government that takes responsibility for providing basic services to the community.

As women become an increasing majority of voters, and Second Adulthood women become an increasing proportion of that group, the political process will begin to reflect the potential for change we represent.

Economic Clout

We are now in the unprecedented position of being able to put some money where our bigmouthed opinions are. The more equitable our earning power becomes and the more knowledgeable we become about financial management, the more money we have to spend and invest.

We are becoming a source of capital and enterprise (the majority of small business start-ups are by women), and we are becoming a major consumer bloc, too. We can make a big difference by simply putting our dollars behind causes or people that seem to have the right idea, or we can make investments and purchases with those concerns in mind.

Our buying power is particularly potent. You wouldn’t know it to look at the ads, in which we are invisible, but we spend one-third more on toiletries ($8 billion) than women 18 to 34 and, according to Women’s Wear Daily, the apparel industry bible, “industry representatives confirmed that despite being ignored by many marketers, graying boomers are the most powerful force in the apparel industry.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, who runs a program called Odyssey: School for the Second Half of Life, has come to the conclusion in her book written with James Maxmin, The Support Economy, that the challenges of our tumultuous lives so far puts us “in the vanguard of the new society of individuals, even as it amplified [our] role in consumption.”

That suggests, she goes on, “that the commercialization of women’s dreams will be an important factor in the next economic revolution.”

What those dreams are and how they are commercialized are questions we need to answer before economic forces do it for us. We have yet to harness the consumer power of our Second Adulthood, but it offers a wide range of opportunities for activism — the very successful first consumer boycott was organized in 1973 by housewives over meat prices — and for entrepreneurship with a message.

Anita Roddick, now 62, who built The Body Shop into a $1.37 billion-a-year operation, has demonstrated how influential a businesswoman can be when she decides to connect profits with politics — and when like-minded consumers back her up with their purchasing power. Roddick hopes The Body Shop will serve as a model and “lead the way for businesses to use their voice for social and environmental change.”

Organizing for Change

So much of our experience with the world has been shaped by being outsiders that we have trouble accepting and taking advantage of the fact that many of us are now power brokers and decision makers in realms that once seemed off-limits.

And perhaps because so many of us are more comfortable on the inside these days, we have lost track of the continuing need to work on social problems from the outside in, as we did so effectively in our First Adulthood.

The women’s-health movement, which took shape in the early ’70s, shows how the personal became political, and then powerful. Back when concern about how the medical establishment treated women began to coalesce around drugs like DES (diethylstilbestrol) and the Pill, most women only saw male doctors, scientific studies were conducted on male subjects, and conditions peculiar to women were hardly studied at all.

Drug manufacturers spoke only to government agencies (in confidential reports and negotiations) and to doctors, who prescribed medications but never explained why, or what the risks were. Our expertise, even about our own bodies, was disregarded along with our wishes.

“You have to remember,” recalls Barbara Seaman, whose groundbreaking The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill was published in 1969 and helped trigger the women’s-health movement, “in those days doctors wouldn’t let women have natural childbirth. They hit you on the head with anesthesia, and you weren’t awakened until the hairdresser showed up.”

We owe any mastery we have achieved over our own health management to the efforts of Seaman and her sisters-in-arms. The strategy was established early on: energize a grassroots constituency; create coalitions from smaller autonomous groups; share strategies, contacts and information through informal but efficient networks; and form alliances with sympathetic sources on the inside of government, industry and the profession.

Today, there remain urgent societal problems in need of a movement. One of them strikes particularly close to home.

The Caregiving Crisis

At the same time as we are generating an explosion of energy that is changing our world, we are leaving an implosion of equal force in our wake — a care-giving crisis. It is not our fault, but it is a direct result of choices we made.

Traditional assumptions about a woman’s responsibility for taking care of everyone else — including the community, the school, the library, the church — have led to some painful moments in our first adulthood. Guilt, anger and regret are intertwined with the trade-offs we made that gave us confidence and satisfaction.

Now as we ease ourselves out of the “emotional management business” the caregiving system that relied on the unpaid or low-paid work of women is falling apart. Existing institutions — schools, emergency rooms, shelters, even prisons, and families themselves — were not designed or funded to handle the needs of increasing numbers of citizens and are being crushed under the burden.

“The fact is,” writes political scientist Mona Harrington in Care and Equality, “the old formulas cannot yield both care and equality. They are bankrupt. And they are generating a social crisis that cannot be addressed realistically until we can remove the blinders of traditional thinking and take in the whole of what is happening.”

Is there anyone better positioned to remove the blinders of traditional thinking about caregiving than us? Even when women began to break out of the domestic framework, they — we — never broke free of that traditional thinking.

We tried to do it all, to hold up both halves of the universe. The struggle to balance the two has defined our generation. And that hasn’t changed, because the system hasn’t changed.

Every day women are missing work— and one-third of them are losing pay—to care for a sick child. Twenty percent of them don’t have health insurance. We have negotiated with men to share the load, but even two people are hard-pressed to hold a job and care for children and — as 22.4 million families, nearly one in four, do — care for older family members or friends as well.

It is even harder to stand up and say, “We can’t and we shouldn’t have to do this all by ourselves anymore.”

“You have got to be kidding!” I can hear both my First and Second Adulthood selves protest. “I spent the first half of my adult life feeling responsible for everyone but myself. I’ve finally discovered how to let go of the excesses of that experience. I’m only just beginning to care for myself. And now I’m supposed to get involved in creating a better system for caregiving with a capital C because I know so much about it!”

I admit there is a certain irony to the suggestion that a mission of our collective Second Adulthood should be to pick up the pieces of the system that we just broke out of. But looked at another way, the same ethic of interdependence that made care for others such a priority also gives us a model for a wider social net of community support.

Add to that what we are learning this time around about autonomy and interconnectedness — and about guilt reduction — and you have a starting point for a social policy that takes some of the caretaking responsibilities out of the individual homes and puts them into a societal framework that involves the whole community.

When we ask ourselves the three primary questions of Second Adulthood — What matters? What works? and What’s next? — one response to the first has to be “my community,” however each of us defines it.

To the second, we already know the answer: A combination of participation, passion and power. And when we look ahead, we want to answer, “We’re working on a better way!”


Suzanne Braun Levine was editor of Ms. from its inception through 1987. She remains the longest-standing editor of this magazine. This feature is from her book, Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood (Viking, 2005).

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