How older women are trying to change the world
Beware older women. Three American women aged 55 to 70 are leading presidential candidates. Christine Lagarde, aged 63, is president of the European Central Bank; the new European Commission president is Ursula von der Leyen, aged 61. US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 79.
Below the top ranks, the US organisation Emily’s List, which supports Democratic women candidates, reported that in the run-up to the 2018 congressional elections, more than 8,000 women over the age of 45 contacted the group about running for office.
The ranks of older women in the US workforce keep growing: Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz published a study in 2017 showing that 28 per cent of women aged 65 to 69 were still in the paid workforce, and 16 per cent of women aged 70 to 74, in both cases about double the comparable percentages in the 1980s.
And why not? New York Times columnist Gail Collins has just published a new book called No Stopping Us Now, a chronicle of “the adventures of older women in American history”. She quotes 40-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a founder of the 19th-century American women’s rights movement who had just had her sixth child, writing to her fellow activist Susan B Anthony to assure her, “You and I have the prospect of a long life. We shall not be in our prime before 50, and after that we shall be good for 20 years at least.”
Contrast that attitude — we shall not be in our prime before 50! — with the modern assumption that menopause is a “change of life” to be dreaded, managed and treated.
Historian Susan Mattern challenges this view, arguing that the whole concept of menopause as a medical issue is a constructed modern phenomenon. Her book, The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History and Meaning of Menopause, surely could not have been published 50 or even 20 years ago. She explores a longstanding evolutionary puzzle: men can reproduce at much older ages than women can, but women have longer lifespans. Thus older, post-reproductive women must serve some useful function for the survival of the species.
The traditional answer to this question is that even though older women can no longer bear children, they can help raise them. Mothers with grandmothers in the picture had an evolutionary advantage in the foraging and gathering necessary to keeping families fed. Prof Mattern goes beyond this thesis and argues that the transition to a life stage “of high productivity and zero reproductivity” for half the population is a good thing for the economy and society. The business world would do well to take that proposition on board.
The presence and power of older women is not solely due to their renewed post-reproductive energies. One of the chief pleasures of ageing is caring less and less what others think. But for women in particular, the idea of no longer having to depend on men for validation — of our attractiveness, competence and opinions — is liberating.
The older we get, the more risks we are willing to take. The same tendency may well be true of men, but male risk-taking has historically been associated with dramatic personal changes in later life: the red convertible, the trophy wife, the decision to bicycle or sail or mountain-climb around the world. For women who have advanced their careers playing by male rules, risk-taking is more likely to focus on overturning the existing order.
Media executive Pat Mitchell puts it well in her new memoir, Becoming a Dangerous Woman. “At this time in my life, about to turn seventy-five, I have nothing left to lose,” she writes.
We (I count myself in the ranks of older women) can start by simply saying what we think, rather than what we think is safe to say in a world still run by men. Why not mobilise female candidates around a platform to partly redirect national defence budgets to fight climate change, the existential threat to humanity and the planet? While we’re at it, why not invest more money in early education and family economic security than weapons systems?
Some women would disagree with these propositions, of course, while many men might agree. But the prevailing orthodoxy on issues ranging from national security to regulation of markets has been forged by men. Women, particularly older women, have less and less to lose by challenging it.
Many older women think of later life not as retirement and certainly not as a post-menopausal interlude, but as “phase three,” the phase after child rearing. Phase three can also be phase free, a time to take risks and upset apple carts. The world may never be the same.
The writer is president of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor