Older women's newer models: Gray is glam

When Marie Brenner left college in 1971, she was an ardent feminist with greasy hair and "Joan Baez clothes," who had little use for the gloved and pearl-clad women of her mother's generation.

But as she grew older - establishing a career as a writer and raising a family of her own - Ms. Brenner found herself casting about for role models. Confronting midlife questions and issues of aging, she began looking to a generation of older women.

"I was inspired by them - they were tough. They were soldiers in high heels," says Brenner, author of the bestseller, "Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women."

As members of the baby-boom generation enter their 50s, women like Brenner who left college on a wave of feminism and went on to juggle high-powered careers with family life are redefining what it means to age. True to their 1960s roots, they're rebelling against a cultural landscape obsessed with youth - and breaking through stereotypes that equate gray with decline.

Cultural renaissance for older women: Gray is glam

Take, for example, Tyne Daly's character on the CBS drama, "Judging Amy." As played by Ms. Daly, Maxine is a gray-haired, 60ish woman who's renewed her career as a social worker and who also has a serious love interest.

There is a broad range of novels, like Margaret Drabble's, "A Natural Curiosity," which explore the ways women in midlife approach their older years.

Even Neiman Marcus ran a fashion spread in a recent cataloge that featured a silver-haired model and an accompanying essay about older women which declared, "When we become evolved enough to separate silver hair from the idea of personal decline, then we can see the color for what it is: symbolic, spiritual, splendid."

It's an interest driven by a number of factors, say cultural observers.

For one thing, the 38.5 million baby-boomer women now entering their 40s and 50s are the most women who have ever been in that age group at one time. In addition, those boomers are expected to live longer lives than ever before, to 100 years and beyond.

Add to those demographics the fact that these women came of age during the feminist movement - and entered the workplace in unprecedented numbers - and it makes sense that women are seeking new definitions and images of aging.

"We don't have a lot of models of older women, we don't have a sense of how to become an older woman," says Kathleen Woodward, editor of "Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations."

"It's exciting because it's really up to us to invent how we're going to live out these years," says Ms. Woodward, who is director of the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "If people start to think differently, we will begin to invent ways of looking at aging differently."

Brenner found her role models by looking back to a generation that includes women like actress Kitty Carlisle Hart and federal Judge Constance Baker Motley.

"They had a certain mettle that my generation lacked. I felt like I could learn a lot from them," she says, "and how they lived out Act II and Act III of their lives."

Although baby-boomer men are also swelling the numbers of older Americans, and facing questions of what to do with longer lives, women are breaking new ground in more ways.

Traditionally, men have been allowed to age more gracefully - retiring from careers that have lent them an air of accomplishment or wisdom, starting second families with younger women, even sporting gray hair that is considered "distinguished."

Aging women, on the other hand, say cultural observers, have been portrayed in far more restrictive ways. They have been seen as less productive than men once their childbearing years are over, and suffering from "empty nest" syndrome - with little to do once children leave home.

But all that is changing - albeit slowly.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, says that women who have entered professions once occupied mainly by men - in business, law, medicine, and politics - are redefining the way women are viewed as they grow older.

"These are jobs where, correctly or incorrectly, people perceive that you gain wisdom as you age, that experience counts for something," Ms. Ireland says.

"There is still that undercurrent of when you see gray, it means the fire has gone out. But it's definitely changing," she adds. "A lot of women are nowhere near ready to be thrown on the scrap heap or get out of the competition."

Ireland and others note that many women are broadening their horizons as they grow older - starting second careers after raising children, or switching careers. Louise Lague, a psychotherapist who specializes in midlife issues, says, "We're at the point now where women of 50 are perceived as being very interesting instead of over the hill.

"Among my friends, we're finding that life is so much more interesting at this age," says Ms. Lague, who writes about the psychology of style and wrote the Neiman Marcus essay on silver hair. "Our lives are so broad. It's a very rich time of life."

Beyond categories of young or old

What is needed now, say many women, is a model of womanhood that moves beyond simple categories of young or old. As more women live longer and fuller lives, they say, womanhood will be seen as a series of phases that continue well beyond the end of a woman's childbearing years.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of "Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Mid-life," argues that a term like "post-maternal" needs to become part of the cultural language as a way to describe women who have adult children. "It indicates women in a new paradigm," she says, "women who are becoming older and feeling freer simultaneously."

Ms. Gullette, who is a resident scholar in women's studies at Brandeis, says the Million Mom March for gun control provided a good example of the image she holds in mind for redefining womanhood. Like many other women, Gullette marched in Washington along with family members representing a huge range in age - from a cousin's six-month-old twins to an 80-year-old aunt.

"We were 17 people, all family members, all mixed up together," she recalls. "It was a multigenerational frieze. That's an image that I love."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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