Walking the Great Wall of China for seven hours a day ranks as one of the more exotic vacations a traveler could choose. So when a friend returned to her home in Scotland after a week of rugged treks along the ancient, often crumbling wall, her local newspaper sent an eager reporter to interview her about the experience.
He was duly impressed. "Grandmother Takes on Great Wall," the headline crowed, its large type marching across three columns, as if to express amazement at her accomplishment. The reporter also made it a point to use the word grandmother in the opening sentence of his story.
Yet "grandmother" is hardly the description that first comes to mind when meeting my friend. She is in her 50s, full of energy and enthusiasm. As a member of a 50-plus Scottish ramblers' club, she revels in 13-mile hikes through sheep pastures and heather-clad hills. Rain and mist? Chilly temperatures? No problem. Armed with trusty hiking boots and cheerful determination, she presses on, savoring the landscape and the company of other walkers.
What is it about the word "grandmother" that journalists on both sides of the Atlantic love, even when it bears no real relevance to a story? Despite rapidly changing roles for women in midlife, it still suggests Norman Rockwell images of apron-clad, snowy-haired women more at home in the kitchen than in the office or on a hiking trail. Matronly remains the operative stereotype.
That's the same stereotype a young Latina woman perpetuated in a National Public Radio segment last week. Complaining that many Hispanic ads don't appeal to her, she said dismissively, "They're made for grandmas."
No wonder many women of a certain age, even in this supposedly liberated era, say they feel invisible in society at large. And no wonder many midlife employees of both sexes find themselves facing subtle bias in the workplace.
Yet my friend the Great Wall trekker typifies a whole generation of women - and men - who are defying stereotypes and forging new roles, new images, new careers. As one example, adventure vacations for the over-50 crowd make up one of the fastest-growing markets in the travel industry. For many in this group, the unofficial, quietly defiant motto, applicable to many endeavors, has become: "Who says we can't do this?"
In the case of the trip to China it's hard to imagine a comparable headline for a male adventurer. Most likely, he would be defined by his career or other accomplishments, rather than by his family status. Instead of "Grandfather Takes on Great Wall" the headline might read, "Businessman Takes on Great Wall."
On a small, encouraging note, some observers see evidence of a movement that could be called grandmother- chic, as a younger generation embraces domestic activities once associated with an older generation. Knitting, for example, is soaring in popularity among women - and even a scattering of men - in their 20s. Will they also soon discover the joys of baking bread and canning fruit?
The traditional image of grandmothers remains an important and honorable one. The world needs all the nurturing, comforting, multi-generational families it can get, filled with those who can pass along wisdom, a sense of tradition, and unbounded love to the youngest members.
Still, grandmother is a word due for a makeover. The time has come to update it with more youthful images that reflect new realities. In time, those gee-whiz, we-didn't-think-you-could-do-it headlines - part compliment, part put-down - may become passé. Later-life accomplishments will be accepted with a new attitude: We knew you could.