Women of a 'certain age' kicking ass
The success of Nicola Sturgeon, her fellow fortysomething, has inspired Carol Hunt
Published 15/05/2015 | 02:30
'Alex who?" As Nicola Sturgeon stormed her way to that amazing victory for the Scottish Nationalist Party last week, it seemed as if the affable powerhouse had been at the helm for years. She has already more than overshadowed her recent predecessor, Alex Salmond. Sturgeon, it is said, is not just a brilliant politician with a formidable mind, she is also known for her decency, her wit and her kindness.
"Nicola Sturgeon has been the star of this election," wrote one admirer. "Dignified, articulate and intelligent. I wish she could be PM."
Indeed. Sturgeon is not just a role model for political wannabes or ambitious feminists. As a woman in her mid-forties, she is a wonderful example of a new breed of older women who, in earlier centuries, would have long been put out to grass.
When my grandmother was the age that Nicola is today (44), she was considered to be a woman past the prime of her life. Her children had all been born and mostly reared, any thought of a new career would have been viewed as impossible, if not laughable, and she was expected to accept her lot with dignity and prepare herself for life as an old lady; uninfluential, economically irrelevant and largely invisible. How times have changed.
Today, women "of a certain age" are considered not only to be "in their prime" but often just at the beginning of an exciting new life; with new careers or adventure ahead. We often hear how "40 is the new 30", "50 the new 40" but by trotting out those tired old clichés, we are missing the point: what many older women today are doing has never been done before, there are few, if any, previous role models to identify with, and those who were there - like Margaret Thatcher, for instance - seemed to be the exception that proved the rule [that older women should disappear].
It's not just in the world of politics that older women are making their mark - though the example of Hillary Clinton at 60-something riding around America in a tour bus is an encouraging one. In the worlds of business, the arts, film and music, older women are showing their younger sisters that not only is there life after 30, but that the best years really are yet to come. Singer Jennifer Lopez (45), model Tyra Banks (41), BGT's Amanda Holden (44) TV presenter Amanda Byram (41), Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg (45) and actress Gwyneth Paltrow (42) - we don't even think of these women as middle-aged any more; they are just successful women determined not to be defined by their age.
As a "40-something" woman, age is something that I increasingly think of. But when I think of the "actual" age I am, it seems more like an arbitrary number picked out of thin air than the number of years I have lived on this planet.
Even stranger, my perception of the age I am supposed to be and the attitudes I would have expected myself to have at this age bear absolutely no parallel with the reality of my life.
In my head, I am still very much a woman who is interested in new experiences, in getting out and doing things, in opening myself up to opportunities and risks and challenges, wherever they may come from. My children are growing up; rather than feeling as if it is my time to retire, relax and "grow old gracefully" I feel a surge of excitement at the thought that new pastures beckon, new experiences, a new stage of living. I have no idea how to "act my age" because, increasingly for me, age really is just a number. I still think about what I'm going to be "when I grow up". Then I say, "don't be ridiculous Carol, you're never going to grow up!". And often, that's how I feel. There are people who have always been "grown-ups", even when they were teens, and then there are those, like me, for whom growing up is something best left until we're six feet under.
Why is this? Perhaps one of the reasons is that I am a member of the "Madonna" generation. I grew up idolising and trying to identify with the controversial pop star. If ever there was a woman who has no idea how to act her age, it's Madge. She may be criticised by some, but she is the ultimate example of a woman who is not defined by her age. I'm not suggesting that we should all start doing the shopping in fishnet tights and stilettos, lift our skirts to show pert bottoms to camera or randomly snog young male dancers - though, of course, if you get the opportunity to do any of those things, then fire ahead - but, what I am saying is that time is actually on our side, in that we are living in an era where we know enough about keeping ourselves healthy and fit and energised to be able to enjoy our later years in a way our ancestors could not.
Another member of the Madonna Generation is writer and columnist India Knight, whose current book is In Your Prime. The introductory page quotes the actress and singer Elaine Stritch, who says: "The age thing is all up to you. You just have to understand what it is before you get it."
And she's right, it is all up to us. Because, although getting older does have its setbacks - saggy boobs, cellulite, wrinkles, arthritis, three-day hangovers, and so on - there are definite benefits, and top of the list is learning not to care what other people think.
There is a such a liberating feeling about being comfortable in one's skin, about not feeling the need to be cool or pretend to be interested in stuff you find boring (for me, that's home décor and jazz). To be able to say, "I think I'd rather go to bed with a good book" instead of standing in a muddy, wet field watching a band whose name you can't remember with a bloke you don't really fancy.
And then there's the menopause to look forward to. In her book, Knight describes it as the "last taboo" but for myself and my friends it's a milestone we look forward to passing; a release from the bondage of those childbearing years, of cramps and pains and periods that go on for days. Instead, we're looking forward to a time of life that really belongs to US, in a way that I think no generation, post-menopause, has been able to do before. There has never been a better time to be forty-something and In Your Prime.
How times have changed for a generation
According to one of those surveys, life now begins at 53; which means many of us have yet to get started. Yes, ladies, in life it's now time for that second act. This always seemed to be the case for middle-aged men, but never women, who were deemed "past-it" at the toddling age of 29.
For years, female middle-age was sold as some sort of plump matrons' graveyard; a time when we would all have to give up our dancing, drinking, kick-boxing (if you're into that sort of thing) and general bad behaviour. We would have to knuckle down and become mature and sensible. We would wear nylon skirts and "sensible" shoes. We would have to get our hair cut and visit the hairdresser for the obligatory "style and set" once a week. We were supposed to accept gravity and grow old gracefully, leaving the future to our kids. We would need to get used to being ignored, our opinions unwanted, our experience disregarded.
But now we know better. We know that where career, life - and for some of us, even love - are concerned, the best is yet to come.
All we have to do is look at the Mad Men series to see how stifling life used to be for middle-aged women - even of our mothers' generation - and how much things have changed since the sexual revolution of the sixties. Just as liberating for women as the Pill was the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and all of those inventions which make the drudgery of housework (still unfortunately the domain of the woman, though changing slowly) much less time consuming.
We are the first female generation to benefit from free education, from a decent health service, the benefits of herd vaccination and (relative) control over our bodies and our fertility. When I was born, women were not allowed to sit on juries, collect their own children's allowance or own their homes outright. Most women of my mother's generation had to leave work when they married. A woman's place was in the home and a middle-aged woman's place was behind closed doors.
We have come so far since then.
We exercise, we know about good nutrition and we interact with our children in a way that has none of the authoritarianism many of us experienced growing up. We can wear jeans and not look ridiculous. We don't need to get our hair cut when we hit 50 - look at Miriam O'Callaghan. The generation gap seems to have narrowed as teenagers listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and their parents chill out to Ed Sheeran and Kodaline.
Staying healthy is the key of course. Women today know how to mind themselves, physically and mentally. We exercise, go to yoga classes, meditate and take time out to laugh and drink wine with our friends.
We can take or leave the Botox and the teeth-whitening but ultimately age boils down to attitude - a "can-do" attitude.
My own mother is a sprightly seventy-something. She could have retired into the home when many of her contemporaries had the cardigan and slippers ready. But she didn't. She dances 'til two in the morning, she travels all over the world and she never says "no" to an invitation. She is my ultimate role model.
A woman who is always in her prime.