Women of a Certain Age Take Umbrage
Thursday, June 19, 2008
I was recently taken to task for using the term “women of a certain age” in one of my columns. The upbraider was an attractive, intelligent, seemingly progessively-oriented woman of 62; in other words, what the French would not hesitate to call a woman of a certain age.
I admit to having an ambivalent, sometimes irreverent, relationship with political correctness but it is certainly not my intention to anger my peeps, those who share my era. I thought I was doing well by not referring to this category of women as Old Broads.
This person (trying to be correct here) told me that she felt I needed some education on the subject and soon provided me with a polling of her friends of a similar age on what they thought of my usage of this term. Their responses were pretty much divided. One woman said, “Positive. Mrs. Robinson: older but elegant, attractive, sexy.” Yet another woman said it was negative: “Like Mrs. Robinson, a desperate older woman.” And another of her respondents said, “That term is just a way to camouflage wanting say old broad.” Ouch!
Despite the Clintons’ recent exhortations of us, I don’t see myself at all as a sexist and I certainly do understand the transformative power of language, so I thought I should take a fresh look at my use of the term “women of a certain age.”
Probably the best source for this research is William Safire, whose 1995 New York Times column explored this expression. In his famous wordmaven style Safire traces the term back to 1754 when it was employed as a euphemism for spinsterhood. Dickens was equally unflattering when he wrote in Barnaby Rudge: “A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain, age.” The use of the word “certain” could sound strange on the surface but not so much when you consider The Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of certain as that “which it is not polite or necessary further to define.”
Safire reports that the phrase was repopularized in a 1979 book by the psychotherapist Lillian Rubin called Women of a Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self. She told Safire that although the word has unflattering English roots, it was popularized by the French who-in characteristic fashion?-imbued the phrase with erotically charged overtones, referring to women who still possessed some allure after all these years. This reminds me of the crasser sounding word “cougar” that we apply to older women who are still sexually interested in and appealing to younger men.
By the way, what many might see as a positive note, the term itself is migrating to older women, probably thanks to the baby boomer generation’s obsession with youth. When Balzac used the term in The Message, he wrote: “Young as we both were, we still admired ‘the woman of a certain age,’ that is to say, the woman between thirty-five and forty.”
In 1979, when Rubin wrote her book, she pegged women of that certain age also starting at 35. In the 1990s she revised her threshold to age 50.
I asked several of my women correspondents, who have passed this threshold, what they would prefer to be called. Here are a few of their preferences: seasoned women, youth-challenged women, experienced women, ripening, woman in her prime, a gal with grace, dame of distinction, middle-age chick.
Rita, a woman I know who epitomizes the word “ageless” says she thinks it is ridiculous to even identify one by their age. What she would prefer is something along the lines of: “Just met her, she’s fun, you’ll like her!”
Like Rita, Pam, who is probably a quarter of a century younger, had some similar thoughts. She reported to me that she disliked being defined by such terms altogether. “It seems somehow that I went from being defined as my parents’ daughter, my siblings’ sister, my husband’s wife, and my children’s mother. I’ve had to work hard at not losing ‘me’ in that mix. There is a sort of exotic air of being referred to as a woman of a certain age, like somehow your life has had an adventurous secret side, not typically found in soccer moms in minivans…give me black lace, high-heeled mules, and a floating silk Kimono over my real life granny gowns any day!”
Local “Obama Momma” Nancy Koppelman, who is also in her fifties, doesn’t seem to shy away from such terminology. “I referred to someone as a ‘tough old bird’ recently. My daughter thought I was insulting this wonderful woman. I saw it as a badge of honor, someone who was a hard-eyed realist, outspoken, had taken a few hits in life and came through it the wiser. My daughter paused and said, ‘Well Mom, sounds like you.’ Just call me a tough old bird!”
I also put the question out to men and received some of my most enlightening insights.
Rob Egenolf (A Hillary Hunk) offered this from a male point of view: “Women—and men for that matter—would be far better off simply stating their age in years as opposed to using any euphemism to try to hide that fact. Any other label has the same problem, making connotations about age instead of simply describing it chronologically.”
From Jungian Analyst Dr. Barry Miller comes this observation: “While I am not a woman I think I would find ‘woman of a certain age’ somewhat offensive. It implies that one is sensitive about being that age. Which ever gender we may be, age is an achievement and not something to conceal, as if it were a source of embarrassment.” Dr. Miller prefers “mature” as an adjective as it better describes our evolving condition as a person.
And from my wise old high school buddy Bill comes this sage lesson: “I have learned to refer to all women simply as ‘beautiful.’”