In 1815, the British critic, J.W. Croker denounced the work of a previously beloved author as the work of a ‘shriveled hag.’ The reason? “Novel and novelist alike have grown too old to delight discriminating male readers,” Croker croaked. “The vivacity, the bloom, the elegance, ‘the purple light of love’ are vanished,” he moaned. Women should not write after they turn thirty, Coker implied. He must have been delighted to have another unassailable source of wisdom on his side. Lord Merton believed that, not only should women not write after thirty, women should not live after thirty. These two curmudgeons decreed: “If a woman had anything of significance to say which was not ‘modest, delicate, wispy and delightful,’ they were past their best as writers and as women.”*
Luckily, certain women seemed to have missed this decree about the decline of the female species after a certain age. It is a good thing too that they haven’t read the rash of prepubescent publications edited by pimply-faced youths who couldn’t get laid unless they had a position of power. Fortunately, there are women in the world who ignore these magazines’ pronouncements which say that women over the age of thirty-five should be euthanased. It’s also a good thing that certain women are not deterred by the fact that some internet dating sites have set an age limit for women, but not for men. (Women over the age of forty are persona-non-grata on these sites, according to a friend of mine who was not allowed to join because she admitted her age as fifty).
I asked my friends of all ages and both sexes who their female role models were. Their answers were pleasantly surprising. These are the names they came up with: Geena Davis; Oprah Winfrey; Jane Goodall; Madonna; Annie Lennox; Maria Ramos; Michelle Botes; Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu; Sibongile Khumalo; Miriam Makeba; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; Rebecca Malope; Leleti Khumalo; Gcina Mhlophe; Nadine Gordimer; Susan Sarandon; Meryl Streep; Hilary Clinton; Arandhati Roy and many more.
Most of these women are well past thirty, most are past forty and the majority are older than fifty. Isn’t it strange that not even the prettiest model made it onto anyone’s list? It seems, therefore, that models are – forgive the pun - not great role models. Women who make indelible impressions need to make their mark in ways which are not only decorative it seems, although one has to admit that Michelle Botes, Madonna and Geena Davis are pretty darn sexy too.
The older woman’s need for romantic entertainment has come under scrutiny too recently. A Time magazine article written by Lillian Kennet referred to the emergence of a new genre of literature, ironically termed ‘Gray Lit,’ which has just become acceptable. It seems that the baby boomers are getting older and are still demanding large slices of cake, which they want to eat too. The largest growing demographic in the UK is the women-over-fifty-bracket. One publishers, Nikki Read, who has taken note of this fact and is publishing previously scorned novels about the love-lives of older women says, “Middle age is no longer a gradual decline to old age; it’s a time to start again. We want that to be reflected in the literature of our time.”**
So perhaps the mindset about women needing to be exterminated after the age of thirty is changing, slowly but surely. And yes, there may be some men who are saving themselves for their soul-mates who must fit just a single specification: they must be younger than thirty. But there are still men who appreciate women as they mature into their finest incarnations of themselves. As I approach, somewhat cautiously, middle-age which looms just ahead of me, I must admit that it feels good to be grower wiser and more satisfied with my life. Each passing year finds me more in control of my talents, more certain of my views of the world, and happier to be in my body as it is now. In fact, being well past thirty is remarkable simply because it is a much more comfortable place to be in than any other age before. Even if I am a woman who writes.
First published in the Sunday Independent.