“This is the story about women and age in America,” writes New York Times op-ed columnist Collins (As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, 2012, etc.) in a jaunty survey of women’s lives from Colonial days to the 21st century, focusing on the ever changing designation of what counts as old age.
Colonial society valued usefulness, no matter what a woman’s age, and in the 1920s, any woman older than 19 was considered past her prime. Dispatching the 18th and 19th centuries in a handful of chapters, Collins looks at the 20th century decade by decade, enlivening her history with portraits of a wide variety of significant women—for example, the legendary African American stagecoach driver Mary Fields, who was “past fifty when she moved to a Catholic mission in Montana, where she helped out by hauling supplies”; Frances Willard, who wrote a bestseller about learning how to ride a bicycle at 53; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who published an article about divorce reform two weeks before she died at 86. Some women Collins profiles in her abundantly populated history faced growing older with equanimity; others saw aging as “a problem to be solved through personal effort” that included diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, and hair dye. In the early 1900s, actress Lillian Russell “announced she was getting in shape through a regimen of rolling over 250 times every morning.” Some women—like activist Jane Addams and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins—defied social expectations by entering business and politics; others believed that women’s place was in the home. During periods of economic stress, especially the Depression, women who worked were condemned for taking jobs away from men. In the 1960s, however, when fewer workers were available because of the low birth rate of the 1930s, more opportunities opened up for older women. As Collins sees it, there was never a time when women’s aging wasn’t controversial and, for some, troubling. But, she adds, “we’re teaching ourselves how to get old in the best way possible.”
A lively celebration of women’s potential.