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On the Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women

23 June 2016

From LitHub:

A year ago at a literary festival in Wales, I met a woman. It was at a reception at a castle that had a beautiful park and a regal view of the Welsh landscape. I had no companion to the reception, knew nobody there, and was circling with a glass of champagne trying to make it look as if I was waiting for someone who had just briefly stepped out of the picture. Then suddenly a woman appeared in front of me. Hello, she said. Isn’t it a breathtaking view? I nodded, and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. She was British, I was Danish. She pointed at a small man with a cell phone behind some shrubbery in the park: My husband, she said, and who are you with?

I told her that I was with nobody. I also told her that it was a bit strange to be with nobody amid scenery that so much called for somebody. But I’m a writer, I said, I’m used to traveling on my own. She looked at me as if I was mirroring something, and I was: We were both two middle-aged women at a reception without men (not counting the husband in the shrubbery) and it called for some narrative.

The woman explained to me that she had been a very successful lawyer. For over twenty years her career had escalated, she had become a star attorney, and there was not a week where she didn’t have to meet with the people in 10 Downing Street. She was someone, and therefore had to work around the clock and it was great fun, it was super interesting, it was high profile, and it was very exhausting. When she reached her mid-forties her husband (Mr. Shrubbery) had suggested that she slow down. It was too late to have children but never too late to rediscover themselves as a couple, and to be frank she wasexhausted from all the Prime Ministerial counseling. So she let go of her job and found herself a lower profile one. No more cab rides to the center of power, just a briefcase, her 46th birthday coming up, and then the husband who would chew his toast very slowly in the morning. Perhaps he always chewed his toast that slowly, it’s possible, she just hadn’t been around to notice it, but there it was: slow chewing, and she had all the time in the world to witness it.

The worst thing, however, the woman told me and leaned in, was that this career change collided with my disappearance as a woman. You could say that I was no longer somebody, but I was also becoming a person with no body.

I nodded. There was something recognizable in this picture. I said:

So the cars don’t stop for you when you want to cross the street anymore?

She shook her head. I said:

You ask a younger man for directions at the railway station and he ignores you?

She nodded. I said:

You have an interesting conversation with a couple of men and a younger woman enters your circle, and the conversation is suddenly over?

She nodded and I finally threw the ace on the table:

Men you know are leaving their middle-aged wives to date women who are in their twenties and early thirties?

. . . .

I do write books about middle-aged, childless women on the brink of disappearing—or you could say—on the brink of losing their license to live. If a woman has kids, she will always be a mother, but a woman who has chosen not to procreate and who now no longer is young and sexy is perceived by many as a pointless being.

. . . .

The interesting thing is that middle-aged women on the search for essence and their license to live can come off as quite provocative characters. Some people regard them as lacking self control—or even worse; they are conceived of as “self absorbed.” A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything? She has no children, she has no family, the only thing she has is her own life and what good will that do anyone when she’s no longer a star attorney at 10 Downing Street, or when she doesn’t have a rehearsal space where she can compose her music, or when she’s in the process of turning into spring itself: Overflowing, no longer firm and contained, but escalating, growing wild.

Link to the rest at LitHub

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23 Comments to “On the Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women”

  1. If it’s any consolation, middle-aged, childless men are often seen as Creepy perverts.

  2. Wow. Great article.

  3. The Rx for this BS is The Chanel Caper and its 56-year-old protag, Blake Weston. As an editor/publisher (Bantam, Dell, Kensington) I knew perfectly well that middle aged women are our readers and that (almost) no one was writing about them/us so I did something about it. 🙂

  4. This is real. Men on the street refusing to tell me the time. The ones at parties who back up with a horrified look, and panicked comments about being in a relationship, when all you want to do is be friendly and talk to people. At one point I considered having a button made that said “RELAX! I’m NOT coming on to you!”

  5. This is a great piece; thanks for posting, PG.

  6. At social events I hang out with the men (of all ages) and discuss vintage airplanes, classic cars, and WW II battleships along with the occasional aircraft carrier or stealth fighter … I don’t do recipes, other people’s kids (or my own), and home dec discussions. As for the rest of my life, I don’t bloody care if I’m invisible to others. Their loss, not mine.

    • Maggie, I’m sorry to see that you left London for the USA as I’d really like to run into you at a social event. My wife – though I love her dearly (and she is a great SF fan) – shows a distressing lack of interest in those subjects (though why limit yourself to WW II when WW I and pre-dreadnought battleships are also fascinating?)

      • Dreadnoughts are another favorite of mine, inspired by Massey’s brilliant books, Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. My first toys were a metal Spitfire and a Lanc, back when they were operational. Have you read or watched Derek Robinson’s WW II classic, Piece of Cake?

  7. Invisible? Only if you want to be. My 50’s have been my best decade ever! I still get hit on by men and some of them I could have given birth to. The best thing about being a middle aged woman is the freedom to be who you truly are and other people’s opinions don’t matter so much anymore. Ladies, you’re not getting older, you’re getting better.

  8. I’d agree with Pamela. There may be a layer of culture where courtliness is replaced by loutishness in men. I dont see it in country people. Most men appreciate the attention of women who are nice to them, who accept them. They dont care if she is miss t’s or grandmother or all in between. If there’s a s streak of men in the culture who say hello, or offer to help, ONLY if they are attracted to the woman’s bits, then I say, they are the least of the least of the jungle animals, and why would any sensible woman wish NOT to be invisible to them.

    It is true that being older and old culls the herd so to speak, but i think not in a bad way, unless one wants to try to live off ‘attraction’ /admiration/invitation sexually or flirtaciously. I’d rather have a d good conversation about things cared about, good belly laughs, kindness and kindred spirit. If one wants the constant blaring of ‘need to be found attractive superficially’ then I’d say, there will always be a fresh crop of 18+ year old males and females to replace the older models, wave after wave after wave of the freshly minted, to pitifully compete with if one is so inadvised.

    Too, there’s that exotic and magnetic feature to women, just saying; confidence in her own value. She might deign to speak to others. Or not. She is her own person, without being fluffed up.

    We have a saying out here; who would you kick off the cattle drive? You know what I mean… In serious life surrounded by stars and sunrises, the matters that matter… Are not whether a person looking to be looked at or spoken to as some kind of victimish plaint. But how much they enjoy each other, ride well together, work together, rest together.

    And too, there is that old gent thing of tipping a hat to the ladies, and the equally old fashioned item that works well, that is, being introduced. Instead of just hanging around like a ten penny nail in the wall, waitin for someone to hang their coat on it.

    Just sayin’

    • Too, there’s that exotic and magnetic feature to women, just saying; confidence in her own value.


    • All of that is true, but if you were an attractive young woman, you realize as you age that youth is a HUGE attraction for many people, at least in the US. I am not a hag now and I’m pretty confident about my personality, but I think it’s hard for a man to understand just how a young woman is constantly barraged with attention. In some ways, it’s definitely a relief to not have as much of that, but it is strange for it to go away. I think that’s the gist of this article.

    • I enjoy invisibility. That said, I’m used to it. Possibly it only hurts women who are used to attention, such as the woman in the OP or beautiful women who once held men in the palm of their hand. Me, I never had either of those. That is why, perhaps, I find my 60’s my best years altogether. Far better than my youth. I have what you describe so well: confidence in my own value, and feel my life is just beginning, what with so many books published now (I started writing at 49) and so many waiting to be published, and doing well; places to go to (I tend to travel the world and will do so even more once I retire) and simply enjoying being alive and looking forward for what is to come. I truly do not care whether or not men find me attractive; I have enough friends, male and female, of all ages, and my best friends are my two adult children. So, as I said: invisibility only hurts in comparison to that fake quality, applause. If you never had applaus you don’t need it when your’re older, and you don’t miss it at all.

  9. Laura Montgomery

    Huh. As a government lawyer whose last day on the job is a week from tomorrow before I go hang out my shingle, I’m not sure I’m agreeing with the message. If you have the right attitude and know your goals, a couple decades of experience is a plus to be treasured.

  10. Well, it’s interesting. Sometimes it seems that if you’re young and attractive you are dismissed as just a sexy young thing, and if you’re not, you’re dismissed because you’re not a sexy young thing. I’m sure this isn’t limited to women. It just might translate to terms such as powerful/macho/strong in young man world.

    I used to be that (sort of) powerful young lawyer, with a bit of status… but when I was standing in the grocery store line with two young kids and wearing a T-shirt, no one could see it. We all go through different stages, and the way we are perceived changes.

    It’s good to know who you really are, despite the public assessment.

  11. Zachariah Dracoulis

    Men you know are leaving their middle-aged wives to date women who are in their twenties and early thirties?

    If a woman has kids, she will always be a mother, but a woman who has chosen not to procreate and who now no longer is young and sexy is perceived by many as a pointless being.

    These women aren’t losing their license to live, the men, and I’ve seen this a dozen times in my circle, have grown sick of waiting for their wife to decide family over career (more often than not it comes down to ‘I’ll stay with the kids and you can go right back to work’) and have decided it’s time to find someone who wants to. Shock-horror, that person will probably be of an appropriate age for having children (it’s not procreating, women aren’t cattle for God’s sake). I am sick to death of seeing middle-aged women going to war on men because no one’s interested in them any more and they’re all alone.

    • Zachariah Dracoulis

      I am aware that procreating is a valid word in the context, but I was raised to call children children (not kids,’he’s not a baby goat’ my mother would shout) and to use words appropriately. That and procreating has been given a very negative light as of late.

  12. When young, I was cute enough to get the looks, come-ons, etc. I was also not very self-confident, too worried about what other people thought of me, and rather shallow.

    I like the 45-year-old me much better, spreading backside, gray hair, and all.

    Invisible to others or not, able to blow off 20-somethings who think their opinions about how I dress and what I do matters, I am probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

    Growing older can suck in so many ways (oh, my aching back!), but in other ways, it’s the bomb, baby. 🙂

  13. I’m not invisible, and I’m 55. I don’t mind not being noticed when I’m out. I have physical issues, and when I’m out at Walmart, I’m there to get stuff, not chat. Want to chat with me, find me on facebook. My online footprint, well, that’s certainly not invisible.

    If you feel you’re invisible, maybe you’ve let yourself be a bit invisible. Don’t give up doing. If you quit doing one thing, pick up something else to do. Keep yourself active and involved with the world.

    Most importantly, learn to enjoy your own company, and watching the world go by.

  14. Reading this, I’m reminded of that wonderful quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I neither feel nor am invisible and long may it last!

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