Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
No Stopping Us Now
The Adventures of Older Women in American History
By Gail Collins
Read by Gail Collins
Read by Tanya Eby
Formats and Prices
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
- ebook $2.99 $3.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $18.99 $23.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 15, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
"You're not getting older, you're getting better," or so promised the famous 1970's ad — for women's hair dye. Americans have always had a complicated relationship with aging: embrace it, deny it, defer it — and women have been on the front lines of the battle, willingly or not.
In her lively social history of American women and aging, acclaimed New York Times columnist Gail Collins illustrates the ways in which age is an arbitrary concept that has swung back and forth over the centuries. From Plymouth Rock (when a woman was considered marriageable if "civil and under fifty years of age"), to a few generations later, when they were quietly retired to elderdom once they had passed the optimum age for reproduction, to recent decades when freedom from striving in the workplace and caretaking at home is often celebrated, to the first female nominee for president, American attitudes towards age have been a moving target. Gail Collins gives women reason to expect the best of their golden years.
Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.
In this youth-made world, when a woman’s over 25, she’s considered old. Or on the way,” began a 1971 ad for hair coloring. It went on to assure the reader—after quite a bit of depressing verbiage—that all was not lost. With Loving Care on your side, “You’re not getting older. You’re getting better!”
Well, that was a relief.
The ad became a classic. For years the “You’re not getting older” slogan would pop up all over the place—at one point in a heavily orchestrated song with a melody so triumphant you’d have thought it was celebrating a moon landing, or the evacuation of Dunkirk.
We’re a lot more sophisticated now. Nobody thinks 25 is old. But virtually nobody who spots her first gray hairs is going to sigh virtuously and let nature take its course, either. “There’s a reason why forty, fifty, and sixty don’t look the way they used to,” Nora Ephron once wrote, “and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye.”
We’ve expanded our vision of what women can do at any age—Ruth Bader Ginsburg working out with her personal trainer at 86 before a day at the Supreme Court sounds perfectly reasonable, not to mention deeply desirable. But that doesn’t mean our prejudice against growing older has been erased. If it had, the 7,000 or so cosmetic surgeons in America would be way underemployed.
This is the story of women and age in America, from the colonies to the twenty-first century, from Martha Washington to Hillary Clinton. There were definitely some points when getting older was easier than others. That’s always been the case, throughout history, around the planet. “Herodotus tells us of some tribes who worshipped their elders as gods and of others who ate them,” wrote historian David Hackett Fischer. The extremes in America, fortunately, have been somewhat less dire.
Who counts as an “older” woman? Well, there have been some pretty dramatic swings in opinion. In the early colonial south, any woman short of menopause counted as a hot young marriage prospect. But after the American Revolution, in female-laden northern cities, turning 30 without a husband meant entering the realm of old maidhood. This is not going to be a tale of steady progress toward an age-indifferent tomorrow. However, we can definitely pick out some eras that look more enticing than others. And then decide whether the one we’re living in now is a moment of real transition.
Traveling through American history, we’ll see how attitudes toward women in their middle and later years shifted. There are some very clear patterns. One is that matter of scarcity. A 50-year-old widow could start her own business while choosing from among a dozen eager suitors if she happened to be one of a handful of females in a gold rush town in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The second, inevitably, is economic. Eras in which older women were able to earn money or increase their family’s assets were eras in which they were… popular. In colonial times, a widowed grandmother who was a skilled spinner or sausage maker got plenty of respect. Jump ahead 100 years, move to a city, and your middle-class housewife had only one job to do: have babies and rear them. When the kids were grown, she was consigned to a rocking chair in the corner—metaphorically and frequently literally.
Our first generation of great female public figures came into their political prime in the mid-nineteenth century, when they were in their 50s or 60s. Their America still believed a woman’s place was in the home. But some canny strategists—like Elizabeth Cady Stanton—came up with a pseudo compromise. They stayed home, raised the kids, and then took off on their lecture tours, bearing their gray hair as the proud proof that they’d followed the rules. Now it was time to raise hell and fight for abolition and women’s rights.
Suddenly women were composing odes to menopause. One mid-nineteenth-century reformer announced that the end of fertility was a time for “super-exaltation.” On the other hand, that was also a time when some doctors were beginning to theorize that postmenopausal women who engaged in sex were risking their lives and their sanity. There are no periods in American history when all the news is good.
During the period between the Civil War and the end of World War I, female entertainment celebrities tended to be older. You could be a glamorous singer at 50 and a famous beauty on the stage at 60 or 70. That was the age when “popular entertainment” meant lectures and theater. Then came the movies, with their unforgiving close-ups, at the same time that an enormous economic boom put outrageous new consuming power into the hands of the young. Older women were no longer in vogue or in view. In popular films of the day, they were usually busty dowagers sternly disapproving of their male counterparts, who swanned around speakeasies with showgirls.
The national mood got serious during the Depression and World War II—and Eleanor Roosevelt was the most admired woman in the country. Then, after another postwar obsession with the consumer power of the younger generation, came the women’s liberation movement, whose heroines included middle-aged women like Betty Friedan and Ella Baker. At about the same time, the New Left was preaching, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
The biggest changes for older women were sparked when the booming post–World War II economy sputtered and families found it harder and harder to live a middle-class life on just the husband’s salary. Suddenly women who had always been raised to aspire to domestic bliss began to be valued for their moneymaking potential. I have a vivid memory of talking with a group of male college students in the 1980s, all of whom agreed that the most important qualities in a wife were personality and “good earning capacity.” They were probably downplaying physical attractiveness for the benefit of the visiting feminist. But it was still a sea change—after a national history in which men remained in their “prime” decades after women were judged old and on the shelf, things were evening out a little. (Yeah, you say, but what about female movie stars who get put out to pasture at 35? Yeah, I say, well, what about Meryl Streep? We’ll talk.)
Besides the social challenges aging women face, there are, of course, physical problems. The body deteriorates with time, but the process was a lot faster if you happened to be getting older in an era when there were no antibiotics, sanitation was bad, and even relatively simple injuries during childbirth could cause a lifetime of misery. It’s no wonder that colonial Americans regarded a healthy old age as a sign of God’s special favor—though not even a benevolent deity seemed capable of guaranteeing a healthy set of teeth. Back then, women who got sick or became invalids were counseled to regard their disabilities as divine will, and a welcome opportunity to demonstrate the virtue of suffering with a smile. That philosophy reigned for some time, until health reformers popped up and started arguing that a hearty old age was less about God and more about proper diet and exercise. (And, in some quarters, avoidance of sex.) Popular ministers in the late nineteenth century mixed the two themes and argued that virtuous behavior would win you a long life span, while bad thoughts and deeds meant a miserable decline starting around 50.
Now middle-aged women looking at census projections may start thinking about what kind of career they’ll want in their 80s. We’ve lived through an era of such extraordinary change and expanding possibility that it sometimes seems as if nothing, including age, can slow us down.
Imagining the future is easier if we look back on where we’ve been so far. Whether it’s a 77-year-old midwife riding out in the middle of the night to help a patient in 1800 or an 80-year-old riveter making planes during World War II or an 86-year-old justice getting in shape for another Supreme Court session, the heroines are the women who fight back age by living for something more than just survival.
And we’ll raise a glass, to toast whatever comes next.
1. The Colonies
“IF THEY BE BUT CIVIL, AND UNDER 50 YEARS OF AGE”
Legend has it that in 1630, a “romping girl” named Anne Pollard was the first colonial woman to set foot in the new settlement of Boston. Whether Anne was first or not, she definitely stayed for quite a while—she died there in 1725 at the age of 104, leaving behind 130 descendants. In the years between, she married, opened a tavern with her husband, and later ran it herself as a widow. As Anne grew older and older, she became a local celebrity, and a lucky visitor who dropped into the tavern might be invited to share a “social pipe” with the city’s most famous matriarch. If you visit Boston Common today, you can find a young Anne depicted on the Founders Memorial.
Her story is a useful reminder that while early American settlers did not generally live as long as we do now, some of them did get to be very old. Of the women who managed to reach 21 in the late-seventeenth-century Plymouth Colony, about 7 percent made it past 90. You just had to be very, very lucky. Today, aging tends to be a rather confident progression through childhood, young adulthood, and into middle age, at which point we might begin to seriously contemplate our own mortality. In the colonial period, death could come at any time—infants died, children died, teenagers died. Young women died in childbirth; young men were lost at sea. Houses—and towns—caught fire. Plagues and epidemic diseases appeared and whisked away hundreds of people of all ages.
In 1632, the 19-year-old Massachusetts poet Anne Bradstreet wrote “Upon a Fit of Sickness”:
Twice ten years old, not fully told
Since nature gave me breath
My race is run, my thread is spun
Lo here is fatal Death.
Bradstreet lived to be 60, but clearly she took her era’s worldview to heart.
If New Englanders had a shaky life expectancy, it was absolutely nothing compared to the situation in the early southern colonies, where, thanks to the malarial swamps, mortality rates before 1624 ran as high as 37 percent. The upside was that women who did manage to survive had a raft of opportunities. Their tenure as prime marriage candidates could stretch out until menopause. “If any Maid or single Woman have a desire to go over, they will think themselves in the Golden Age, when Men paid a Dowry for their Wives: for if they be but Civil, and under 50 years of Age, some honest Man or other, will purchase them for their Wives,” wrote one English promoter who was trying to encourage emigration. This open attitude toward age on the part of the male population had a lot to do with the fact that there was only one woman for every six men.
SAFER “IN HER HANDS THAN IN ANY MAN[’]S”
The southern colonies were an excellent example of an important rule in American history: when there aren’t enough people, outsiders who wouldn’t normally get a chance to shine are suddenly in demand. If you were a middle-aged black woman in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, your work options were probably limited to doing laundry or somebody else’s household chores. However, if you were a black pioneer in the West, you could own the only bar in town or be the stagecoach driver.
If you were Margaret Brent in seventeenth-century Maryland, you could step up and save your colony. Brent was described as a large woman with red hair, and that’s all the help we’re going to get in imagining her. The fact that she never married was so unusual for the time and place that many scholars have concluded she had taken a religious vow of celibacy. But she certainly did not seem to shun all worldly goods. She threw herself into the business of lending money to the newer settlers and spent much of her middle age in court, suing her fellow colonists 134 times, mainly for debt repayment. She generally won. That’s why she’s referred to—rather loosely—as America’s first female lawyer. Maryland’s governor was so impressed that he made her executrix of his estate. Later, when mercenary soldiers were threatening to level the colony, the dying governor put her in charge of restoring the peace. She did—by raising enough money to bribe everybody to go away.
Since Brent was a unique figure, it’s tricky to give her story any universal meaning—other than the one about desperate times breeding desperate measures. (The Maryland Assembly said that during its crisis the colony was safer “in her hands than in any man[’]s.” But they still refused to allow her to have a vote.) Most women who came to the early south had less dramatic stories. Mainly they were just hoping to make a good marriage. Given the bad water, bad air, and overall miasma of the place, the chances were slim that they’d live long enough to enjoy it. But the matrimonial odds were so favorable that a woman in good health could just keep marrying up. Frances Culpeper wed a large landowner in what is now North Carolina when she was 18. He died, and Frances inherited most of his property. The now-wealthy widow was soon remarried—this time to Sir William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia. Frances, 36, was now Lady Berkeley and equipped with a sizable guaranteed income for life. About a decade and many adventures later, Lord Berkeley died from the effects of a bout with malaria. Frances was married again, at 46, to a younger man who became governor of the Carolinas. But she was always known as Lady Berkeley.
“IN THE DARK ALL CATS ARE GREY”
Life for women in the northern colonies was much… calmer. New arrivals found the climate and living conditions healthier than in the crowded, sewage-swamped cities of Europe they’d left behind. And the women who did make it to middle age and beyond sometimes concluded that older was better. “I have often thought that women who live to get over the time of Child-bareing, if other things are favourable to them, experience more comfort and satisfaction than at any other period of their lives,” wrote Elizabeth Drinker in her diary. She was 61 at the time, and she had lived an action-packed life. Her husband, Henry, a Philadelphia businessman, had been exiled during the Revolutionary War as a suspected Tory sympathizer. Elizabeth made her way to Valley Forge in 1778 to plead his case to George Washington—who offered a good dinner but not much assistance. Eventually reunited with Henry, she later nursed her household through a terrible yellow fever epidemic that took nearly 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population.
Drinker was wealthier than most colonial women of her time, but the rhythms of her life were typical. She married in her 20s, bore children until middle age, and was still raising her brood when her oldest offspring began to have families of their own. Even when the children left the house, most of them continued to live nearby, and her life was full of domestic duties and babies. There was no real empty nest, just a slightly calmer one. And you could see how, after nine deliveries and two miscarriages, she might have regarded aging as something of a picnic.
Elizabeth Drinker would live into her 70s, but like everyone in the colonies, she understood how quickly death could strike people of any age—only four of her nine children would survive her. Given the poor chances of living for a very long time, old people were often regarded as having been singled out by the Creator as particularly worthy. “If a man is favored with long life… it is God that has lengthened his days,” said Boston minister Increase Mather, who made it to 84 himself. One Massachusetts congregation, whose 1682 seating plan still exists, made the status of seniority perfectly clear. The best seat, next to the pulpit, went to the minister’s wife, and the one next to her was reserved for the widow of the previous minister. Then came the elders, and the elders’ wives, and the widows of elders. (A woman could be old in Massachusetts, but she couldn’t be an elder.) Then came the congregation, which was divided by gender and seated according to age, with the youngest members consigned to the rear. The church was the center of life in those communities. If you were an older woman wondering if you still had a place in the scheme of things, it must have been hugely reassuring to walk into Sunday service and stride up the aisle, past your younger relatives and neighbors, and take an honored seat near the front.
As we’ve seen, a woman of 50 might count as an extremely desirable marriage prospect if she happened to live in a very high-mortality region. Even in the healthier north, when it came to sex in general, male opinions on the perfect age for a partner varied. Benjamin Franklin, the ultimate pragmatist, wrote a famous letter to a young friend, counseling him that if he intended to have affairs, he should prefer “old Women to young ones.” They were more interesting, Franklin argued, and anyway “in the dark all Cats are grey.”
We will pause for a moment to consider whether that was a compliment.
“I BELIEVE I NEVER HAD A GOWN BETTER MADE”
No specific milestone signified passage into old age among colonial women. By 40, many had already lost a husband and offspring. Many 60-year-olds were still raising their children—the average housewife was 63 when her youngest left home. Every woman who was capable of lifting a finger was expected to take part in household chores. And nobody was going to tell you to slow down because your hair was getting white.
Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife, spent her life balancing her job delivering babies with a mind-boggling list of domestic duties: spinning, knitting, sewing, preparing the family food, tending chickens and sheep. Around 1800, as she approached her 70s, she began to cut back; but then the other local midwife died and Ballard stepped up. At 77 she was still answering late-night calls that could drag on well into the next day. (“The patient was safe delivered at 3 hour pm of her fifth son. I tarried all night.”) On another occasion, after mother and child had been cared for, Ballard took a nap, had some breakfast with the family, rode on to visit another patient, and then came home to do “my ironing and some mending.” Besides delivering babies, she prepared bodies for burial and visited the sick, sometimes dispensing medicines of her own making. She reached her clients mainly by horse, crossing rivers and traversing bad or nonexistent roads in Maine weather. She wrote about climbing “mountains of ice” on one expedition and falling from her horse into the mud during another. There were other midwives who probably performed just as heroically. On Long Island, Lucretia Lester was said to have delivered 1,300 babies and lost only two. We really don’t know if Ballard was particularly unusual. She just happened to be the one who kept a diary.
As long as midwives were needed, nobody objected to their riding around the countryside in the middle of the night at any age. The same was true of every occupation where competent workers were in short supply. Elizabeth Drinker was fitted for a new dress by a seamstress named Susannah Swett and wrote happily: “I believe I never had a gown better made in my life and she is now within seven weeks of 73 years of age.” But just because the colonists were ready to hire the elderly for a job that needed doing, it didn’t mean that prejudices didn’t exist. Drinker added that the surprise of seeing someone “work so neatly at such an age is the cause of my making the memorandum.”
“BE IN BEHAVIOUR AS BECOMETH HOLINESS”
Ministers urged their aging female parishioners to achieve serenity by contemplating death as the passage to a far happier life in heaven. (When the clergyman Mather Byles passed away, his daughter announced she was “in rapture” over his good fortune.) While they waited, women were supposed to gradually withdraw from the world, spending more and more time in prayer and contemplation while enjoying earthly pleasures less and less—but still, of course, continuing to perform the household chores. In Boston, Rev. Benjamin Colman preached that it was the duty of “aged women” to repress their discontents and “be in Behaviour as becometh Holiness.” This was especially important, he said, when it came to “Publick Appearance & Conversation; Garb, Dress, Gate, Countenance, Speech, Silence, Gesture”—a list that pretty much swept the board except for the aforementioned housework.
Plenty of reports from colonial days make it clear that women of every age ignored the ministers when it came to staying silent. But they did adapt their dress to their time of life. Most women lived on farms, wearing simple, loose dresses that were easy to work in. As they aged, they generally began to avoid bright colors and don close-fitting caps. The public message was pretty clear: the cap wearers were out of the marriage market and putting away their plumage. But they were also covering the signs of graying hair. It was stage one in an ongoing struggle that would proceed, over the next few centuries, through false curls, turbans, wigs, and every other method of concealment women could concoct. When we look at portraits of them wearing their dark dresses and caps, they often seem to be nothing but somber faces floating in the dark.
Things were a lot less dreary in the fashionable world of high society. Gray hair was actually in—it was a symbol of dignity and importance. But the idea was not to flaunt your own gray locks. You wore a large, dramatic gray wig. Maria and Harriet Trumbull, teenage sisters who reported back to their Connecticut family on the fashions of New York in 1801, sent their mother a white wig, telling her that the women in society “wear white hair altogather now.” There could be nothing less fashionable, they warned, “than a black wig.”
Women applied bacon to their faces to avoid wrinkles, or used a paste made from eggs and alum boiled in rosewater. Tactics of that kind were socially acceptable, as long as the family could spare the bacon and eggs. But the revolutionary era regarded cosmetics as… un-American—a sinister trick to trap unwary males into marriage with women who were older, or less attractive, than they appeared. When Americans were under British rule, some people apparently believed that cosmetics were illegal and that women who “impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s subjects by virtue of scents, cosmetics, washes, paints, artificial teeth, false hair or high-heeled shoes, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft.” Stories about “Hoops and Heels” laws pop up all over our early history. It’s not clear that one was ever passed, and none ever seems to have been enforced. But the sentiment certainly existed.
“THE WOMEN ARE PITIFULLY TOOTH-SHAKEN”
Teeth were a problem for older colonists of both sexes—although there’s no record of any legislature trying to punish men for wearing artificial dentures when they were courting. There was no dentistry as we know it. Barbers and mechanics were sometimes called in to treat rotten teeth, but their only remedy was to pull them. (Paul Revere, a goldsmith, also practiced a little dental work on the side.) The toothbrush had been invented, but the early versions were generally made of hog bristles, which were very expensive. Toothpaste didn’t become widely used until the late 1800s, and if a colonial woman did try to clean her teeth, the process involved a coarse linen cloth and, occasionally, a mixture of honey and sugar to theoretically wipe away decay.
If you lived into adulthood in colonial America you probably would not, alas, have all your teeth. And the number you could hang on to obviously dropped with age. Researchers excavating the site of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia discovered the body of a woman in early middle age who had only five teeth. Some of the others had been gone so long by the time of her death that the tooth sockets had completely closed over. Jamestown was notoriously a tough place to live—malnutrition was so bad that legend had it one settler was tried for having eaten his wife. But even when times got easier and food was plentiful, the dental situation didn’t much improve. “The women are pitifully tooth-shaken, whether through the coldness of the climate or by sweet-meats, of which they have a score, I am not able to affirm,” a visitor reported.
George Washington had famously bad teeth and ill-fitting dentures. Martha seemed to be in better shape. She had lost some of hers by the White House years and was wearing a kind of bridge, but it must have worked—Abigail Adams reported that the First Lady’s teeth were “beautiful.” Very few people were wealthy enough to acquire false teeth of any type, and the average colonial woman was forced to live with a premature look of toothless old age. Eyeglasses were expensive, too—and a luxury that women doing close sewing by candle at night must have yearned for. Both George and Martha Washington wore glasses by the end of their lives. But when Dolley Madison needed help reading or sewing, she shared a pair with her husband the president.
Women talked a lot about their ailments and physical disorders, which were legion. “To be old in early America was to be wracked by illness. It was to live in physical misery, with pain as a constant companion,” writes David Hackett Fischer. Anne Bradstreet was subject to fainting spells that could leave her unconscious for hours—one of her later poems was titled “Deliverance from a Fitt of Fainting.” Elizabeth Drinker’s diary is a veritable catalogue of symptoms, from fevers to “giddiness in my head, occasion’d by the obstruction in my bowels.” When she was 60, Drinker wrote that since she was feeling poorly almost all the time, she wasn’t going to mention health matters. If she were being less discreet, she added, “I should daily say I was unwell.”
“Dyspepsia”—an umbrella term for the many varieties of indigestion—was a near-universal complaint, and it’s no wonder, given the unsanitary conditions under which food was slaughtered and cooked. It was almost always accompanied by “peevishness, doubts, fears, wandering thoughts and ridiculous fancies,” claimed Benjamin Waterhouse, a late-eighteenth-century physician who was among the first faculty members at Harvard Medical School.
- "A deeply researched, entertaining book . . . [Collins] brings a reporter's eye to the facts and anecdotes, and never without humor."—New York Times
- "Collins . . . is a cheerful companion through the decades."—Washington Post
- "An eye-opening guide to our shifting attitudes about aging."—New York Times
- "Known for the punch of her columns, Collins sprinkles conversational asides throughout to keep this hike through the decades spry. . . . Former New Jersey Rep. Millicent Fenwick . . . is just one of the many fascinating, unstoppable exemplars Collins manages to squeeze into this tightly laced historical corset."—Heller McAlpin, NPR
- "A lively celebration of women's potential."—Kirkus
- "Collins continues her exploration of women's history with this breezy look at the position of older women in American society. This is a diverting and certainly interesting and valuable read."—Booklist
- "A lively and well-researched compendium. . . . This enjoyable and informative historical survey will delight Collins's fans and bring in some new ones."—Publishers Weekly
Praise for When Everything Changed:
"Splendid...Collins is a masterful storyteller."—Glenn C. Altschuler, NPR.com
- "Did feminism fail? Gail Collins's smart, thorough, often droll and extremely readable account of women's recent history in America not only answers this question brilliantly, but also poses new ones about the past and the present."—Amy Bloom, The New York Times Book Review
- "Riveting and remarkably thorough in its account of this tumultuous period."—Rasha Madkour, Los Angeles Times
- "Compulsively readable."—Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News
- "Gail Collins has an unflaggingly intelligent conversational style that gives this book a personal and authoritative tone all at once."—Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books
- "Exhilarating, accessible, and inspiring."—Katha Pollitt, Slate.com
- "Gail Collins is such a delicious writer, it's easy to forget the scope of her scholarship in this remarkable look at women's progress."—People
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Hachette Audio