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Opinions on a certain age

Tuesday, June 3, 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 progressive 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) provided me with a polling of her friends of a similar age on what they thought of my usage of this term. 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 said, "That term is just a way to camouflage wanting to say 'old broad.'" Ouch.

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 was William Safire, whose 1995 New York Times column explored this expression. Safire traces the term back to 1754 when it was employed as a euphemism for spinsterhood.

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.

In 1979, when Rubin wrote her book, she pegged women of that certain age as starting at 35. In the nineties she revised her threshold to age 50.

Pam, from Cape Girardeau, said 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," she told me. "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."

Nancy, who is also in her 50s, 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 interesting insights.

And from my wise old high school buddy Bill Wilson comes this sage lesson: "I have learned to refer to all women simply as 'beautiful.'"

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.


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