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Nasty Woman or Equal

Last week I was at dinner with my partner and two friends, all women in our fifties. The service at the restaurant was glacially slow. We’d been seated at high-top which was uncomfortable for a few of us and we couldn’t help but notice that there was a low-top that could have accommodated us just a few feet away. We asked if we could change tables, but when the host hesitated, we quickly retracted the request saying, “No, no. We’re fine here.”

One member of our party commented that drinks were delivered to the table next to us even though we’d ordered ours a half-hour before them. When a server brought over our appetizers, she said, in a very polite voice, “We haven’t received our drinks yet. We’d like our drinks before our appetizers.”

The woman apologized, turned on her heals and marched back to the kitchen. I immediately felt bad, guilty for our table’s assertiveness. The four of us made “funny”, self-degrading comments about ourselves to each other.

“We’re the table of cranky old women.”

“They’re probably going to spit our food because we’re such a bad table.”

Though our drinks had taken over 30 minutes to arrive and it was a logical request to ask for our meal items to come in the sequence that we’d ordered them, we all felt like assholes for being direct.

“Do you think a man would be feeling bad right now?” I asked. “Do you all think he’d feel ‘too aggressive’ for asking to have his drink delivered before his food?”

We all agreed that, no, a man wouldn’t give it a second thought if he’d asserted himself in that moment. Men are socialized to be direct. From a young age, they are given the power to ask for what they want. Women, on the other hand, are inherently more relational and are often raised to be deferential and accommodating.

As it often does when in my company, the conversation turned to menopause. “Did you ever notice how, when men get older, people often say, ‘he’s become such a sweet old man?’ and when women get old, they are referred to as ‘cranky old woman?’”

My friend Patty says that, in menopause, “our give a damn is broke.” As our estrogen lowers, so does our sense of accommodation and selflessness. After years of doing what we are supposed to, many women feel a shift and start to pay more attention to their own needs. For example, asking for drinks before appetizers.

Hormonally, testosterone drops in middle age for both women and men, but because testosterone is the primary hormone for men, the drop is more noticeable in them.

When women get older, they are often referred to as ‘crone’ which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘ugly old woman.’ Sometimes older women are referred to as ‘grannies’ or ‘washed up.’ Older men, on the other hand, might be referred to as ‘stately’ or ‘cavalier.’ I’ve heard many older men referred to as ‘silver foxes.’

As men age, their oldness makes them desirable. The very sweetness that renders women weak in young age becomes something charming and adorable in older men. The gray hair that women are encouraged to dye so they stay looking young is considered sexy in men.

Women can’t win for losing. Though things are slowly changing, they aren’t changing fast enough. As girls, we are socialized to be relational, helpful, to minimize conflict by self-sacrificing and being friendly. Boys, by contrast, learn to take what’s theirs and to stand up for themselves. We can see this in the very over-used but incredibly significant statistic that, even though more women than men attend college, women only represent about 10 percent of the CEOs in this country.

The greatest example of sexism (particularly in older women) is of course Hillary Clinton. Every single ‘male’ attribute Clinton demonstrated was framed as a negative, while in her brain-damaged opponent, these same attributes were revered and celebrated.

During Clinton’s campaign, commentators said that she should “look more cheerful.” She was infamously referred to as “a nasty woman.” It’s not worth writing about how absurd and ultimately destructive it was that Trump, a quintessentially scowling nasty man prevailed in that election. Any sane human already understands this.

What is worth mentioning is that fact that sexism and misogyny is what almost brought this country to ruin. Our collective US humanity could not get past the idea that a strong, unapologetic, female leader would be a better choice than an inexperienced, insecure idiot who happened to have a penis.

That’s devastating. And we have serious work to do. As change often does, this too will start with women. We have to reframe the way we think about and talk about sexism and aging.

That moment at the restaurant when I felt guilty and ashamed (and afraid the server would spit in my food) was a moment of awareness that I need to attend to. That single incident brought a million little images into my consciousness — moments when I have ignored my own power in work, relationships, and social situations, times when I have instructed my daughter to overlook her own needs to alleviate conflict and maintain harmony.

Consciousness is exhausting. It shines a light on what needs to be done. I remember the moment Hillary Clinton lost. My daughter had just turned twelve. We were coming off the heels of eight years with Barack Obama and I felt like anything was possible. I could see it. I could feel it. A woman as president. Finally.

My daughter was at the center of my joy at this prospect. “Things will be different for her,” I thought to myself hundreds of times during the 2016 presidential election. But when Trump won, when we saw clearly how much our country hates women, especially older women, a part of me shut down.

At that moment, it was too much work, too much hatred, and too much ignorance for me to face. But that feeling I had in the restaurant last week brought something back. It’s hanging on and telling me to stay the course, to speak up and keep fighting for young women like my daughter and older women like myself.

When my daughter is fifty-four, sitting in a restaurant asking for what she wants, in a kind, direct way, I don’t want her to feel bad about it. I don’t want her to feel like she did something wrong. And I don’t want to feel that way either. Not anymore.

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