When I was young (approximately a million years ago) 50-year-old women were old and sad. About the only time they appeared in the media was as the butt of mother-in-law jokes. You remember them? Some male comedian (often knocking on the door of five decades himself) would bring down the house by saying “Take my mother-in-law….no, really, take her…I’ll pay you….”
Well, whatever happened to mother-in-law jokes? They were everywhere when I was young. They were the staple fare of male comedians and virtually all comedians were male then except Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. Then those jokes just disappeared. One day they were thigh slapping, the next day anyone telling mother-in-law jokes suddenly revealed themselves as a relic, a man past his use-by (poetic justice, when you think about it). Nothing dates quite as rapidly as old jokes.
Post menopausal women had always been old jokes … until suddenly they weren’t.
So what happened? Why is it now not just acceptable but fashionable to be female and 50?
Partly it is the way the Baby Boomers change everything as they move through the decades of their life (I was born in 1957 so I am a tail-end Boomer). When they were young in the ’60s and ’70s, the western world experienced what was called a “youthquake”.
You can see the change just by comparing the fashions of 1963 and 1967.
In 1963, you couldn't tell whether a woman was 15 or 40. They all dressed in middle-age appropriate gear; twinsets, pearls, little hats, gloves, low heels & demure knee length skirts. By 1967 fashion was designed to flatter the young. Skirts skyrocketed to upper thigh the better to display lithesome young legs. Hair was long, straight & uncoiffed. Make-up created a Bambi-like appeal; large, exaggerated eyes and pale lips. Curves were out and the gangly adolescent shape of Twiggy was in. Older women either had to look silly, or give up on fashion altogether.
The boomers have changed more than clothing as they moved through life. As boomer women left education and wanted opportunity in the workplace in the '70s, feminism (then called Women's Lib) roared back into life. The '80s with their power suits and big hair were all about dressing for success. And so on through the decades. As Boomer women had children, feminism went a little quiet, but it has come back louder than ever before now those kids have grown and left home.
Boomer women have no intention of fading gracefully into the background as their mothers & grandmothers did. And why should they? Men over 50 never have. Older men have always dominated the powerful positions in society. Older women, while still not as prominent at board meetings, cabinet tables or front benches as their male peers, are nevertheless insisting on their right to fully participate in life. This determination by Boomer women to remain at the centre of their own lives may irritate some, but it is proving impossible to resist.