Chapter 50: In Praise of Older Women

What’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

I was 14 when I first began to notice that I was competing for girls my age with guys who were older than I was. I remember thinking that was peculiar as well as unfair. The fact that I went to a small parochial school at the time, with a commensurately small number of eligible girls, made the situation all the more irritating. That irritation grew as I got older until, in my late teens, I was competing for 16-, 17-, 18-year-old girls with guys in their mid to late 20s, even 30s. By then I was outraged at the injustice of it all and, frankly, a bit contemptuous of my rivals. What kind of young professional dated high schoolers? Apparently, a lot of them. With regularity, girls I had my eye on would drop out of sight for a while, then pop back months later, somehow more refined, more mature than the rest of us. They had eaten in expensive restaurants, tried oysters and foie gras, drunk champagne. What chance did I have?

Then it came to me; maybe this can work the other way around! It wasn’t just older males who had the alluring trappings of maturity: jobs, money, cars – some women had them, too. The romantic ethos of the ’50s held that the man had to pay for everything, even if that meant you could only go out once in a while. But who said it had to be that way? Didn’t it make more sense that whoever had the money should pay?

And so it came to pass that I began to seek out the company of older girls who, I quickly confirmed, were indeed more accomplished, more independent, more mysterious. They had stories to tell. They had apartments. And what did I have to offer in return? Modesty forfends, but let’s call it a certain precocity in matters amorous, a certain street-smart confidence and drive. Oh, and I was cute with curly hair, a little exotic in origin and drove a Vespa.

On my side, I was hooked. I became an age agnostic and, something even rarer, a male feminist in the 1950s. I’ve been giving praise to older women ever since.

What makes a woman sexy? What makes anyone sexy, for that matter?

Looks, most of us eventually discover, only go so far. Precisely the things that attracted me to older girls when I was 16 are just as important now: life experience, intelligence, carriage, humour, power – not the power of tycoons but of women confident in themselves and a force in the world. In our last three chapters, which highlighted the rise of the older hero in film, books and music, I talked mostly about men. But as a group, today in 2015, it’s older women – particularly women in their 50s and 60s – who are coming into their own as a uniquely attractive, uniquely influential demographic.

The world, if I can be so bold, is catching up to me.

The influential part of the equation was brought home recently by an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail ROB that described the emergence of a brand new segment of the condominium market – the single woman over 55. The piece contained some eye-opening statistics. Since the early 1970s, the percentage of Canadians living alone has doubled, to 28 per cent. But for women around retirement age, that figure rises to an astonishing 78 per cent. In 2011, 65 per cent of single occupant condo owners in Canada were women. For those 55 and over, 76 per cent were women. As the headline of an accompanying article announced, these days “Single ladies drive Canada’s condo market” – particularly, it seems, single ladies over 55. And who are these single ladies? They’re lifetime singles or widows or divorcees (50-plus divorces, largely female-instigated, are dramatically increasing in Canada), who according to surveys are interested in relationships but not necessarily in marriage. The result is a group of vibrant, attractive, confident older women who own their own apartments and transport and can afford to take a date out to dinner. Sound familiar?

But, of course, the sexuality of older women is about more than condos and cars. It’s a matter of equal rights, what many women I’ve spoken to these days consider a new kind of Women’s Liberation Movement. The ’60s movement revolved around general female empowerment with regards to their bodies, issues like the birth control pill and choice. The new movement is growing among older women and seeks to allow them to be sexy as they age, without being mocked or criticized by younger media and society at large. Part of this later-life empowerment has to do with the freedom to choose younger sexual and romantic partners, something men – particularly successful, accomplished men – have enjoyed forever.

Men have counted on the trappings of worldly accomplishment to maintain their appeal as romantic partners as they age. They’ve also benefited from the opinion of a surprisingly large number of young women who find boys or men their own age to be unformed, obnoxious or, worse, ridiculous. Why, then, don’t women have the same right to exploit their growing presence in the material world to increase their sexual currency as they get older and not have to put up with being considered predatory or unfeminine? Why shouldn’t a mirror image younger male (me, once) prefer the mature option and not have to be embarrassed by it? Surely, what’s good for the gander should be good for the goose.

Growing up, I was never for a second interested in the teen idols of the day, the singers and actresses close to my own age. I wasn’t interested in Sandra Dee but in Ava Gardner (The Night of the Iguana). In music, my heart went to Peggy Lee, not Brenda Lee, to Juliet Greco and Julie London, all women well older than I: experienced, a bit cynical but ever hopeful and smoky of voice. I was attracted to their stillness and magnetism in a frankly visceral way. At the time, such a pairing was considered unusual, even aberrant. There was poor bumbling Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) prey to Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) in the 1967 movie The Graduate, and even as late as 1978, the Canadian movie In Praise of Older Women became a cause célèbre, complete with threats from the morality squad, for its portrayal of a woman in her 40s having a relationship with a boy in his 20s.

Compare that with trends today. Samantha Taylor-Wood, 48, the director of Fifty Shades of Grey, is married to a 24-year-old man; Joan Collins, 81, has a husband 32 years younger than herself; and the Duchess of Alba, who died recently at 88, married a 60-year-old Spanish civil servant when she was 85, a man who renounced all claims to her wealth and was left nothing at her death. Add to this the number of 50-plus actresses (Meryl Streep, Dianne Keaton and Julianne Moore come to mind) winning awards today for romantic roles or the recent signings of Charlotte Rampling (69), Joni Mitchell (71) and Joan Didion (80) as the new “faces” of the luxury labels Céline, Yves St. Laurent and NARS respectively – and you’d think that this Second “War” of Liberation is being won. But when two older singers, Madonna and Annie Lennox, headlined at this year’s Grammy Awards, Lennox, who dressed modestly and performed like a serious artist, was lionized, while Madonna, who dressed like she was trying too hard, was ridiculed. Apparently, there is still progress to be made.

When I first started writing The Zoomer Philosophy, I mapped out and fully intended to stop after 10 chapters. This one marks our 50th, a number that resonates. Fifty is recognized as an iconic moment of passage in popular culture, and nothing could mark that rite of passage better than honouring the mature women who have for so long been denied the freedom to take and keep taking whatever passion and pleasure they can from life. And my right to admire them as they do.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.