For two decades, Gail Collins has brought her tart observations and puncturing wit to the New York Times op-ed page, in which time she has also written three books on the history of American women. The latest installment, “No Stopping Us Now: A History of Older Women in America,” concerns the status and condition of a sector of the population which, at different times, has been the most powerful age group among women and, at others, the most disregarded or scorned among the population at large.
Collins traces attitudes toward older women from the colonial period to the present, showing that the age at which a woman was considered too old to be useful or attractive was influenced by economic conditions and increasingly shaped by popular entertainment and mass marketing. In early colonial days, older women, who often held property, were considered a catch. With the increase in female population, the status of women and, perforce, older women declined dramatically until late in the 19th century when certain older, well-heeled ladies began to form cultural clubs and later, a portion of them led the campaign for female suffrage.
Wars and the extraction of men from the workforce offered women, young and old, economic opportunity. But, after World War I came the era of Prohibition and with it the speakeasy and the aggressively young, boyishly contoured flapper, leaving no place for the older woman in the era’s self-image. An ad in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1922 put it this way: “You’ve got to make up in cleverness what you’ve lost in youth. Your corsets are all that stands between you and that vague, shapeless bourn from whence no traveler returns — age.” After World War II, the housing boom and the decline of multigenerational domestic arrangements brought another blow to the older woman. Her widowed presence was no longer desirable in the single-family, all-American home.
Collins, a connoisseur of humbug, leavens her history with examples of highhanded pontifications from every era. In “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex ... ,” Dr. David Reuben wrote that old women “having outlived their ovaries … may have outlived their usefulness as human beings.” This grim news came in 1969, right at the end of the decade that installed youth as the highest human achievement and instigated the widespread use of hormone replacement.
Collins covers familiar developments and events in women’s history which, important though they are, are not specific to older women and might have been treated more succinctly. Further, she devotes by far the greatest attention to white, middle- and upper-middle-class women. And, once she gets to the 1980s and beyond, she drifts into a form of celebrity news, increasingly drawing upon the doings of TV and movie stars, media figures and politicians to make her points. Still, “No Stopping Us Now” — a catchphrase that does sum up the more favorable position of older women in our own time — is an engaging book, featuring throughout Collins’ infectious relish for delusion and hucksterism.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Wall Street Journal, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.
No Stopping Us Now
By: Gail Collins.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 422 pages, $30.