They’re Mad as Hell07/31/2019
Among older women, anger is trending. In the time of #MeToo, their indignation is long overdue.
By Ruth La Ferla
Photographs by Celeste Sloman
Toni Tunney had been at her job at a small employment agency for no more than a week, cold-calling prospective clients, when, as she tells it, her boss sidled up, demanding, in the argot of the day, that she put out or get out.
Ms. Tunney, a retired clinical psychologist in her 70s, was 23 at the time, and panicky. “We were in a recession,” she recalled. “Jobs were hard to come by. In those days I had to scramble to buy groceries.” No matter. She left.
“Stuff like that stays with you,” she said. “Even today it scares me to think of it.”
As for her boss: “I’ll never forget him,” she said. Then, in a burst of long suppressed rage, she named him.
The questions remains: What took her so long?
“At a certain age — psychologically, biogenetically, I don’t know — you get to the place when a switch flips,” Ms. Tunney said. “You tell yourself, ‘I’m done.’”
Amen to that, her peers would say. She is, after all, but one in a chorus of like-minded contemporaries, many of them well-educated, outspoken professionals in their 60s, 70s and beyond, who are only now uncorking long-bottled-up grievances, their ire having reached a tipping point.
Some, it would seem, have taken a page from E. Jean Carroll, who — was it just a month ago?— published “What Do We Need Men For?,” a chronicle of abuses she suffered at the hands of predators, including Donald Trump, who, as she writes, assaulted her in the lingerie department of Bergdorf Goodman. (She prefers not to use the word “rape.”)
Ms. Carroll waited more than two decades to tell the tale. Was there something self-serving or opportunistic in her late-life disclosure? Well, no. “I am a member of the Silent Generation,” she writes. “We do not flap our gums. We laugh it off and get on with life.”
Many readers will relate, their fuses lit by a catalog of past and current ills: mingy salaries, thwarted ambitions, waning sex lives and — gasp! — impending mortality.
Paramount among those ills are the relentless predations of men, the kinds of aggression that have given rise in younger generations to #MeToo.
“Looking back on those years, I think ‘Oh, we swallowed such a pile of garbage.’”
“#MeToo has lent some older women permission to speak out in a way that they hadn’t before,” said Cathi Hanauer, a writer and editor whose anthologies, “The Bitch in the House” and its 2016 sequel, “The Bitch Is Back,” examine the sources of women’s anger in midlife and beyond. (Her husband, Daniel Jones, edits the Modern Love column for The New York Times.)
Some of those women are just now playing catch-up with their vociferously outspoken daughters, nieces and granddaughters — and with their younger selves. The movement is infectious. “They can release the hurts they’ve lived with all these years in ways that are vindicating,” Ms. Hanauer said.
And strikingly in tune with changing times. “Online, younger women feel they are instantly heard,” Ms. Hanauer said. “That gives them a feeling of power. Older women didn’t have that release. Now they do. They’re finally finding a place to vent.”
Wrath begets wrath. “Outrage is very media friendly,” the writer Meghan Daum said, somewhat caustically, in a conversation in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “You get clicks and followers by expressing super-indignant versions of the indignant opinions people already have.”
Still, for a generation brought up to smile in the face of almost any affront or risk being tarred as a harridan, older women’s indignation seems ripe for reassessment. Small wonder, then, that with careers, social constraints and family obligations mostly behind them, some have seen fit to go rogue.
“What’s being loosed,” Ms. Tunney said, “is the tendency to let her rip.”
No need to remind Karla Wright, 76, a retired lawyer living in Greece, “When I was younger, I needed people to like me even though I didn’t particularly like them,” Ms. Wright recalled in an interview. “Now if they like me or not, who gives a damn?”
Early in her career, Ms. Wright learned in the courtroom that women cannot be confrontational in the same way as men. “If you are,” she said, “you’re going to be seen as shrill.”
“Over the years, I’ve evolved a professional style that sort of works for me, which is to be flippant,” she said. At home she is often brutally direct: “I argue with my husband more. When we disagree, we will get into it. My feeling is, ‘What have I got to lose?’”
“I’m still furious, still dealing with that residual rage.”
Conventional wisdom may dictate that a woman past 60 ought to be settled in her metaphoric rocker, basking in her sunset years. But there can be rewards in sorting out old grievances, which seem, in any case, to have no expiration date.
As Sarah Manguso observed, writing about postmenopausal rage in The New Yorker in June: “Life’s transitions don’t confer perfect amnesia. Like anyone, I drag my previous selves behind me.”
Marian Rivman, 73, a semiretired public relations consultant, still smarts when she looks back at early impediments to her youthful ambition. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, she instructed local denizens in how to teach science.
“I had 20 volunteers working for me,” Ms. Rivman said. “But when I returned to the States and went on job interviews, all anyone ever asked me was, ‘How fast can you type?’ I’m still furious, still dealing with that residual rage.”
The roots of women’s fury can be diffuse. Some rail against being made to feel less desirable than disposable. “There comes a time in life when you look in the mirror and what you want more than anything else in the world is to remember when you were beautiful,” said Nancy Weber, a 77-year-old writer.
Ms. Weber was chilled by Ms. Carroll’s tales of sexual assault. But she also sensed a perhaps unintended subtext: The author was saying, “‘‘Look at me, look how they all wanted me,’” Ms. Weber suggested. “If I’m noticing that, it’s because I feel it myself.”
She hasn’t entirely cast off the docility that once hobbled her, and she still tends to freeze in the face of a leering taunt. During a trip to the post office earlier this year, a mild-seeming clerk locked eyes with her. “Suddenly he was saying to me: ‘I know how women like it. They want it hard and thick.’”
“You would think I would have raised my fist to punch him in the chin,” she said. “Instead I was paralyzed. I couldn’t tell my husband about it for two days. I was so distressed, not just by the ugliness of that moment but my inability to do anything useful about it.”
“There aren’t enough hours in the day to suffer through these kinds of particular awfulness,” Ms. Weber said.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day to suffer through these kinds of particular awfulness.”
A sense of shrinking horizons can promote a sense of urgency. “There is less future in which to accomplish our goals, and less tolerance for injustice,” said Laura L. Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “Women are telling themselves: ‘Not on my watch is this thing going to happen. This time I’m going to get things right.’”
In “The Bitch Is Back,” Pam Houston, a writer, confided that she finds herself withdrawing on occasion from friends and loved ones. “That may sound misanthropic,” she writes, “but mild misanthropy may simply be a thing intelligent women of a certain age grow into because most intelligent women of a certain age have spent a huge percentage their lives taking care of other people.
As the eldest daughter in an Italian-American family, Paula Liscio, an opera singer and former member of the New York City Opera, can relate. Ms. Liscio, 71, was reared with the expectation that, as a single woman, she would stay at home to care for her aging parents and four younger siblings.
“Looking back on those years,” she said, “I think, ‘Oh, we swallowed such a pile of garbage.’”
Eventually her parents separated, relieving her of the expectations that had dogged her until then. “I woke up one day and thought, ‘I’ve gone through menopause, I’m not in a relationship, it’s time to claim my space,’” she said.
Others strive to claim a voice and a sense of agency. For much of her career, Ms. Rivman sacrificed her needs and opinions to those of her clients: “If a client told me to jump, my reaction was, ‘How high?’ By the time you get into your 70s, you are wearing the war wounds of that.”
Still, anger has an upside. In her youth, Dale Burg, who has written extensively on topics including menopause, women’s finances and procrastination, shied away from confrontation. Now, at 77, Ms. Burg has had enough experience to think that her judgment or criticism has a certain validity, “so why not just get it out?” she said. “Sometimes criticism comes less from rage than from increasing confidence.”
Self-assurance, however, is no bulwark against the depredations of age. For some the culprit is nature itself. “I’m an angrier person than ever,” Ms. Weber said. “I can’t blame it on Trump. I blame it on chemistry, on my rheumatoid arthritis, on the stark reminders of mortality.”
Ms. Tunney, who has worked with the mentally ill, specializing in anger management, noted that as the years advance, our psychological defenses erode. “Denial, one of my favorite fallback defenses, is less functional these days,” she said. “I’m fully aware that there are days when I have three extra drinks just to get it kicking in.”
“I don’t know, you get to a place when a switch flips. You tell yourself, ‘I’m done.’”
There are those who have speculated that Ms. Carroll, who certainly vents in her memoir but has yet to state outright that she is mad as hell, is to some degree in denial.
Still, it’s hard to overlook the lingering rage implicit in her confession that after her encounter with Trump, she never had sex again. “Maybe all this just killed my desire for desire,” she said in an interview with The Times.
Or maybe she had what Ms. Houston refers to as a hormonal assist. “For so much more of my life than I would care to admit, I thought I might die if some man or another didn’t love me,” she writes in “The Bitch Is Back.” With age, and after years of therapy, those obsessions subsided.
Up to then, she said, “not one of those therapists ever told me, ‘Just hang in there, Pam, and make it to the other side of 50, and those feelings will turn off like a switch.’”
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