In Praise of Older Women

You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.

There’s a lot to celebrate about the passing years, but for older women, a lot of invisibility too. In these posts I intend to highlight and celebrate the achievements of those women of maturity who put their heads above the parapet and wave the flag of contrariness and resistance.

Older Women in Fiction

‘I have always read fiction to find models for how to live, how to be. I am not alone; we search for ourselves in story, often seeing our own lives in fictional plots and imagining our potential futures through the lenses of fictional lives. The stories we read… impact our sense of ourselves and what is possible.’ – Ruth O Saxton

The recent release of two new books has made me revisit a topic close to my heart: the enigma of older women in fiction. Specifically, why this particular group appears so under-represented in contemporary fiction when so many readers are from this age group (by ‘older’ I mean age 50+) as are so many writers.

Being ‘older’ myself, I am still searching, alongside Ruth, for those models of ‘how to live’, and generally failing to find them.

Of course, there are books out there, but with few exceptions, e.g. Olive Strout, Anne Tyler’s protagonists, and a few others from lesser-known authors such as Anne Youngson (Meet me at the Museum), they rarely get the exposure and plaudits they deserve. You have to keep an elderly, beady eye open for new arrivals and follow a few like-minded bloggers such as Caroline Lodge and her excellent Older Women in Fiction list.

The two publications which have again brought the topic into sharp focus for me are: Ruth O Saxton’s, The Book of Old Ladies – Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction,  a work that champions older women’s stories and challenges the limiting outcomes we seem to hold for them. Its (American) author introduces readers to thirty stories featuring fictional ‘women of a certain age’. Ruth’s premise is that – whether in terms of romance, family life, or adventure – the message of fictional older women is normally presented within the framework of ‘my best years were back then.’. In contrast, these are heroines who increasingly become their truest selves, rather than recounting the (fictional) narrative of their past.

‘I continue to search for fictional plots that portray the complexity of women’s full lives and are not limited to their past loves,’ she says. Me too, Ruth.

Sue Buyer’s All Things in Time is less wide-ranging, but as the first novella from a 92-year-old former journalist (again American) it’s an extremely interesting, yet entertaining, read, focusing on the role of women in the workplace of fifties and sixties.

For today’s older women who themselves had often to overcome a future that was expected to add up to no more than being ‘a smiling young woman in high-heeled shoes pushing a vaccuum cleaner (or) … a smiling housewife hugging rolls of toilet paper’, there’s plenty to reflect on concerning how far women have come. And plenty to think about in terms of how much further older women in fiction still have to go.

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