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February 09, 2006

We've Come A Long Way

Something for our daughters to think about:

We need more wrinkled, jowly, white-haired women in power.

We lost one of the very few last week when Sandra Day O'Connor quietly made her resignation official, ceding her U.S. Supreme Court seat to Sam Alito, a guy destined eventually to join the big, old club of wrinkled, jowly, white-haired power-toting men.

Don't read wrinkled, jowly and white-haired as insults. They're not, certainly not as applied to O'Connor, who remains plenty handsome.

But she's a woman who looks her age, who looks, as the saying goes, "good for her age," but that's a fully seasoned 75.

In the photo, her wayward hair lapped over the rim of her black judge's robe. Her chin did what most chins do with time. If she wore makeup, it didn't conceal the fact that her skin had seen its share of sun and years.

She looked like she'd been so busy working she hadn't made it to the salon in weeks. She looked--dare I say it?--like Ted Kennedy.

And that was beautiful.

It was beautiful because it was so shockingly rare. How often do you see a publicly powerful woman past 70? Past 60? A woman whose very age invests her with authority even as it pads her midline, an older woman who's the equivalent of the power male found in Shakespeare plays, corporate boardrooms and the newspaper front page?

Pop culture's idea of a powerful older woman is Madonna. Or Oprah, who looks younger with every monthly magazine cover.

And if the majority of Americans have come around to believing a woman could be president, it still happens only on TV. Even there it happens only if she looks like Geena Davis who, let's face it, needs a firmer chin line than Martin Sheen to survive in prime time.

Looking at that recent photo of O'Connor unaided by stylists or lighting specialists, I saw something I hadn't seen until then: She not only served the cause of women by becoming a justice, she served it by aging realistically in the job.

Women have come a long way. I think we have a long way still to go.

Posted by Cassandra at February 9, 2006 07:39 AM


Allow me, in the role of devil's advocate, to suggest another possibility: women have gone not so very far, after all.

The writer invokes "the power male found in Shakespeare plays" as a model. Yet in Shakespeare's day, the most powerful person in all England and much of Europe was a woman of just this type: Elizabeth I.

You may say, "But Elizabeth was a rare exception; most women didn't enjoy such power." And indeed that's true.

It's also the author's point about our lives today. Sandra Day O'Connor is an exception; there aren't many like her.

I think it was and is the case that extraordinary women can do extraordinary things, in any time and society -- even in China, which is very much hostile territory for women, one of the top political figures is Wu Yi, a lady of sixty-five.

If I had a daughter, that's what I would probably tell her. Not that she should expect women to remake the world; but that she could, if she really wanted to.

Posted by: Grim [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 11:52 AM

Well, I think the remarkable thing here is that a woman grew old in a position of power and we got to see it in our lifetime. That is indeed rare, and due both to the type of position and the times.

Ms. O'Connor was an accomplished woman. I don't know that I'd put her up there with Elizabeth, but then Elizabeth wouldn't have gotten where she did were it not for an accident of birth. And she would not have been able to reign as long as she did were it not for a first-rate mind.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 05:50 PM

The fascinating thing to me about Elizabeth was that she was able to make from the disadvantage of her sex, an advantage: she dangled the prospect of marriage with England like a carrot over the heads of the monarchs of Europe for decades.

But what a personal price she paid. She was my heroine, growing up. The woman absolutely fascinated me.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 05:53 PM

Ummmm, pardon me if I don't concern myself overmuch with the applause. Just because women don't *tend* to seek *direct* positions of power does not mean they don't wield enormous power -- especially sexagenarians and septagenarians. The vast majority of US assets lie in the hands of such women who survived their husbands in marriage. If you have a problem with "the guys in charge", then perhaps you might ask those women why it is that they don't hire more women as CEOs and Company Presidents.

Be prepared -- You might not like the answer, though.

Posted by: OBloodyHell [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 05:32 PM

I'm not sure I said I had a problem with guys in charge, did I?

If you read what I have written over and over, I have come right out and said that I believe the innate differences between men and women are as much responsible for gender disparities in workplace achievement as anything else. In fact, I tend to believe that women (for that matter) are generally tougher on other women than men are.

What interested me about this article (as I said) was that Ms. O'Connor got OLD in a position of power. That rarely happens in America, because often when women do get wealthy it has been through marriage or acting, both of which tend to depend on looks. Or they did something that was fairly ephemeral in nature. And it's nice (for once) for girls to see a woman succeed in a field where looks really didn't matter. Not that O'Connor is ugly, but it wasn't her looks that got her where she was.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 05:52 PM

'Women have come a long way. I think we have a long way still to go.'

I agree 100%. Until these positions are debated and considered without consideration of gender and race then there is still a lot of work to be done.

Posted by: Jack Tanner [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 11, 2006 10:52 AM

I could not agree more.

I'd love to see the day when none of this occasions any comment. The silliness over 'gender issues' during the Roberts hearings was absolutely ludicrous - I'd have loved to take Sen. Feinstein out behind the nearest woodshed and smack her upside her empty head.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 11, 2006 11:10 AM

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