Where Have All the Old Women Gone?

Getting old in America is usually only explored in publications such as AARP or Spry Magazine, which focus on the aging population. So it was an unusual twist to see a celebrated legacy press – New York Times Sunday Magazine – focus on the seniors among us.

The Oct. 26, 2014, NYT Magazine shared a wealth of articles about seniors. Stories were told from a curious mixture of culture, politics and lifestyle. One article, in particular, caught my attention. Essayist Lewis H. Lapham wrote "Old Masters at the Top of Their Game." His pictorial essay celebrated men and women who defied the conventional thinking about getting old that inevitably meant becoming befuddled and forgotten.

The people in Lapham’s essay were thriving, industrious and actualizing their peak creative powers in a wide range of pursuits. From art and theater, to law and finance, everyone was over eighty and sharp. Here is the litany:

  •    Frederick Wiseman, filmmaker, 84
  •    T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital Management, 86
  •    Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and author, 85
  •    Roy Haynes, jazz drummer and bandleader, 89
  •    Tony Bennett, singer, 88
  •    Ellsworth Kelly, artist, 91
  •    Christopher Plummer, actor, 84
  •    R. O. Blechman, illustrator and author, 84
  •    Carl Reiner, actor, 92
  •    Frank Gehry, architect, 85
  •    Carmen Herrera, painter, 99
  •    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81
  •    Ginette Bedard, long-distance runner, 81
  •    Senator Dianne Feinstein, 81
  •    Betty White, actress, 92

The only problem with the article is that the numbers don’t quite add up. Everyone was, indeed, over 80, but the boys outnumbered the girls 10 to 5. What was troubling about the ratio is, according to the last census, as boys and girls passed the threshold of 80, there is a marked increase in the number of girls. In fact at age 85 and older, there are more than twice as many women as men. If you ask Lapham or the legacy media, I don’t think they know who these women are – or maybe they don’t think they are worth mentioning.

One woman of great accomplishment who was conspicuously missing from Lapham’s list is Gloria Steinem. Ms. Steinem turned 8o this past March. Steinem, together with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, founded the Women’s Media Center in 2005 to amplify the presence of women in the media.

Each year, the Women’s Media Center researches the latest data to report how women are represented in the media, as well as how many women actually work in the media. Here are a few data points worth pondering:

  • By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, male front-page bylines at top newspapers outnumbered female bylines in coverage of the 2012 presidential election. Men were also far more likely to be quoted than women in newspapers, television and public radio.
  • On Sunday TV talk shows, women comprised only 14 percent of those interviewed and 29 percent of roundtable guests.
  • Talk-radio hosts are overwhelmingly male.
  • As newspaper employment continues to tumble, so does the number of women in key jobs.
  • Newer, online-only news sites have fallen into the same rut as legacy media. Male bylines outnumbered female bylines, four out of six.
  • The percentage of women who are television news directors edged up, reaching 30 percent for the first time. Overall employment of women in TV news remains flat.

Lapham’s "Old Masters" is arguably more than a magnificent photo essay that celebrates the old and accomplished in America. A longer article accompanies the pictorial essay of top masters.

In a waltz through history, Lapham makes eloquent references to many old masters, from the Greek classics (Sophocles) to mythology (the druid Merlyn who taught a lesson to the young prince Arthur). Brief mentions that are reminiscent of obituaries are made about great artists like Claude Monet and Michelangelo. Daring not to be West-centric, he casts a wide net to Asia and reels in the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai.

Interestingly enough, according to data from the Women’s Media Center, even obituaries about men far outnumber those of women in top national and regional newspapers. It is as if only men die successfully enough to be written up in the legacy press or by Mr. Lapham. Upon Further examination of the numbers in Lapham’s ancillary essay, the boys are heavily favored 19 to 2.

Gloria Steinem once said the purpose of the Women’s Media Center was to gain parity for women in the media to the extent that the Center would no longer be needed. If you look at the numbers, women still have a long way to go.

And it is worth mentioning that during the Women’s Media Center Awards Gala on Oct. 29 in New York City, the extraordinary broadcast journalist Barbara Walters was given a lifetime achievement award. Walters is 85.


Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and eight books.

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