Society slowly changing its attitude toward women in midlife


October 14, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

A chart accompanying an article about USAir Group Inc. appearing in yesterday's Business section incorrectly stated the wage concessions sought by the airline from its employees. Under the company's plan, no wage reduction would apply to the first $20,000 of base pay. A 10 percent cut would apply to the next $30,000, 15 percent to the next $50,000 and 20 percent to salary above $100,000.

The Sun regrets the error.

In a society that sometimes seems obsessed with youthful vigor and beauty, women in midlife are seldom depicted on television, throughout advertising, even in real life, as strong, vibrant people with active, compelling lives.

Subsequently, women over 40 may be getting the wrong picture of themselves, says Diane Gibson, former director of rehabilitative services at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.


"Middle-aged women are shown on TV as cranky and aggressive, or sweet and grandmotherly. They advertise dentures, cookies and laxatives," she says.

"You would have to watch 7.5 half-hour television programs to see one woman over 40. You would only watch 0.75 half-hour programs to see a man over 40. And the woman is addressed as lesser-than, while the man is addressed as more sexually attractive."

But Mrs. Gibson hopes a conference on the subject, to be held Saturday at Notre Dame College, will shine a vastly different light on women in midlife.

Titled "Empowering Women over 40: Challenging the Myths of Midlife," it is co-sponsored by the college, the Women's Resource Center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and the Sheppard Pratt National Center for Human Development. And the keynote speaker is Antonia C. Novello, M.D., Surgeon General of the United States.

According to her spokeswoman, M. J. Fingland, it is Dr. Novello's long-held belief that women protect their families when they take care of themselves. "One of the comments she makes is that in most cases the woman is the core of the household; if she allows her health to decline, the family falls apart," Ms. Fingland said.

That's true for women under 40, too; in fact, admits Mrs. Gibson, who helped organize the event, the "over 40" in the conference title is somewhat vague. "A woman at 45 might be a first-time mother, or the grandmother of 10," she says. "She could be working, married, single, or single with a child. The variability is extraordinary. It is not a chronological time; it is a transitional period."

The range of those transitions is extraordinary, too. The mid-life woman could be about to retire, and wondering what to do with the rest of her life. She might be watching her children grow up and leave the nest -- or, conversely, Mrs. Gibson points out, moving back home. She could be entering menopause, with all its physiological changes. She might be facing the loss of her own parents.

And she might also be dealing with the loss of her sense of personal attractiveness, sexuality and significance.

However, societal attitudes, toward women over 40 may be due for some changes as programmers and advertisers face facts for statistical reasons. The number of women past 40 -- already close to 51.5 million in this country -- has been climbing and, according to Census Bureau projections, will continue to climb, from 21 percent of the population now, to 24 percent in the year 2000, to 26 percent by 2010. The 60-something publisher Frances Lear must have been aware of this demographic when she founded Lear's magazine in 1988 and aimed it at the active, affluent, sophisticated woman who was not, according to early publicity, born yesterday. Circulation is now 500,000.

The "lesser-than" stereotype is wrong, anyway. After all, the feminist revolution that began in the 1960s took the women of the baby-boom generation into the workplace, where many are just hitting their professional stride: The nation's top doc, Antonia Novello, is herself 47.

And whatever happens in reel life, the nation's beauties are long past ingenue-age in real life: Think of Diahann Carroll, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross. Look at Cher, 45-years-old, and challenging 50-something Jane Fonda in the fitness sweepstakes.

And look at the conference speakers: Winnifred B. Cutler, Ph.D., who is in her 60s and will be talking about the physiological changes of the middle years, is a reproductive endocrinologist who heads the Athena Institute for Women's Wellness in Haverford, Pa., a health research and education center for women. She's also the author of several books about women's issues, including "Love Cycles: The Science of Intimacy," published last week by Villard.

Geraldine Fialkowski, a 50-year-old counselor and teacher in Baltimore, is addressing the issue of spirituality in women; she is working toward her Ph.D. in pastoral counseling.

In a down mood a year ago, she complained to her husband that she'd be 51 before she got her doctorate, she recalls.

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