Feminist author Suzanne Braun Levine, the first editor of Ms. magazine, comes from a proud tradition of truth-telling about age. The magazine's founder, Gloria Steinem, was honest about her age from the earliest days of her fame. When a reporter said to Steinem in 1974, "Oh, you don't look 40," Steinem famously replied, "This is what 40 looks like we've been lying for so long, who would know?" But when Levine recently reached a landmark birthday of her own, she felt her courage waver. Levine writes about this common female dilemma in her latest book, 50 is the New Fifty (Viking). TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Levine at her home in Manhattan. (Click here to see the top women executives in fashion.)
You write with real insight in your book about your own experience with telling people your age.
I realized that there was a barrier that I was having trouble with, and I felt that I had to share it, which is turning 65. This a major cut-off point in our society because you start getting Social Security. In many cases, people are forced to retire at 65. And I was not so afraid of being old or being that age as I was of being pushed aside by people that I still had a lot in common with and wanted to stay connected to, particularly women in their 40s who were in their own kind of inventive process and who had a lot to say about their lives that I was interested in. I wanted to be sure that they would listen to what I had to say about how things looked from my perspective. Of course, then I had to do it and say my age. I am watching to see whether being over 65 really changes my relationships with other women or not. (Read "Twins and Aging: How Not To Look Old.")
Your title, "50 is the New Fifty," is interesting. What do you mean by that?
It came out of the experience that I began to have when I traveled around talking about "second adulthood," and people would say to me, "Oh, I get it. Fifty is the new 30." And I would have to explain that that is not it at all. Fifty is an exciting, new stage of life where women are feeling more comfortable, more masterful, more full of hope and energy than they felt in their 30s. And I haven't met a single woman, truly, who would like to go back to her life when she was 30. We might like to go back to our lives when our bodies were a little different and we could wear belts, but otherwise, in terms of life experience, women are finding that their 50s and their 60s and even their 70s are a very exciting and authentic time. (See pictures of the world's most celebrated senior citizens.)
Why do so many women lie about their age?
Well, we live in a society that is very ageist. Certainly the most significant victims have been women. It used to be that when a woman went through what was called her "change of life" which was what menopause was called her life stopped changing. Now we are creating a whole new age for women that really defies the stereotype that as women get older, they should be invisible, they should sit by the phone and wait for an opportunity to baby-sit for their grandchildren. I think our experience is going to change the perception of women in this society.
What do you think about the state of feminism in 2009?
I think feminism is strong and pervasive and vibrant, and I think the fact that the generations are in dialogue over what the agenda should be and who is a real feminist is really not a bad thing. I think that my generation sometimes gets impatient and feels like the battles we won are now being sort of put aside or rethought on different terms. And the other women feel like we don't take their issues seriously enough. But I do believe that the force of independent women of all ages is really changing everything. I have a 22-year-old daughter who cannot really comprehend that when I got married, I was unable to take out a loan without my husband's signature, or that jobs were listed [as] male and female in the paper. It's inconceivable to her. On the one hand, that's a good thing because it means that she is somewhere else, that she doesn't have to deal with those things. On the other hand, it's a bad thing because she doesn't realize what a struggle women have in most societies. (See pictures of facial yoga.)
Do you think that men are more amenable now to the idea of female equality?
Oh, I do. I do. I think men are so much more comfortable working with and for women. You see them all picking their kids up at school, taking them to the playground. When I wrote "Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First," men would tell me that when they took their child to the playground, it would happen that somebody might call the police thinking that they were either kidnapping or molesting the child because they were so unusual. It's night and day now. Of course, women are still doing the most housework and the most caretaking. (See pictures of women in space.)
Are you still optimistic that that might change?
I think it's going to change, but I think it's going to be a little different. I think also that caretaking is going to change. One of the areas that is so hard to deal with right now is caretaking for older parents. There's one statistic that just blows my mind, which is that if you have two or more daughters or daughters-in-law, you have a much better chance of living out your life in your own home. If you don't, then it's very likely that you will end up in an institution. So women are still doing the caretaking at both ends of the spectrum.
In your book, you use the phrase "horizontal role model." What do you mean by that?
Many of us have discovered that we don't know how to measure what we are going through against earlier generations because there were no women experiencing this gift of longevity, of good health, of independence, and we have to look to each other. What's interesting is that while no two women are experiencing this stage of life in the same way, we are able to give each other a sense of the possibilities and reassure each other. In all my years of working with material about women's lives, the two things that always hold women back are, one, the feeling that they're crazy if they want to do something out of the ordinary, and, two, that they are the only ones in the whole world who are experiencing whatever it is they are experiencing. Once we are there for each other, regardless of the similarities of our situations, we reinforce each other's courage.