By Gail Collins

No Stopping Us Now, a new book by New York Times op ed columnist and historian Gail Collins, offers a detailed account of the contributions and views of older American women  over more than 400 years.   Collins tells readers at the outset the attitudes toward older women zigzagged between positive and negative over time.  Women’s status rose and fell depending in large part on their economic contributions, she shows.  In agrarian colonial times, women were respected as hard workers and even widows who made it to the age of 50 were in demand to become brides again.  But in the 19thcentury, as the U.S. urbanized, middle-aged and older women were largely confined to their homes.

“If there’s one ringing message in American history it’s that if you’re important economically, you’re important,” Collins reminds readers repeatedly.  Of the six million women who went to work during World War II, 1.5 million were between age 45 and 65 and another half a million were over 65.

In the 1900s, older women gained another achievement –they could be attractive and sexy in midlife and old age.  While Collins recounts how  Dr. Charles A. Stephens, a popular writer in the 1920s., described getting old for women as entering a period of “grossness, coarseness and ugliness,” today  baby boomers in their sixties and seventies, have freedom to choose whether they’ll be gray haired or blonde and wear short skirts or pants suits or jeans. Plus if you’re 70-plus today you can be Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) or a Supreme Court Justice (Ruth Bader Ginsberg.)

Known for her pithy writing style, Collins provides a wealth of data and portraits of older women worth knowing—everyone from women’s rights activist Elizbeth Cady Stanton, who felt far happier and freer in older age to focus on her reform work, to Ellen Baker, one of the most effective organizers for the contemporary civil rights movement and Gloria Steinem, who held a “this is what 80 looks like” when she turned 80 a few years ago.  One omission is Collins’ failure to more fully address how longevity and the longer lifespans of a majority of American women is radically altering their lifestyles.

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This article was recommended by Carol Hymowitz, author, journalist and visiting fellow at the Stanford Center on Longevity.