Vicki Larson: Women's 'Useful Life'

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The notion that women are little more than child bearers has Vicki Larson wondering why such narratives persist.

I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to become invisible. Then one day a news story declared, “It’s official: many women become invisible after 49.”

It wasn’t talking about women’s invisibility to the “male gaze” although many women fret about that. It spoke to something much worse and with broader implications: little data is collected about women outside ages 15 to 49—suggesting that after fertility stops, women don’t matter.

As we grapple with the end of Roe v. Wade, thus forcing women to give birth whether they want to or not, it hit me: For many, having babies is a woman’s sole purpose. Never mind women who can’t or don’t want to have children, or the decades we may live after we’re no longer fertile.

I got most of my sex-ed as a teen from books in my parents’ bedroom. One was Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). The bestseller said menopause marked the end of a woman’s “useful life.” Once she “outlived” her ovaries she’d be marking time until she followed her glands “into oblivion.”

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Imagine trying to define a man’s life by the quality of his sperm or the functioning of his genitals.

That long way we’ve come is getting shorter. The old narratives about aging as a woman, when our place was in the home, whether we wanted to be there or not, and when motherhood was our main role along with being a wife, persist. And those narratives are harmful to women’s emotional, physical, sexual, romantic and financial health. No woman believes she’s useless just because she’s no longer fertile. Sure, some may feel sad—and others, relief. But many more experience what Margaret Mead called “postmenopausal zest.”

In 2030, there will be more Americans over 65 than under for the first time. Most will be women. Truly, the future will be female. And, no matter what the narratives say, it will no doubt be zesty.

With a Perspective, I’m Vicki Larson.

Vicki Larson is a longtime award-winning journalist at a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper. She lives in Marin.