- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

Senior Citizen Gloria Steinem joins the Feminist Hall of Fame of outspoken women who change their minds. (Isn't that just like a woman?) After saying she wouldn't marry "I can't mate in captivity" she did. Either she's changed her view of marriage or mating in captivity doesn't look so bad at age 66.
She follows Simone de Beauvoir who railed against the mother-daughter relationship but who adopted a 30-year-old daughter when her sometime lover Jean Paul Sartre died. She wanted someone to take care of her, both emotionally and physically, in her declining years.
What both these feminists learned late in life is that needs change. Dogmatic youthful notions of what it means to be an independent feminist change, too. After reading about a number of powerful men in their 70s, who married nurses to care for them in their old age, I once proposed a book about the changing nature of courtship and marriage among senior citizens. The publishers invariably said nah, no thanks, it wouldn't sell in our youth- oriented culture.
Gloria Steinem's marriage may change some of that.
Vows, a popular feature in the Sunday New York Times about fascinating marriages, frequently includes seniors. Charlotte Mary Cassidy, for example, was 60 and still single when she met Michael Chamberlain, a widower, 72. She seems to have a lot in common with Gloria Steinem. Charlotte liked living alone and Michael thought he was content with his orderly life, his books, his dog and writing cranky letters to his congressman. Suddenly a spark ignited romance. Everything changed. One of the wedding guests said Charlotte belongs to a generation of women who were too independent and outspoken to marry when feminism flourished. As these women grow older, they look at commitment and compromise differently.
Few women (and few men) want to be senior and single. Cosmetic surgery, good diets and exercise enable many women to look "great for their age," but the chronological facts of their lives eventually betray them and they may not be as fortunate as Ms. Steinem in finding men to call their own. Older widowers and divorced men usually want to marry younger women. "I want a nurse with a purse," an old codger in a Florida retirement community once told me. He doesn't want the reverse, to take care of an aging wife.
All this goes into the category of life-is-not-fair. The dating and mating game for seniors poses other problems. There are simply many more widows than widowers, and the competition is fierce. Of the 9 million Americans aged 65 or older living alone, more than 80 percent are women. There are four single women for every single man over the age of 75. Many women in this category, having grown up long before the sexual revolution, have known only their husbands in the intimate way. They're likely to have married young and grown old with a life-long companion. Such a woman would never have cheered Nora in Ibsen's "Doll House," walking out on husband and child to enjoy the free air of independence. Such a woman loved the independence that came from dependence, and now, in the lyrics of Jim Ed Brown's famous country-music wail, she's invariably "looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains."
The life expectancy gap between men and women at the turn of the century was quite narrow, 45 years for men, 46 years for women. By 1950 the gap grew to 5 years. Now it's 8. By the year 2020, it's expected to be 12.
One Florida dating service specializing in seniors boasts that it has helped men in their 90s find mates, but it won't even try to fix up women older than 78. When one retired plumber, claiming to be in his mid-70s, put a modest personal ad in a South Florida newspaper, saying he likes short trips and Bingo and wanted a companion, he received 57 replies.
"The Case for Marriage" by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, runs down the latest research that supports the subtitle of their book: "Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially." Married men and women also live longer than the single and the divorced.
Time magazine recently featured a cover story of the actresses who appear in "Sex and the City," the HBO sitcom about single women in their 30s who run in the fastest lane of sex and money. Time observed that many such women are saying "no" to marriage. But the telling contradiction of Time's premise is captured by Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of the show, who is married to actor Matthew Broderick. She lies to her single friends about how boring marriage is and how lucky they are to enjoy their freedom: "It's just a fun thing to say to make single people feel better." But once older, few actually do.

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