Recently, I read an interview with a well-known author, a woman in her late 50s, who joked that she wants to launch a private-eye business staffed by women her age and older. Older women in our culture are invisible, the author said, so they would make perfect spies.
Her comment made me laugh. It also, after a recent cross-country train trip, made me wince a little. That trip was my first experience with feeling unseen.
Mostly, I love riding Amtrak. I love feeling time moving slowly, spending hours watching as Montana rolls by, settling deeply into a novel. I love meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.
But the invisibility aspect of my recent ride threw me.
Mainly it happened at mealtimes. In the dining car a single traveler like myself is seated with others, an unusual situation in our culture, as we rarely share meals with strangers. When my dining companions were my age or older, we talked easily, using well-worn Amtrak conversational starters: Where are you from? Why are you riding the train?
But when my dining companions were young, and especially young men, things were different. The young people would engage with each other, leaving me out, with the apparent assumption that I, an older woman sitting at the same table, had nothing to say. At least, I had nothing to say that was interesting. They talked right past me. They acted as if I wasn’t there.
Why do some assume an older woman has nothing to say? I find that women my age and older are the most interesting people I know. Perhaps it’s because we, over a lifetime, have had to re-invent ourselves more than anyone else. We go from being rich in female youth and beauty — a powerful currency in this society — to, well, no longer having that currency, and needing to find a new sense of self-worth. We go from centering our lives on our young children to stepping aside as those children grow up and move into the world. We move back and forth between work and home, serving as caregivers, first to children, then parents. None of these re-inventions come easily. They call on us to be flexible and creative, resilient and bold.
Where I live, I’m not used to being excluded. I’ve been fortunate, I see now, to have had a job in the public eye, so that people in my little town want to talk to me. They think I know things, that I have things to say. People of all ages engage me, as I engage them.
But not on Amtrak. Sure, it was up to me to insert myself into those dining car conversations. I tried. Here I am! I felt myself yelling internally, figuratively waving my arms to get others’ attention. But continually having to put myself forward felt exhausting. Sometimes it was easier to stay silent, and look out the window.
While learning on this trip about how others sometimes don’t see older women, I also learned something deeper, something uncomfortable, about myself.
One lunchtime in the dining car, the waiter motioned for me to join two young men. I had no choice, and sat down. But I thought to myself: just shoot me now. I anticipated an awkward meal during which the young men only talked to each other, ignoring me while I stared out the window, silently fuming.
But then one of the men turned toward me. He began asking questions. Who knows why sometimes you click with someone and the conversation flows easily? That’s what happened with Neal, a musician who lives in L.A. He became my train buddy, someone I sought out repeatedly to know better, just as he sought me out. It was a sweet, unexpected friendship that had nothing to do with age or romantic intentions. We were just two humans enjoying each other.
But I came very close to not having that friendship, due to my hesitancy, not his. Yes, our culture often treats older women as if we’re invisible. But I saw that sometimes we women do the same. Sometimes we — me, at least — can be quick to assume that because we’re no longer young, no longer considered desirable, that we have nothing to offer. I can be quick to hold back, feel defeated, clam up. And soon those feelings are followed by resentment and shame.
So yes, it’s not only others’ fault that older women are sometimes invisible. It’s our fault as well. So let’s not give in. Let’s insert ourselves into the conversation. We can practice first, in front of a mirror. We can pretend to be interesting, because, well, we are. We can wave our arms figuratively, and maybe literally, too. We can say to those who don’t see us, including ourselves: Here I am! In person! I am right here before you, and I have something to say.