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Gabrielle Burton Headshot

Ride That Elephant, Gloria Steinem

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Lordy Lordy, Gloria's 80!

Wasn't it just a year or so ago that Gloria Steinem was 40 and a reporter said kindly, "You don't look 40," and Gloria said, "This is what 40 looks like"? It was an off-the-cuff remark that started us all on the road to a new definition of 40.

Now, 40 seems so young it seems inconceivable that anyone ever thought it was the end of the line for women.

Inconceivable also that a popular radio soap opera, "The Romance of Helen Trent," aired on CBS from 1933 to 1960, every one of its 7,222 episodes exploring that burning question: Can a woman have romance after 35?

My mother, formed by a culture riddled with such demeaning questions, refused to tell her real age her entire life -- a practice I found silly and annoying until I got in the Women's Movement and thought more deeply about what happens to women as they age. What happens in jobs, marriages, sexuality, how they/we become invisible. Only then did I admire my mother's shrewdness and refusal to be counted out.

I never had a problem telling my age in Buffalo, NY, (proudly called City of No Illusions); then, at 56, I moved to Los Angeles to go to film school. No one gets old in Los Angeles, particularly not in the movie business. I started lying about my age so frequently that sometimes, I had to use my fingers and toes to figure out the true number myself.

"This is what 40 looks like." Everybody knows that part of that quote, but Gloria went on, "We've been lying so long, who would know?"

She started telling the truth. Gloria Steinem showed women how to be 40, but more importantly, she modeled how to stop lying. Thanks to her and legions of other known and unknown women who spoke the truth about their lives and changed them, we went on to have new definitions for 50. Even 60.

Generally, we're still working on the next numbers. Saying 65 is the new 55 isn't accepting 65; it's still saying younger is better.

Gloria's 80, I'm 75. So far, I've stopped lying and I'm doing my damnedest to get a new definition for 75. But I know if I'm lucky enough to still be alive in five years I'll have a head start because Gloria's showing us one vital way to be 80. She's showing us that "old" is not a bad word.

Our paths have crossed over the years on the feminist circuit. I'll be forever grateful to her mother, Ruth Steinem, and sister, Susan Steinem Patch, for hosting my first coffee, and cheering me on, when I was running as a delegate for Shirley Chisholm in 1972 in Montgomery County, MD.

I was amazed when Gloria said that what she wanted to do on her 80th birthday was to ride an elephant. I'm writing a book on aging, called Don't Sit Down Yet, the title coming from a safari guide saying that adult elephants grow so large they only sit down when they're going to die. My husband and I sometimes joke with each other, "Don't sit down," meaning keep living fully until you die. Gloria Steinem is the quintessential "Not A Sitter."

Happy Birthday, Gloria. Climb up on that elephant and ride, you've earned it.