Editor's note: Carole Simpson is the leader-in-residence at Emerson College’s School of Communication in Boston, where she teaches journalism and communications classes. She is the first woman or minority to be the sole moderator of a presidential debate, and chronicled her 40 years as a broadcast journalist in her memoir, "Newslady."
By Carole Simpson, Special to CNN
(CNN) – It was suggested to me that older women are finally coming into their own.
Who would have thought that almost 14 million viewers would tune in to NBC’s broadcast special celebrating actress Betty White’s 90th birthday?
Actress Cloris Leachman was 82 when she danced the light fantastic on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Barbara Walters, also in her 80s, continues to land the big interviews for her ABC specials and act as a co-host on “The View," a show she co-owns.
Diane Sawyer, ABC’s “World News “ anchor, is in her late 60s, and Lesley Stahl, long time “60 Minutes” correspondent, is 70.
This all sounds pretty good considering women in television were once warned - by men of course - that our careers would be over at 40.
Does that mean elder females are gaining acceptance in our society?
Betty White can attract an audience because people love her. She’s warm and funny and a little raunchy. The other women are exceptional at their jobs.
Most older women say they fear being invisible as they get older.
They are often widowed, divorced and living alone on meager incomes, and among the poorest in the population.
Their children are grown and gone.
They suffer ailments of old age, are fearful of being attacked, and slowly and quietly await death.
Old ladies long for the days gone by when men turned their heads to steal a glance at them. Then, their bodies were firm and curvaceous; their hair thick and lustrous; their faces smooth and free from imperfections.
How do I know, you ask?
Because I am a septuagenarian.
But, unlike many of us at this age, I am an exception.
I continue to work and have a full-time job teaching college journalism. One of the courses I teach is reporting on minority and diverse groups, including the aged.
I told my senior and graduate students I was going to write a piece for CNN about older women, and asked: “When you think of old women, what comes to mind?”
The answers from the 20-somethings were what I expected. Here are just a few: “Wrinkles, whiskers on their face, too much makeup, smelly, tacky clothes, ugly shoes, walkers, lonely, repeat themselves, lots of cats, hot flashes, shrinking bodies, go to the bathroom all the time, knick-knacks, don’t have sex, always complaining.”
If that’s what young people think of older women, is there any wonder they don’t respect, or want to spend time with them?
My sister passed away last summer at age 78. She lived in California, so I didn’t see her often.
I am sorry to say she was “Exhibit A” of this plight of older women. She was a widow who never got over the death of her husband. She became clinically depressed.
She lived alone with her four cats and lamented that her children and grandchildren, who lived nearby, did not call or visit. She “let herself go” and often needed money.
I remember her telling me how rude people were to her and how a teenage girl pushed her out of the way and snarled, “Move it, grandma. You’re in the way.”
My sister was so unhappy, death was probably a blessing.
Our outlooks on age were vastly different. While she succumbed to it, I have been fighting it all my life.
As a broadcast journalist, I had to work hard, sound good and look great. I watched my weight and struggled to manage stress.
I even had plastic surgery when the chin and eyes began to sag on camera.
Now that I am teaching, I am trying to change young people’s perception of what it is to be an older woman.
I don’t leave the house without being dressed appropriately, made-up and hair groomed.
I laugh heartily at my students’ jokes and the YouTube videos they share.
I seek out fun and look for all the little joys in life, like popcorn and Junior Mints at the movies.
I try not to complain about every ache and pain that strikes.
I mentor my students and now they seek me out for advice on matters professional and private.
I think there are growing numbers of older women of my generation who are turning outward instead of inward and showing society that we have value, wisdom and a love of life.
Maybe we will make the difference and achieve what has eluded elder females for way too long: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carole Simpson.