Why Madonna Proved Gloria Steinem Was Right

Madonna onstage at the Superbowl.

Last fall I had the privilege of speaking at a conference where Gloria Steinem was the keynote. As she was discussing some of the hard-fought lessons of 1970s feminism, Steinem made a comment that seemed very strange to me at the time. When asked about whether a movement had to be “radical” to make substantial change, she softly replied:

“I don’t know why women aren’t more angry these days…because we still have so much to be angry about.”

“Really?” I thought. As I looked around the audience of more than 3,000 women, the picket signs from three decades before had clearly been replaced with shoulder pads. These were the women who poured into the workforce on the backs of trailblazers like Steinem herself. They were college-educated, sitting on boards, and running their own businesses.

What did they have to be angry about?

To be perfectly honest, I was watching Steinem after delivering my own presentation about why the feminist debate seems to be shifting away from why we can’t bust through the glass ceiling, to why we don’t want to. Naturally, there will always be more we can do for gender equality in the workforce but, for the most part, I had come to the event to defend our position on the fairness scale.

Cut to Sunday night and Madonna’s performance at the Super Bowl.

As I was scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading. Tucked amid the favorable (and not-so-favorable) comments on the performance itself were pages and pages of low blow cracks on her age. I was tempted to reprint a few here but, frankly, I don’t want to give the vitriol additional airtime.

Of course, I’m not completely naive. I get that anyone brave enough to tackle a halftime show is setting themselves up for criticism and, yes, I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas are still pulling out the thorns from last year. Regardless… it was especially disappointing to find that so many “atta-girls” were also incredibly, backhandedly agist. Take this one from a well-meaning Rita Wilson.

Woke up and still thinking how amazing Madonna was… And so inspiring. She is not letting age define what she does.

Sigh. Did anyone wake up the next morning and high-five Tom Petty, then 58, for not breaking a hip onstage in 2008? Moreover, I’ve seen a lot of people posting video today of Bruce Springsteen’s 2009 performance, yet not one of them has prefaced it with, “Wow – he really killed it for 60!”

There is clearly a double-standard here – and not just for pop stars.

I’ve often wondered why, at 35, I have to fight against feeling “too old” to train college grads or to try something new in my career. A few months ago, I even went so far as to create a vision board of powerful, beautiful women who are at the top of their game into their 60’s and beyond. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded that I’m not a wilting flower.

Neither are you, and neither is Madonna.

But why do we need these reminders? Perhaps it’s because every time we read a post about someone being “geriatric” at 53, we feel just as disposable. So – in my own form of protest – I’m removing the word “still” from my vocabulary when used in the context of “he / she’s STILL got it.” (While that may sound like a compliment, it really means even at their advanced age.) I know it’s not marching on Washington or founding a feminist magazine, but I still think Gloria Steinem would be proud. After all, I finally got angry – and I’m doing my part.

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