They’ve got the power

They’ve got the power

14th July 2011 by Natalie Burns

Back to They’ve got the power

Forget glass ceilings. Today there’s a new breed of strong, confident women over 50 who have found success and know what to do with it. Tina Brown reports from New York.

The best Camilla Parker Bowles moment at the wedding was not about the clothes or the wonders wrought by facials. It was at the blessing at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, when we heard her posh baritone firmly ‘acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed‘.

The Queen reportedly once referred to Camilla as being ‘rather used‘, but being ‘rather used‘ is what gives Camilla her edge. All that marital drama, pain and abuse in the press has been absorbed now under her feathered Philip Treacy hat. Camilla has wounds. She has memories. She has wisdom. It gives her self-confidence and the subtle glow of power.

The same thought struck me in New York recently during a star-studded lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The occasion was an annual ceremony known as the Matrix Awards, for the most powerful women in communications.

Last year Oprah Winfrey was the Queen Bee, even though she wasn’t in the running herself. She flew in from Chicago to present the award to Amy Gross, 63, the editor of her incredibly successful O, The Oprah Magazine, a monthly which now sells millions after only five years. Winfrey looked amazing. As she powered up to the podium there was something truly glorious about the confident roll of her behind in its tight couture suit. ‘When I interviewed Amy,‘ she said, ‘I knew right away she was a real woman, not an ageing female.‘ All the oestrogen in the room seemed to answer with a collective hot flash of recognition.

The Texas writer Mimi Swartz wrote in a magazine piece in 2000 that as she turned 45 she felt she was starting to disappear. (She should have tried living in Hollywood, where you’re in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak after 35.) Men, Swartz noted, looked through her. ‘Boys in bicycle shorts, executives in pinstripes and countless males in between seemed to be nudging me aside and unless I was very quick, allowing the door to slam in my face.‘ But something has happened since Swartz wrote that piece. Women in their fifties are finally blowing past the men who didn’t hold the door. They’ve been in the workforce for 30 years and they’re unapologetic about their sense of success. All the powerhouse women on the dais at the communications award lunch in New York were so much more interesting because on the way to equilibrium they had suffered.

Dame Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson, talked about how a good failure goes a long way with women, because we honestly believe we can be successful. Linda Fairstein described how, as one of seven women on a staff of 200 lawyers, she panicked when all the guys went out to lunch and she was left alone to craft her first summation.

‘Only one response seemed natural. I sat at my desk and cried. The boss heard my sobs – “Who died?” he asked. I explained the problem and he gave me his wise solution.

“Do what we do whenever there’s a crisis. Go into the restroom and throw up like a man.” I rejected his advice – but I never cried at my desk again.‘

I have attended Women in Communications Awards ceremonies at which the acceptance speeches alternated between the embarrassingly grateful and the stridently self-promotional. But this year the remarks – by the likes of CNN’s foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who lives in London; Marjorie Scardino: and the fearless former Manhattan sex-crimes prosecutor turned novelist Linda Fairstein – were honest, self-effacing and funny.

Women of a certain age can inhabit their achievements now, it seems, rather than brag about them. And many look better than they ever did at 35. Amanpour, 47 and fresh from covering the Pope’s funeral, was wearing a chic combat-like trouser suit with a T-shirt that read ‘SEXY‘.

Some of the gains in techno-grooming simply reflect the march of science. Beyond the access to all the new info about diet and exercise and style, there’s Dr Lookgood’s ever-more-skilful Filler. The first wave in the attack on wrinkles suffered heavy casualties. That Nancy Reagan face with wind-tunnel stare and rictus smile is no longer necessary.

George Orwell once said that at 50 we have the faces we deserve, but thanks to a bathroom cabinet full of new products or a lunchtime trip to the dermatologist, we now get the faces we can afford. Women are looking so good in their fifties they are dumping their husbands and moving on. In America last year two-thirds of divorces after the age of 40 were initiated by women. The old paradigm of the trophy wife of the high-flying male is quietly beginning to recede.

Perhaps the most radical reverser of all the old paradigms is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who introduced her old friend Linda Fairstein at the ceremony. Like Oprah, Hillary had carved out two hours in her schedule not for herself, but for another woman she happens to admire. Hillary looks three times as good as she did in the days when her strident style was unsuccessfully packaged in dress-for-success skirt suits and a prefect’s Alice band, but it’s not just about surfaces.

It’s easy to attribute Hillary’s evolution to her escape from the long shadow of Bill. There are other matters in play too. ‘Empty nest‘ has always been such a mournful phrase, evoking droop-feathered mother crows keening in some bedraggled tree. The dirty little secret is that for women who have struggled to do justice to their love for their children at the same time as their ambition, there’s a heady, cackling joy to being free of guilt at last.

Chelsea is off on her own. Bill has forfeited his rights to complain. Hillary has done with her makeover stage. She’s at home with the promise of what she wanted to be at Yale Law School, and it tastes good. Hillary’s clean-lined trouser-suit solution is the end of her negotiation with style. She seems to have gone down in size as she has grown in stature. She’s earned it. As her campaign for the White House slowly revs up, the ‘Stop

Hillary‘ campaign accelerates, too. But they won’t stop Hillary. Her scars are spurs. At the Women in Communications lunch the message was: nothing is sexier than survival.

Article written by Tina Brown in 2005 for the Women of the Year 50 years of recognition lunch.


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