Steinem on the benefits of growing old vigorously

by Sue Hutchison

Mercury News

It seemed fitting somehow that Gloria Steinem came to San Francisco to speak about women and aging on the same day last week that the Food and Drug Administration reviewed Intrinsa, the first testosterone patch to jump-start the female libido.

The "sex patch" vs. Viagra is a sort of metaphor for the different perceptions of how women and men age. Viagra treats performance, but the patch alters chemistry to create desire, even longing. The way the patch works is complicated and controversial, and the FDA rejected it because it's a frontier drug with too many unknowns.

A sexy wisdom

Every frontier needs a courageous pioneer, so it's no surprise that Steinem, who became a septuagenarian last March, has led the way in talking about women staying vital — and sexual — as they get older. At 70, she looks better than I did when I was 28, and she's a walking advertisement for the notion that the wisdom that comes with age has its own sex appeal.

The hundreds who came to see her speak at an event sponsored by the Pacific Institute, a non-profit organization that focuses on aging, looked on her as a shaman. The young women chattering in the lobby of the Masonic Auditorium saw her as a blueprint for female senior citizenship. The middle-aged women, digging into their handbags to put on their "distance" glasses, looked to her on the stage for inspiration.

Many of them remembered the time, at the start of the women's movement that Steinem helped lead, when she blithely announced during a press conference that she was 40. It was revolutionary. When one reporter gasped that she didn't look 40, she replied, "This is what 40 looks like. We've been lying for so long. How would we know?"

Steinem has faith that with the aging of the baby boomers, that "wonderful, rebellious group," the notion of sex past middle age will redefine the golden years. But women still need to get over the hurdle of being terrified about getting old.

"Women get more radical with age because women lose power with age," she said. "So, if we're fearing aging, we're losing our greatest revolutionaries."

Since she stopped lying about her age, Steinem said, she gradually began to see getting old as something much better than trying to stay young: "When I turned 50, I said, 'I'm going to do everything I did before!' It took me until I was about 53 to realize that doing everything I did before wasn't progress."

A late marriage

Instead, she began to re-evaluate some of her choices. Four years ago she did something she had once considered unthinkable: She got married. And she loved it. Her husband, environmentalist David Bale, died last year of brain cancer. But the brief time she had with him confirmed her belief that a full life has many stages. There's no rule that women have to live them all before the first signs of crow's feet.

"I think a lot of young women think: 'If I can't succeed at everything — career, marriage, motherhood — by the time I'm 30, then I've failed,'" she said. "If I could tell them one thing, it's that you don't have to cram it all in."

Take it from a woman who was a first-time bride at 66.

That alone should be a sign that though the FDA hasn't approved the sex patch yet, its time has arrived. And demand is high. The drug companies already have athletes pitching Viagra, so, once they've done more product testing, would Steinem consider being the Intrinsa pitch woman?

The stuff would fly off the shelves.