In ancient Roman and Greek times, virago was a title of respect and admiration. She was seen as strong and brave, and even warlike, such as we think of the amazon woman. The virago was often to be feared, and at times despised for her ability to unsettle the status quo and challenge the existing social order. She was bold; she spoke her mind.
With this information, the position of the older woman was sounding a lot better. “But what”, I asked, “happened to women, once regarded as goddesses?” At some point in history, time transformed the image of the virago (or crone) so that her power became displaced by the patriarchy who then put a new spin on the older, wiser woman. The feminine became devalued, and especially the aggressive, mature woman was demeaned and labeled a shrew, a hag, a bitch, a witch, someone loud and ill tempered. No longer thought to be attractive, she went unappreciated and was moved into the background of society.
With the beginning of the feminist movement of the 1960’s, finally there began a turn around for women of all ages as they started to reclaim their power and to find their voice. Women came together to bring about the changes they demanded. High up on the feminist’s to do list was the requirement for self-determination over her own body. With the availability of adequate birth control in the form of a pill, and a legal way for a woman to end an unwanted pregnancy, this objective now became attainable.
With more empowerment, many women realized they were no longer entirely satisfied with having little choice but to stay at home, full time, in their role as mother and home maker. To go out to work some needed government supported day care for their young children. The blatant inequalities in the work force encouraged women to fight for equal pay for equal work and to bring an end to sexual harassment on the job. Voices rose up to expose domestic violence and rape and the abuse of children. There were now loud and insistent calls for laws to be passed and for the police and the courts to enforce these stronger laws to stop the abuse of women and children.
Now, a half a century later, all this is still a work in progress, but in this post-patriarchal society, we are firm in saying, “We will no longer be second class citizens nor defer to the judgement of men when it is not in our best interest.”
It is interesting to notice those same women who were at the forefront of the women’s movement have now become the viragos of our times and are still, in their sixties and seventies, leading the way. Among them are successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives at the highest levels. Although some of our generation are moving into government positions, the statistics show us much more has to happen. The US ranks number sixty-nine among countries with the highest percentage of women in government, trailing such countries as Afghanistan and Uganda. Although women make up 51% of our population, they only makeup 17% of Congress.
No matter what one’s politics or preferences, we recognize many of today’s viragos in positions of influence, women like Hillary Clinton or Jane Fonda and especially Gloria Steinem. Gloria will always have a special place in moving women toward equality. Celebrating her eightieth birthday, she is looking and feeling great, an inspiration for all of us who are redefining the older, bolder woman.