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The Promise of a Feminist Midlife Crisis

Midlife was once seen as a chance for women to reassert themselves. Then came an organized, misogynist backlash.

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Not long ago, American culture provided a sanctioned life course: an idle childhood, an adulthood of mothering (for women) and productive labor (for men), a leisured retirement. Even if many could not achieve such a life, it did at least serve as an ideal. There was a way to know when you had “made it” and a standard to rebel against, were you so inclined. For all sorts of reasons, many of them good ones, this has fallen apart in recent decades. We bemoan the end of childhood and regret that this once-halcyon time has been overwhelmed by the dictates of standardized testing; we regret, too, the loss of the stable and unionized jobs that were once the pendant to adulthood.

University of Chicago Press, 282 pp., $22.50

The current lack of a culturally sanctioned life course creates a great deal of anxiety. What are different stages of life meant to represent? How do we know that we have left youth behind and can begin #adulting? These questions seem impossible to answer because they are seldom seriously posed. We seem more interested in wringing our hands over this collapse than we do in framing a better alternative.

In her fascinating new book, the historian Susanne Schmidt reminds us that, not long ago, we did have an important debate about the changing life course. In the 1970s, just as our economic and gender orders began to take on their current form, pundits and scholars alike were talking seriously about the “midlife crisis” as an identifiable moment in a modern life. The basic idea was that we experience an opportunity for renewal and revitalization as we pass the hump of middle age and our children leave the nest. The idea had potential: It made sense for an aging society and for a young generation that was newly committed to ideals of authenticity and autonomy. It made sense, especially, for the rising generation of women, raised in the 1960s, who hoped to take charge of midlife, just as they once had of their youth.

But its fall was as fast as its rise. The discussion now, as in Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis (2020), is largely about the crises of debt and care that are overwhelming Generation X—certainly not about midlife as a site for spiritual and professional renewal. What happened? Part of the answer is, of course, structural. Today’s middle-aged people have been dealt a bad hand by history. And yet part of the answer is more specific and concerns the specifically feminist origins of the idea. The midlife crisis was meant to offer a way to rethink the gender hierarchy of an earlier era: It was designed, especially, to allow women a chance to rearrange their lives at midlife, once the tremendous burden of child-rearing had passed. And yet, as they so often do, men rushed in and ruined it. A generation of male scholars and writers labored to transform the midlife crisis into a misogynist ideal for men bored by their cars and their wives. This was part of a society-wide assault on the prospects of women, and especially middle-aged women. And it was successful.

The story of the midlife crisis begins with Gail Sheehy, one of the pioneering journalists of second-wave feminism. Born in 1937, she was a student of the anthropologist Margaret Mead before beginning a glittering career in journalism at Cosmopolitan and the women’s section of the New York Herald Tribune. New York magazine emerged from the Tribune, and Sheehy was among its first editors. This was a happy position to be in: The magazine was an incubator for new styles of journalism and feminism alike (Gloria Steinem, a friend and contributor, launched Ms. magazine as a supplement to New York). Sheehy was in the thick of it, filing copy about abortion, civil rights, anti-war protest, and sex work (she is the inspiration for the reporter character on The Deuce).

Perhaps her most provocative choice, though, was to embark on a study of middle age. The 1960s had been a youth-obsessed decade, with journalists and psychoanalysts alike far more interested in the sex and cultural lives of the young than those of their staid parents. But not even the celebrants of the summer of love could stay young forever. Perhaps, Sheehy thought, her generation might be on the cusp of reinventing middle age, just as they had done with youth.

The prevailing theory at the time was that lives followed eight stages of development. Erik Erikson, probably the most famous psychologist of the day, posited a period of “identity crisis” in youth, followed by the consolidation, maturation, and reflection of adulthood. There was, he believed, no time for dramatic life shifts in middle age. From Sheehy’s perspective, the problem with this was obvious: Like so many psychological models, it was designed to explain men. Erikson was surprisingly misogynist in his accounts of women, whom he believed hardwired to be nurturing and reproductive. This created a problem, of course, for older women: What was their purpose to be? Like most previous analysts, Erikson couldn’t really imagine one. He saw menopause as a “permanent scar” on a woman’s psyche. This was typical. Psychoanalysts like Helene Deutsch viewed menopause as a “permanent death.” These particular flames reached their height as late as 1969, in the bestselling Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). “Having outlived their ovaries,” readers learned, women “have outlived their usefulness as human beings. The remaining years may just be marking time until they follow their glands into oblivion.”

In her own research, Sheehy interviewed dozens of couples, and she did not find women on the verge of spinsterish oblivion. What she found, instead, was a volatile situation in which gender roles were changing, restless women were seeking out new opportunities, and husbands were convulsed with existential drama. She found a decisive turning point, and a moment when relations were cast into upheaval and doubt. She found, in other words, a crisis.

Sheehy’s understanding of the midlife crisis had nothing to do with sports cars. She was interested, instead, in the dramatic changes in the gender order that took place once children were grown, women approached menopause, and men’s careers began to plateau. For Sheehy, these tectonic shifts in the family situation led to a blurring of gender boundaries. Men found themselves experiencing what Sheehy called a “male menopause,” when the period of sexual and professional conquest seemed to be at an end. Women, on the other hand, experienced midlife as a time of enormous potential. With the kids out of the house, or at least grown, women could feel free to enter the labor force and become breadwinners. Sheehy asked her readers to shed the prejudice, found in Erickson and pop culture alike, that youth was the time of identity crisis and role formation. It wasn’t too late—midlife offered glittering opportunities of its own, and for women, it offered even better ones.

She published her findings in her book Passages, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into 28 languages. It was perfectly timed, as a generation of women (like Sheehy herself) were asking what second-wave feminism might mean for older women. Women who were 35 in 1976 had been born during World War II and had experienced earth-shattering changes in their potential to labor and love outside of patriarchy. Roe v. Wade, which promised women control over their reproductive lives, had passed just three years earlier. Passages offered them control over their post-reproductive lives, too. “The world brings you up through senior year of college,” one reader reported, “and then you get dumped.” Sheehy provided a road map for those looking to pick up the pieces, creating a later life that could be as adventurous and fulfilling as, if not more so than, youth itself.

In retrospect, Passages can be read as the cresting of the second wave of feminism. On the one hand, its limits were those of the mainstream feminism of its day: Sheehy was interested almost exclusively in white, educated women, living on the coasts. Southern black women, dealing with the onset of mass incarceration, would not find their life course represented in Passages, nor would working-class women who had never had the privilege of experiencing the suburban idyll. And on the other hand, the tide was shifting against feminism altogether. As Gail Sheehy was about to experience herself, the patriarchy would not give up easily. And no figure was more threatening to the patriarchy than the older woman with a mission.

In the years after Passages made Sheehy a household name, a group of men launched a campaign against the book that would forever alter the meaning of the midlife crisis. The campaign had two goals. The first goal was to deprive Sheehy of credit for her idea. Schmidt is herself convinced that the “midlife crisis” as we know it is fully and completely Sheehy’s own idea, and that it emerged organically from feminist circles. Sheehy herself does not claim as much, at least in Passages. Perhaps in the belief that a nonaccredited woman would never be taken seriously, she invented a precursor: a Canadian psychoanalyst named Elliot Jacques. Jacques did use the term “midlife crisis” in a paper that predated Passages by 10 years. And yet Schmidt convincingly argues that Jacques’s idea was entirely separate from Sheehy’s. Jacques was not interested in ordinary people, let alone women: He was interested in the spurts of creative genius that sometimes accompanied middle age in great artists. Jacques was writing about Dante Alighieri, not the suburban housewife.

Sheehy’s decision to credit Jacques was a bad move for two reasons. For one thing, it had long-standing consequences. Everyone today credits Jacques with the idea and views Sheehy as a popularizer: a gendered dichotomy if ever there was one. And for another, it didn’t work. Numerous other social scientists believed that she had plagiarized their work, resulting in a scandal that tarred the book’s reputation. The charges never went anywhere, and Schmidt convincingly shows that they were rooted more in jealousy and gatekeeping than in genuine concern for scholarly integrity.

Some of those slighted scientists conspired to launch the second assault on Passages: the attempt to transform a feminist ideal into a misogynist one. Daniel Levinson, a student of Erik Erikson’s, was the most important figure here. Levinson had been at work for years on a study of midlife, and some of his work had been used (and duly acknowledged) in Passages. In a fit of patriarchal swagger, however, Levinson both ignored Sheehy in his own text while trumpeting, on the book’s very cover, that his work had been the basis for hers. His study, The Seasons of a Man’s Life (1977), went even further than this bit of typical bravado: He transformed Sheehy’s ideals entirely, turning a feminist rallying cry into a justification for misogyny.

If Sheehy’s work emerged organically from a generation of feminist research, Levinson came from the mainstream of American social science. He and Betty Friedan had actually studied under Erikson at the same time, but their paths diverged soon afterward. He worked on public opinion research at Berkeley and was involved with the design of the study that resulted in the famous The Authoritarian Personality (1950). He then proceeded, like many thinkers of his generation, to concern himself with the perils of conformity in the new world of managerial capitalism. His version of the midlife crisis emerged directly from these concerns: At midlife, he explained, men grew tired of their breadwinner role and sought new paths of exploration and fulfillment.

The idea was not so different from Sheehy’s, but Levinson worked to ensure that, like so many social-scientific ideas, it would marginalize women. For one thing, Levinson did not bother to study women at all, except insofar as they might shed light on their husbands. Even worse, Levinson granted a patina of scientific legitimacy to the most dismal male habits. He taught that young men require what he called a “special woman” to support them at work and raise their children. Once the children were older and his career established, however, that “special woman” became a burden and something to be discarded in the name of sexual and existential exploration. Levinson, always one to say the quiet part loud, was explicit that sexual adventuring with younger women was a healthy part of maturation.

When Levinson wrote that many middle-aged men viewed their wives as a “destructive witch or selfish bitch,” he pretended to do no more than report his findings. And doubtless many men did, and do, view their wives in this way. The danger is not in reporting this but in naturalizing it: According to Levinson, these feelings are entirely normal and natural. What’s more, wives were at fault. In an implicit rebuke of Passages, Levinson explained how a woman’s “growing assertiveness and freedom” in middle age were partly responsible for the male midlife crisis. The woman in Seasons of Life was, therefore, presented with a familiar double bind: She could be rejected for being too “maternal” and smothering or for being too “assertive” and threatening.

Levinson, not Sheehy, was the wave of the future. In the decade after his book appeared, the backlash against feminism dovetailed with Levinson’s misogynist account of the midlife crisis. It became common knowledge that, as one 1980 McCall’s article put it, “men go crazy in their forties.” Documentaries, popular nonfiction, and popular culture colluded in a new narrative of the midlife crisis that could not have been further from Sheehy’s own. She imagined that midlife was a time of fulfillment and exploration for women and one in which men would have to go through their own menopause and make peace with diminished hopes for themselves. In the go-go 1980s, however, midlife was reimagined as a time of orgiastic consumption and sexual dissatisfaction for men—when women were charged, above all, with keeping their husbands happy and recognizing that, in the end, boys will be boys.

This idea, too, has had its day. I am nearing 40 myself and do not feel that the culture has laid out a script of consumption and excess for my near future. Few of my peers claim to experience a “midlife crisis,” and the kinds of masculine excess at work in Levinson’s texts are thankfully in disrepute right now. Thanks to feminism and the gay rights movement, we are less willing to hold up the reproductive, nuclear family as the only possible manifestation of the good life. Moreover, given the general precarity of our new world, it seems almost quaint to localize crisis at one particular point in our erratic life course. Indeed, more recent life course studies have departed from the “stage” model altogether. It seems, instead, that our journey is affected more by unpredictable life events like illness or unemployment than by predictable ones like marriage or retirement.

And yet, for all that, it seems important to reconstruct some kind of pathway from cradle to grave. After all, it seems likely that some kind of normative life course will assert itself eventually: It is one of the linchpins of any stable social order. The question, though, is whether we will produce one that is as exclusionary as its predecessor, or whether we will be able to find one that is more inclusive and more in touch with the desperate realities of our times. In the era of Parkland and Greta Thunberg, for instance, it seems that “childhood” might come to mean something new; in the era of Bernie Sanders, old age might be reconsidered, as well.

As we try to reconstruct a new life course for a new world, there is something appealing about the concept of the midlife crisis. Even now, we tend to imagine that youth is the proper time for that kind of crisis, larding that already overstuffed period of life with more than it can bear. Adulthood becomes, then, either a quest for continued youth or a period of stagnation. Sheehy offered something different: a midlife in which we fundamentally rethink our deeply held ideals about gender and family, adopting new and more equitable ways of living. Those particular ideals are often so deeply held, and so unexamined, that they can seem like unalterable components of our being. They aren’t, though. We can change, even after the luster of youth is gone. This isn’t about being “reborn,” or experiencing a second childhood. This is about treating midlife as a time for creativity and decisive transformation—in other words, as a time for crisis.