Gail Sheehy Wants Women to Admit We’re Different

Photo: Courtesy of William Morrow

Gail Sheehy has made a career of real talk about the lives of adult woman. She mapped their midlife crises in Passages (1976) and Pathfinders (1981), then candidly discussed menopause (The Silent Passage, 1992) and sex after 50 (Sex and the Seasoned Woman, 2006). Now 76, she got down to writing about her own life. Sheehy’s memoir, Daring: My Passages, published this month by William Morrow, turns a feminine lens on the golden age of magazine writing as it describes how Sheehy goes from New York editor Clay Felker’s protégée turned lover to a celebrated nonfiction writer, and later Tina Brown’s political portrait artist. Sheehy talked to the Cut about how feminism and journalism have changed over the course of her long career.

The first half of your memoir is about juggling a writing career and the responsibility of being a single mother. Is it frustrating to see us, 40 years later, still having the same work-life balance conversation?
I don’t think we’ll ever be past it, because women are different. We never wanted to admit that when we were starting the feminist movement, but we do have one time frame that is relatively finite, although much less so now than it was in the past. There is no formula. I don’t think there is ever going to be one.

I do think taking the 20s to take the most chances you can is important, because you’re not going to hurt anyone else during that time. And if you do have a partner, you need a couple years to rehearse that relationship. So it seems like, to me, somewhere between 30 and 35 is a really, really good time to turn your eggs into babies. One of the other reasons that’s a good time I learned while writing a story called “The Happiest Woman in America.” It was based on a lot of in-depth research from a company called Healthways, which partners for Gallup for daily polls on well-being. I found the happiest woman in America is between 50 and 55, is happily married, has made significant progress in her career, and lives in a community where she can easily exercise outside. But the most important single thing was she had her last child before she was 35. So she was an empty nester and didn’t have any caregiving responsibilities at 50. That meant she could take off, start her own business, move somewhere.

Photo: Courtesy of William Morrow

Your late husband Clay Felker was also your editor, and he also discovered you as a writer. But your career took off when you separated for a period. Coincidence?
Eventually all mentor-disciple relationships are meant to pull apart, usually sometime in the mid-30s. Those who hang on, eventually the mentor drops the disciple and that’s no fun. In our case, in order for us to meet as equals in a marriage, in a romantic relationship, it was important that I felt independent professionally from him. I wanted to prove to myself that I could stand on my own two feet, support myself and my daughter, and write a successful book without being attached always to the man who was my Pygmalion in my early career. The roles reversed: I was the young dependent one and later on he was dependent on me. But I worked very hard to make sure he never felt dependent on me.

Your career began side by side with Gloria Steinem, and 20 years later, The Silent Passage was poorly received by some feminists. Did you diverge at some point with the women’s movement?
No. I just think still, feminists did not want any attention paid to the fact that we are different. We have this thing called menopause. It was so important to acknowledge this event. I remember Tina Brown said, “Well, if you think it’s a trend,” and I said, “Yes, it’s definitely a trend, one that’s been going for millennia.” Women needed to know it was normal, whether you were a feminist or not a feminist, that you go through this change but it’s an opportunity to be stronger.

When I wrote Sex and the Seasoned Woman, about women pursuing lives of passion over the age of 50, Sam Tanenhaus at the New York Times assigned a front-page review to a woman who was known for writing about how much she loved anal sex. She was a big hit with male readers, and she was also a twisted woman. She asked, Once we’re in our 50s, can’t we just sit back and have a martini and watch the world go by? I thought, Well, that’s your choice, but what about women who never considered it an option? So that was a big disappointment.

Photo: Courtesy of William Morrow

You became known for psychological portraits of world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, but Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign wouldn’t even answer your fact-checking questions. Do you think it’s an endangered genre?
Hillary Clinton was bad enough in terms of being guarded; Obama’s worse. He has a more antagonistic relationship with the press than Clinton. One of the reasons is that social media allows them to go around the designated political media, and in many ways dismiss the press, the people whose profession is to get the story straight and present the context and expose the weaknesses. How many sit-down, thorough interviews have there been of Obama over the past eight years? Had somebody done a real character portrait of Obama early on — and I didn’t write it either — we might have gotten a book that said, This is a cautious, cerebral deliberative man who does not easily connect with other people.

What does that mean for Clinton’s likely 2016 campaign?
You have to derive it from her actions. She’s in a very different place now than in 2008. I really do think all the humiliation of the past is pretty much behind her. I do think that she’s very conflicted about running for president. I don’t think this is all an act. What has she gained as a mature woman who has been through hell and back many times, who knows. I thought it was interesting that she called her memoir Hard Choices because you do have to make hard choices about what you’re going to give your time to. I call it the “Selective 60s.” You’re much more efficient, and you don’t use up a lot of emotional energy on slights or the hound dog who won’t stay on the porch. When Hillary was getting dressed by Oscar de La Renta for her second inaugural, he told me he asked her what she wanted to look like and she said, “I want to look sexy for Bill.” She’s in a very different place now. One of the ways you can tell is she kind of let herself go. Toward the end of her time as secretary of state she had that long ponytail that was getting white on the sides; she kind of looked like an aging male hippie, and she also gained 40 pounds. She said she didn’t want to get up another half-hour early to get her hair done. I understand that. She also said having a hair and makeup person, as secretary of state, she would have gotten killed for it in the press. She probably would have. But so what? She should have said, I need to represent the United States looking the best I can and I don’t have time to do it myself.

So you think Hillary Clinton of 2014 is actually immune, now, to sexist media double standards?
If she came out and weren’t so guarded. I think her finest moment was in New Hampshire after she lost the Iowa primary so badly. She was asked, How do you go on after such vicious media coverage? She said, I wouldn’t be able to go on if I didn’t believe it was the most important thing to do for the country. She did it in a tearful way so you could see that, Yes, it hurts, but I have a more important goal and a higher ambition. That was so endearing. People want her to be authentic. They want her be as tough as a commander in chief but still a woman — compassionate and empathetic. She is that in private, but she doesn’t dare show it. There are a lot of men now who think that women are better or stronger. And there are so many men who think, I’d like to see a female president. Why do they say that? Because women have the whole 360 degrees. Not everybody is as strong, confident, and decisive as the most powerful man, but those who are can also be compassionate, collaborative, and empathetic, and I think you need to show both sides. 

Gail Sheehy: Women Must Admit We’re Different