The Feminist Origins of the Midlife Crisis
This article tells the history of the midlife crisis, for the first time. The term “midlife crisis” conjures up the image of an affluent, middle-aged man speeding off in a red sports car with a woman half his age. He leaves behind his wife and children; yet he, not they are in “crisis.” Like this cliché, most tales and treatises about the midlife crisis center on men.
What has almost entirely dropped from sight is that the midlife crisis was initially a feminist idea. When it became popular in the mid-1970s, “midlife crisis” described how men and women abandoned traditional gender roles: approaching forty, women re-entered the world of work, while men stepped up as husbands and fathers. This was how the New York journalist Gail Sheehy characterized midlife transformation in Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1976), the book that introduced the “midlife crisis” in American popular culture and social science.
Despite the resonance and impact of her idea, Sheehy is often understood to be of little relevance. Existing accounts of the history of the midlife crisis, often presented as cursory introductions, attribute “midlife crisis” to psychological, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic experts, assigning the journalist the marginal role of “popularizer.” However, a closer look at Sheehy’s book reveals that far from reiterating and promoting ideas introduced by male experts, she challenged them and presented an alternative analysis of midlife change. Not just a “popularization” after the fact, Passages was a journalist’s original and independent publication, based on Sheehy’s own interviews and a critical engagement with social research and theory. It constituted an important starting point for the history of the midlife crisis.
Considering the feminist origins of the midlife crisis changes our understanding of the concept’s meaning as well as of the relation between gender and age more generally. Cultural commentary and scholarship have drawn crucial attention to the ways in which a “double standard of aging” discriminated against women and limited their rights and possibilities. The history of the midlife crisis does not rebut the analysis of the gendered double standard. Instead, it highlights the centrality of feminist critiques and contributions as an important part of the history of the human life-course, pointing to the way in which conceptions of identity and life-planning were used to redefine women’s rights and roles. Often, the double standard of aging was evoked in response to celebrations of women’s midlife liberation.