YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Every time I am interviewed I am asked a question that makes me jump back in time to realize how much things have changed in the past 10-15 years. And also how, in some ways, they really haven't.
In the last century the word cougar referred to a jungle cat. Older women involved with significantly younger men were considered perverts; their relationships were met with scorn, open disapproval and unabashed criticism. In the last century (which was only slightly more than a decade ago) people involved in these kinds of relationships were frequently rejected by their friends and families. In fact the same was true for single parent families, gay and lesbian couples and interracial couples.
Times have certainly changed and most of us have evolved. Today the definition of the word cougar, meaning women who prefer younger men, is the first one people will think of. From New York City to Honolulu to Hollywood cougars seem to be everywhere. A social phenomenon once visible only among celebrities, the union of older women and younger men has taken hold of American culture and its attraction is growing exponentially. From cougar dating sites to TV shows to cougar cruises, the cougar 'lifestyle' has totally captured our imagination and interest, even if in a salacious way.
Contrary to popular opinion, age gap relationships in which the woman is 10+ years older than the man are extremely viable, a lot more common than people realize, and stand as good a chance of succeeding as any other relationship over time. But the messages that tell women that these relationships can't last, that they're only about sex and therefore temporary, and that men naturally want younger women are still very prevalent, despite all the evidence that disputes them. If that weren't bad enough, it's also true that many women, often their own worst enemies, are the ones who've bought into this bogus bill of goods.
So although people do immediately associate the word cougar with a woman involved with a younger man, involvement is not exactly the intention of most of the dictionary definitions you'll come across. Here are some examples of how cougar is defined:
"A middle aged woman who seeks out much younger men for romance or physical intimacy."
"A woman aged 40 years or older who preys on younger men."
"An older woman who frequents clubs in order to score with a much younger man."
These definitions send a message and it's hardly a benign, not to mention a true, one. Cougars are predators and how could a predator be part of a loving, long term, committed relationship? Being older, and therefore less attractive than younger women, these cougars have to hunt the young men down as the men would otherwise never even notice them. I could go on but you get the point.
The good news is that so many women are smarter than whoever came up with these definitions, and have co-opted the word. Forget predatory creatures with claws extended, many women in their 30's, 40's and 50's now proudly use the word cougar as a badge of their power, strength, sexuality and freedom to make non-traditional choices not sanctioned by the patriarchy. Like the word 'bitch' - once hurled at strong women as an insult - 'cougar' can no longer be used against us. Strong women refer to themselves as bitches, gleefully so, as many older women refer to themselves as cougars.
Empowered women have, throughout recorded history, chosen husbands as well as lovers, from the pool of younger men. The writer Anais Nin was forty four when she became involved with a young man of twenty eight. They were together until her death thirty years later. The actress Merle Oberon married a man twenty five years younger, a marriage that lasted until her death. From Colette to Catherine the Great to Helena Rubinstein, history has acknowledged many long lasting and successful unions between older women and much younger men. Today, the right to make new and different choices - even unconventional ones - is no longer the sole province of the rich, the famous and the beautiful. It is increasingly available to all women.
Powerful women were once - and not all that long ago - the exceptions, the anomalies among the population. Today they're the norm in many fields, and their numbers are growing.
Change is good.