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Disappearing Women: Nell Painter and Christine Lahti

In the United States, there are over 5,000 public statues depicting historical figures — and fewer than 400 are of women. In Washington, D.C. and New York, there are only ten combined. According to a new report from the USC Annenberg School, of the 48,757 speaking roles in 1,100 films examined in the last decade, less than 30 percent were women. In the visible pantheon, women often have to fight to be seen or heard, and as they age, they tend to lose any ground they may have already gained. But occasionally, you meet women who have successfully resisted that trend.

At the age of 64, Nell Irvin Painter — professor emeritus of American history at Princeton — changed courses and went to art school. After leaving her full time profession, the aptly named Painter first enrolled in the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers before attending the Rhode Island School of Design in pursuit of her MFA. Painter takes on this late in life career switch in her new book, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Older.

“In art school, if you are over 28, you are old,” says Painter. “In life, if you are a woman, and you are over 35 or 36 or 38, and you’re looking at 40 — you are feeling old because you are getting disappeared in the way that old women get disappeared. So you don’t have to be 64 — you can be old, or you can feel old, or be made to feel old, at 29.”

Painter’s description of “getting disappeared” alludes to our culture’s tendency to ignore women after they get to a certain age. After women hit that inevitable mark, they seem to vanish — from our history books, off our screens, out of our corporate boardrooms. While Painter calls this phenomenon “getting disappeared,” actress Christine Lahti calls it “going out to pasture.”

Ageism is a natural byproduct of a culture that is more preoccupied with what a woman looks like than what she says or does.

Ageism is a natural byproduct of a culture that is more preoccupied with what a woman looks like than what she says or does. But Painter and Lahti are two of many women pushing back against these limits. When Lahti stopped getting roles, she started writing; when Painter felt like she mastered one part of her life, she went back to school to begin again.

Notes Lahti, “the way to find true agency for me was not respect from out there — trophies or awards — it was really coming to terms with my own imperfections, accepting the mistakes, cherishing the falls and the failures.” By writing honestly and openly, Lahti was able to make herself seen, and Painter has done the same.

By reverting back to the status of a novice, by enduring questions about her age from peers young enough to be her children, by opening herself and her art to critique, Painter proved that there is value in pursuing your craft at any age. She challenged the notion of what a person — what a woman — has the capacity to do within the duration of a lifetime. She made a space for herself and refused to disappear. After six decades of life and six years of school, Painter emerged with an accomplished body of artwork, a candid and entertaining memoir, and her feet firmly and, more importantly, visibly on the ground.

Written by Rebecca Brown, WGBH Forum Network’s intern. Rebecca is a senior at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor and is from Cohasset, MA.

GBH's video hub for lifelong learners. Public media purveyor of the enlightening. Supported by the Lowell Institute. Learn something new at forum-network.org.

GBH's video hub for lifelong learners. Public media purveyor of the enlightening. Supported by the Lowell Institute. Learn something new at forum-network.org.