Books: New life in an empty nest

Two new books represent the best and worst of women's studies. By Polly Toynbee
Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife by Terri Apter, Norton, pounds 17.50

Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying

by Sally Cline, Little, Brown, pounds 18.99

There are a great many books about women that present a puzzling publishing phenomenon. Who wants to read these worthy, weighty tomes telling us about ourselves? Who would ever reach out for a book called Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife? Even we women in "midlife" feel we would rather not think too much about it. And yet now I have been obliged to read it, I am glad I did.

Terri Apter, an American academic living in Britain, has thrown off the old idea of forlorn empty-nesters, women who cannot find their feet once their nurturing days are done. Interviewing 80 women between 40 and 55 on both sides of the Atlantic, she finds them freer than ever, finding themselves as never before.

After all, since women now live so long and healthily, with fewer children and many more qualifications, genuine new vistas do open up once their offspring have gone. If this is beginning to sound like one of those "Life begins at 60" advertisements, this book is more than an excercise in keeping up older women's spirits. Apter has put her finger on a new social phenomenon, rooted in demography as well as culture.

The current midlife generation are the post-war baby boomers, the most powerful generation the West has ever known. From the day they were born, first babies of the new welfare state, they changed the world as they went and will probably go on doing so from their bathchairs in their sunset homes. In the Sixties, they caused the youth explosion, simply because they were so many, so dominant and so rich. Now bigger and richer than those before and after, this generation continues to set the agenda to an unprecedented and unfair extent, hard on those who follow in its wake.

So, if women of this generation refuse to grow old gracefully, then we have the muscle to roll back the perceptions of ageing. The despised over- the-hill femme de trente ans of the last century has become the femme de soixante ans now, and - who knows - we may even push her up another decade.

Sociologically, this is a generation of women who have been used to changing all the rules as they go. They are the first to get divorced in great numbers, the first to juggle work and families, the first to be freed from drudgery by washing machines, the first to believe in liberation, if not quite to achieve it. Now, in deciding how to live the rest of their lives, they are having to make it up as they go along.

Now they are no longer dogged by the clamorous needs of others, by conflicting duties and obligations, Apter finds many of them genuinely free for the first time. They feel powerful and influential. They have thrown off girlishness and ineffectuality, though sometimes only with a painful struggle when loss of looks and youth can feel like loss of power. She quotes one of Anita Brookner's bleaker passages about the shock of seeing her mother's face reflected back at her in the glass.

There is a real subject here, sensitively explored, with surprising discoveries as these women talk of themselves, their lives and hopes. Women and men do grow old differently. Much of it is socially programmed, especially the way we see lines on a male face as distinguished, while expecting women to look like children forever. Some of it is genuinely physical - women's lives are governed by a limited period of fertility. Some of the difference springs from the way children are still central to women's lives, but only an adjunct to most men's. Subtle and complex pictures emerge of the way this rebellious, innovative generation is pushing back the barriers. All in all, this is a book to fortify the over forties.

There is, however, another deadlier category of women's book - the totally spurious - which brings down rightful derision on the whole idea of women's issues. Such is Sally Cline's preposterous Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying. If women and men are ever wholly equal, it must surely in be at the moments of birth and death. The very idea of a special women's death is bizarre, for all of us die equally alone. The book is "the first major study of the sexual politics of death in Great Britain, the USA and Canada". And probably the last too, since it is pretty comprehensive, even including "the experiences of female funeral directors".

One almost infallible sign of a women's book in deep trouble is the inclusion of lesbians. Time and again, the women's movement has been handicapped by a confusion between women, and women who are lesbians. The lesbian issue has destroyed countless nascent womens' organisations, alienating the great majority of women struggling with the dilemmas of living with men as lovers, husbands, brothers, fathers and sons. Nothing wrong with lesbians, it is just that they have no place in studies about women per se. The issues are utterly different.