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Defining the stages of a modern woman’s life

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Much has been written about the phases of a man’s life. William Shakespeare says there are seven whilst artist Thomas Cole painted four. But how many phases are there in a woman’s life and how do they differ to that of a man?

Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) speaks of seven ages of man in the classic speech from his play “As You Like It”: the Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Justice, Old Man & Imminent Death. Cole (1808 – 1888) later painted a series called “The Voyage of Life" (1842) that captures four stages: Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age. But how do these relate to the modern woman? Are they even relevant?

'Yellow dress,' 2012, oil on cotton fabric.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) depicted “Three Ages of Woman” in 1905 in his famous painting of a small child, young woman and elderly lady. The painting says more about the cycle of life than the life of a woman. Klimt has placed a wreath of flowers upon the heads of the young woman and the child to represent spring and the creation of life. The elderly woman stands separately with her head in her hands, looking worn and forlorn. She represents death. But women's lives are more than just the creation of offspring. The traditional role of women as mothers has now expanded into a more complex role where motherhood is just one of many choices available for women. Therefore Klimt’s three part cycle is much too simplistic to be applied to the life of a modern day woman.

Kelly Wensley may have the answer. Her article “The Four Life Phases of a Woman” (2013), defines the stages as: Playful Child, Sexy Seductress, Good Mother and Wise Older Woman (WOW). The Playful Child is easily comprehended and is readily identifiable in all the aforementioned life series. Wenley's Sexy Seductress is described as “irresistible to anyone who has the pleasure to know a young woman. They command the attention of everyone around them. Men are drawn to them.” Well, that’s the intention anyway. Whilst many young women hope to exude the same amount of appeal, confidence and sexiness as a Beyoncé music video, the achievement of such goals in reality is more elusive. Nonetheless, the point is that Sexy Seductress is free to explore her own sexually.

The Good Mother by comparison is more restricted. Wensley very aptly notes:

Attention is taken off ourselves and transferred to our family. The indulgent days of caring only for ourselves are rarely available…We now view taking time for ourselves as selfish. We also have trouble reconciling the sexuality of the Sexy Seductress with the Good Mother, somehow making her less good.

Wensley’s final phase is the Wise Older Woman (WOW) in which “we’ve overcome our obstacles, grown stronger, feel more appreciation and give back our experience, the resulting gifts and hard-earned knowledge to the world.” The WOW is not unlike Shakespeare’s Justice who is “full of wise saws and modern instances.” However, Shakespeare’s Justice is succeeded by a further two performances. The next one directly is old age.

“For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound”

In the context of Klimt’s “Three Ages of Women” the final phase for a woman is the elderly lady: frail and fragile. Apparently the elderly woman in Klimt’s painting is based on a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917), the model for which is described as “she who was the Helmet-Maser’s once beautiful wife.” I would argue that the elderly woman in Klimt’s painting is still beautiful in a different way; her well-worn skin a relic of a life well lived. This woman can be added to Wensley’s aforementioned stages and will hence be referred to as the Elderly Lady.

'Cute as a Button,' 2020, oil on cotton fabric.

One thing that Wensley’s article does not consider is that not all women become mothers or carers. Many prefer focus on their career or spend their time in some other manner. Rather than merely skipping this stage, I suggest there still exists a place between sexual empowerment and worldly wisdom. It’s akin to Shakespeare’s Soldier:

“Jealous in honor,
sudden and quick in quarrel,
seeking the bubble reputation”

It’s the naïve and ambitious young woman, full of hope and ideals, determined to make her mark on the world in a way that is meaningful to her. Similar to the Good Mother, this woman has less freedom than the Sexual Seductress. Upon entering this stage of the performance, she has a much wider audience and realises that in order succeed she must be good. To be taken seriously in a male dominated world she becomes attractive but not too sexy, intelligent but not condescending, nice but not easy, assertive but not aggressive. She must be patient, polite, well-groomed and deferential. Such expectations are similar to that placed on any modern day mother: she must be serene and her children well behaved. The compliance of her children must be achieved without any yelling, screaming or any other behaviour that is unbecoming to a woman. Moreover, to be considered a successful maternal figure she should look manicured and fashionable at all times. The definition of the Good Mother can therefore be encapsulated within the broader label of the Good Woman.

So all the women who are independent and all the honeys who makin' money, venture out into the world, bright eyed and bushy tailed, feeling empowered like a Destiny's Child song. This very kinky girl soon makes way for a girl they can take home to mother. Followed briefly by a period of disillusionment, the same woman morphs into an experienced, knowledgeable mature adult who is largely excluded from holding any official seats of power in government and business. Like the young soldier who returns from war with his eyes open and his spirit broken, the WOW sees the world for what it is, warts and all. The upside of reaching this age of enlightenment is that you no longer care about what others think of you, allowing yourself to finally feel comfortable in your own skin, warts and all. This may be due to the fact that you no longer turn heads, and people have stopped looking you up and down, judging you solely on your appearance. That's because once you become the mature, learned older woman, you become virtually unseen. Some may refer to this age as the Bitter Older Woman (BOW) who is frequently depicted in fairy tales as the evil stepmother, jealous of her younger rival. But the only BOW I know are jealous only of their male peers for whom the glass ceiling does not exist. Mostly however, the all-knowing older woman is like the fairy Godmother: helpful, insightful, resourceful and giving.

After expanding Wensley’s Good Mother scene and including another act, we end up with five distinct performances in the modern woman’s life. Like the prologue and the epilogue, the first and last acts are bookended by birth and death, as suggested by Shakespeare’s references to Infancy and Impending Death. Rather than existing as independent, crucial acts of life, Infancy and Impending Death are more like transitions from non-existence, to consciousness and back to unconsciousness. They are just two of many transitions women undertake in life.

Unlike men, women experience identifiable biological transitions. The first is menstruation that shifts childhood innocence into sexual awareness. Pregnancy and/or motherhood may be the catalyst for the Good Woman phase, whilst the onset of menopause may be viewed as the transition from the Good Woman to the Wise Older Woman. The final transition belongs to both sexes and is unavoidable for those who live long enough to make it to Old Age.

So let’s raise our glasses to the five live stages of the modern day woman: Playful Child, Sexy Seductress, Womanhood, Wise Older Woman and Elderly Lady. Each stage has its perks and pitfalls. What stage are you at? We can all benefit from hearing about and learning from the experiences of women in other life stages. In this way the Wise Older Woman may continue to feel as sensual as the Sexy Seductress, the Elderly Lady as mischievous as the Playful Child, and the Good Woman as daring as the Wise Older Woman. I hope that we can eradicate the myth of the evil, jealous step mother and each learn from the all the wise older woman who have come before us. No matter what stage of life you are at, there still exists the Playful Child, Sexy Seductress, Good Woman and Wise Older Woman in all of us.

About the author

Leah Mariani is an artist making art about motherhood and childhood, with a feminist twist. You can follow her journey on social media @leahmarianiartspace. To hear more from Leah Mariani subscribe here

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