Changing channels

Millions of women wait years to fulfill their dreams — or to figure out what their dreams are. Here are some of their stories.

Ernestine Shepherd at her home in Baltimore. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

When women turn 50, the world starts to tune them out. Employers see them as less valuable and are more likely to discriminate against them, according to research. Hollywood disproportionately portrays them as unattractive, unfriendly and stupid. Many women describe a sense of invisibility.

But something else happens as women leave their 40s behind. “[For] everyone I know around my age, there’s this major energy shift in being able to ask the question: Well, what do I want now?” writer and cultural critic Heather Havrilesky, 49, told The Washington Post. “Without feeling totally cowed by what you should want, what seems selfish.” The world may tend to forget older women, but they feel freer than ever.

For American women in middle age and later, that might mean returning to ambitions set aside years ago to raise a family or follow a spouse’s career. It might mean finding ambitions they never had before or reaping long-overdue success. “Our culture tells us a story that we’ll lose and lose and lose as we get older,” says Havrilesky. “And it’s not true.”

The Post asked eight women who achieved personal or professional milestones after the age of 50 to share their experiences, in their own words.

— Jenny Rogers­

Suzanne Watson, 57, Cincinnati

Became a doctor 25 years after being accepted to medical school

Suzanne Watson outside the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. (Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post)

I applied to medical school at the age that people usually do and got accepted. By the time I enrolled, I had a 9-month-old baby and a commuter marriage, so when I got pregnant again, it was just too much. I withdrew maybe a week into medical school.

My husband and I settled down, and I stayed home with the kids for a while. Then I experienced a call to ministry and became an Episcopal priest. You can do part-time work in the church, and I thought that was what I would do. But right after I was ordained, my husband took his own life. He was chief of staff at a hospital, and his fear was that if he reached out for help, it would have to be reported to the medical board. He did eventually reach out, but it was just frankly too late by then. It was the stigma of mental illness that I really think led to his death.

With suicide, oftentimes life insurance doesn’t pay, so I found myself with a huge doctor’s mortgage and four little kids, trying to wonder how on earth I was going to do this. It was a hard time. We sold our big house, and the kids changed schools, and I went to work full time in the church.

But I had never lost the dream to practice medicine. When I was 50, I started to take stock of the years I had left, and my son said to me, “You know, I’ve heard you talk about this your entire life, and you either need to do it now and sign up tomorrow, or you need to just shut up about it.” And I just decided, you know what, I might as well give this one more shot.

For six months, at night and between services, I was doing flash cards and taking online science courses. On Christmas Eve, we had three services. My sermon was ready, so I sat in my office cramming physics because I was taking the MCAT in January.

My first night of med school, at Wake Forest, there was a mixer at one of my new classmates’ houses. I pulled up, and there were a bunch of kids in the yard who looked like they were from a fraternity. They were playing beer pong. I panicked and just drove on by! I called my son from the car, and I said: “I can’t do it! I can’t go in!” And he said: “You’ve come this far. Just go in! Five minutes. Just go in for five minutes.”

So I parked and walked up the driveway. One of them walked out to greet me and said: “I’m sorry, ma’am, we’re medical students and we’ve just moved in, and we’re having a little mixer to get to know each other, but if we’re too loud, just let us know. We hope to be good neighbors.” And I said, “Oh, I just wanted to introduce myself: I’m Suzanne, and I’m one of your classmates.”

(Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post)

On the first day of classes, as soon as I walked in, the whole room quieted down because everybody thought I was the professor. Same thing with my medical school interviews: When I’d walk into the waiting room, everybody would go silent and sit up really straight, thinking I was the interviewer.

Right now, I’m finishing my second year of residency, so I’m seeing patients and slowly getting more responsibility. I think the least I’ve worked, per week, in the past three weeks is 77.5 hours. We’re capped at 80 hours.

I’m a little tired, but sometimes I almost think that I do better than the younger residents because I was a mom, and once you’ve been a mom, you know how to go to sleep in a second and wake up in a second, and you know how to multitask and work even when you’re dead tired. I think maybe parenting gives that to you.

I’m doing two specialties, in family medicine and psychiatry. When I was in the ministry, I traveled around to little Arctic villages in Alaska. There is a high need for treatment of depression and addiction and a high suicide rate, and I would love to serve in a place like that. If I’m the only medical professional in some small village and someone has a stroke or has a baby or breaks a hip, I’m going to be really glad that I trained that extra year and got that family medicine training under my belt, in addition to psychiatry.

I have a spiritual mentor, and I thought she would discourage me from going to medical school. She didn’t. She said we have to be stewards of all the gifts that we’re given, even those that are won through pain and suffering — meaning that that gift of perseverance, or a more compassionate heart for those who suffer, from surviving something as traumatic and heart-wrenching as the suicide of a spouse, can be used to bring good about in this world.

— As told to Karen Weese

Patricia Forehand, 57, Perry, Ga.

Retired educator turned comedian

Patricia Forehand prepares for her stand-up comedy routine at MadLife Stage & Studios in Woodstock, Ga. (Michael A. Schwarz/For The Washington Post)

I taught for 32 years in the public school system and grew up in this town where you were supposed to do something practical. I love kids and kind of eased into education because it was what all the females in my generation were eased into — that or nursing or marriage. (I met my husband at Sonic when I was 16, but for me, marriage wasn't the end-all.)

I grew up admiring Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Gilda Radner, and I always tried to get in front of an audience and do speeches. At a teacher’s retirement party three years ago, for instance, I said, “You know it’s time to retire when you’re peeing in your pants more than the kids.” They were just rolling on the floor. A few of my co-workers said I should really try comedy. There was an open mic in Atlanta.

At first, I thought I could never do it. I look like an older, proper lady, and I’m not worldly — I haven’t traveled very far. Even the idea of going alone to Atlanta scared me, just driving and finding a parking place. And all the comics were so young. But I decided I didn’t want to waste another minute.

(Michael A. Schwarz/For The Washington Post)

The first time I went backstage, I thought: “What am I doing up here? I should be at home doing grandmother things, like knitting a damn bootie.” But the other comics were just so welcoming, my friends and family were so supportive, and the audience loved it.

After the open mic, I had trouble getting my feet into the door, as far as getting shows, but then I took Lace Larrabee’s class in 2017, and she really gave me and other women the courage, the strength and the skills to make a difference in this comedy thing. Now, I’m doing shows here and there, mostly women-only lineups, building newer material and trying to get booked more.

After I retired, I took the teacher mask off and really cut loose. I do dirty jokes and — I didn’t even do this around the house! — cuss. I feel like I can be myself again. I’ve got a new bit about sexting with emojis. I talk about sex during old age; everybody is going to get old, so they know they have that to look forward to! People say that the way I look doesn’t match my comedy. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect to younger audiences, but I know what they’ve gone through, because I’ve gone through it, too.

About a decade ago, I thought that I had a brain tumor. It turned out to be an AVM — a malformed vein — in an inoperable part of my brain. There’s always a chance that it will bleed out and I’ll die. I felt sorry for myself for a while, but then I started looking at life as something more precious. When you retire, a person can just sit on their butt all day long and not do anything. I want to give somebody something to laugh at today. So I tried it.

— As told to Sonam Vashi

Vi Lyles, 68, Charlotte

Entered politics and now runs her city

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles at her office. (Travis Dove/For The Washington Post)

Growing up, I didn't think about being elected for anything. I just wanted to have a good job, be able to raise my family and have a better life for them. That's what is important to me. I worked for the city of Charlotte for nearly 30 years. I became the assistant budget director, the budget director, then the assistant city manager. I retired in 2004.

In 2011, when I was working as director of community outreach for the Democratic National Host Committee, my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A surgeon told us it was nonoperable and that we should prepare for the worst. He got so sick and dropped to 125 pounds. He said: “Vi, you’ve got to find something to do. I can’t stand the fact that you’re walking around and sweeping and dusting and taking care of me only.” It was just his permission for me to go do something different.

The city was having a debate then over the streetcar, and you could see that it was disintegrating into what I didn’t consider to be our values. There was a fairly deep divide on city council where some people saw it as an essential part of our transportation system and others were very concerned about the cost. So I called Anthony Foxx, who was mayor and believed strongly in the streetcar, and I said: “I need to help you. My skills are as a facilitator, as someone that believes in collaboration. I’m going to run at-large for city council.”

(Travis Dove/For The Washington Post)

I was campaigning, but my husband was a cheerleader. That was our best time. As he got sicker, I cut back on the campaign. I’ve got deep relationships with people in this city. I said to them, “I need your help.” They went out and spoke. They recruited people for endorsements. They took care of me. They provided me with those small things like a casserole or a word of encouragement.

My husband and I had lots of long talks. We were very prepared. He died on the day of the primary.

Three years after I was elected to city council, a police officer shot and killed an African American man named Keith Lamont Scott. Everything led in that moment to what I would call the uprising. Protesters threw rocks and water bottles at our police officers, who were not expecting that kind of reaction, and they blocked Interstate 85. After that first night, they came to City Center, which is a symbol of all that is powerful in Charlotte. It became very difficult to control the crowd and eventually led to another loss of life when someone came with a gun to protest.

The shooting was like the spark that ignited the fire. But the logs were systemic issues that we had in our city — housing and jobs — and that’s when I decided I had to run for mayor. I knew that we could do all of that fixing of police, but if we didn’t fix neighborhoods and people’s lives, we weren’t going to be the city that we claimed to be.

— As told to Elizabeth Leland

Bettye LaVette, 73, West Orange, N.J.

Took decades to hit it big

Bettye LaVette at her home in West Orange, N.J. (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

In 1962, I was 16, living in Detroit. I heard a band on the radio, and they were appearing at a place called the Graystone Ballroom. All of the people who were up and coming at that time — Smokey Robinson, who lived across the alley from me, Marv Johnson, Mary Wells — were there.

Singer Timmy Shaw was there, and he’s heard me singing to myself while standing around at the club. He said, “I know you can sing” and took me to his producer. And in two weeks, I was on the Atlantic Records label.

It was a surprise to everybody. I had never been on a stage. I was such an awful student, they didn’t let me be in the choir. I sang at home. We had a jukebox in the living room.

I recorded a single (“My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man”), and the label took a demo to the radio stations. There was black radio then, but you aspired to get on WXYZ and WABC;that just wasn’t doable in 1962 unless you were the Platters, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. And just before that, even they weren’t on those stations. Very little black music crossed over until around 1965.

The single came out. And then . . . nothing happened. That was Career One.

I left Detroit and went to New York. I recorded a song called “Let Me Down Easy.” And then what happened? Nothing.

(Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

(Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

(Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post) (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

So it was back to Detroit. My manager, Jim Lewis, sent out tapes. At that time, I was covering songs. I won a talent contest, and I did a Schaefer Beer commercial.

In 1972, it looked like I might finally have an album. I had a contract with Atlantic and recorded an album. They sent me a stack of plane tickets for the promotion tour. Then they called and said, “We’ve decided not to go forward with the project.” I had to send the tickets back. That is still the most hurtful thing that has ever happened to me. Eventually, I found out there was a split between Atlantic partners Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. Jerry wanted someone like me, and Ahmet wanted an Aretha.

I was back to performing in Detroit, but since the Motowners were on the road doing bigger gigs, the entire city was mine. In the 1970s and 1980s, I had a band. I was doing other people’s songs, and I liked to dance, so that didn’t bother me.

But over the years, my fans got bigger, richer, older. One in France came to New York and went through the Atlantic Records vaults, and found one of my albums and released it. A friend in Holland had me come over and perform. A friend here knew a producer and released another album. All three of these things were big enough to bring me back to life. It was like they took my entire career and gave it all to me in a week. This was around 2001, and I was in my mid-50s by then.

In 2008, my husband, Kevin Kiley, found out that the Kennedy Center Honors would pay tribute to George Jones. I had sung one of his songs. Kevin called them. The producer asked if I’d do a song by the Who, who were also being honored. I said, “The what?”

From that, I performed for the Barack Obama inaugural, and then I did the album “Interpretations,” where I sang other people’s music. I just performed at Carnegie Hall for the 11th time and was nominated for two Grammys.

(Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

It’s much better to find success later in life. It takes a very long time to become good.

I can’t rest yet on my laurels. I would like for everybody to know me. I can go to Europe; everybody knows me from “Let Me Down Easy.” I can go South, everybody knows me from “He Made a Woman Out of Me.” And I can do the whole Eastern Seaboard based on “Interpretations.” But I can’t yet get them all together to make my “Ray Charles audience,” I call it. That would be everybody: young, old, black, white, Asian. That would be my ideal audience.

— As told to Caren Lissner

Sandy Warshaw, 85, New York

Chose to live as an openly gay woman

Sandy Warshaw at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

I was born in the 1930s, when a nice Jewish girl was told, "You get married, you have children, and you live happily ever after." Growing up, my mother used to warn me to "stay away from those lesbians," but I didn't know a thing about it.

I went to college at Vassar, which was an all-girls college at the time. (If there was a lesbian there in the ’50s, you never would know it.) I started the radio station at Vassar, and I started working at CBS after school. I loved my job. The producer of “Face the Nation” asked me to come down to Washington to be a production assistant, but my father said, “I’m afraid you’ll like your job so much you won’t get married.” So I did what I was supposed to do and married a man I met at work. I didn’t get to be a disobedient person until much later in life.

I was married for 22 years and had two children. A few years ago, it occurred to me that I owe my ex-husband an apology because I no more loved him than I love that roof over there. It had nothing to do with being a lesbian — marriage and children were just not the first thing on my agenda. I was 21 years old and had all these ambitions.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 40s that I realized I was attracted to women. There was a friend of mine who was also married, and we would go to Fire Island for a week at a time. We were drinking heavily one day, and I told her. She said: “Not now. I’ve been there. I don’t want to upset my marriage.” So I tucked it away.

(Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

(Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

(Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post) (Celeste Sloman/For The Washington Post)

I got divorced in 1977, when I was 44, and I had my first relationship with a woman after that. We had an eight-year relationship, but I was not out. We both worked for the city of New York and didn’t think it was a very safe thing to do. We would spend weekends at her house in Connecticut. I suggested once that we go to the gay and lesbian synagogue, and she said, “No, because someone will see us!”

I dated women for 16 years before I came out to my family. My kids threw me a 60th birthday party, and the present they gave me was a trip to Japan. They asked if I was traveling with anyone because they could only pay for one person. I said: “Sit down. I have something I’ve wanted to tell you. I’m gay.”

They said, “Oh, we’ve been wanting to talk to you about it for 10 years.” They weren’t surprised at all. My grandson’s reaction was only that he was sad that I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time.

Eventually, I joined the Jewish me and the lesbian me. I ran for the board at my synagogue, and they needed a bio. I put down that I was an LGBT advocate, and the head of the election committee said, “Don’t you want to take that out?” I said, “No, because that’s who I am: I am a Jewish feminist lesbian activist. Mother of two, grandmother of three.”

— As told to Laura Bassett

Iris Gomez, 63, Milton, Mass.

Lawyer turned novelist

Iris Gomez sits in her Boston office. (Cheryl Senter/For The Washington Post)

There were a lot of barriers to dedicating the time to write a novel because I was raising two kids and working full time as a lawyer. It took me at least five years to write "Try to Remember," my first. I gave what I could, which was every Saturday and most Sundays.

I tried to write about these difficult childhood subjects when I was younger, but hitting the right notes came much later. My work has gotten richer as I’ve matured. Dialogue came more naturally than I expected — the sound of people’s voices and the way they express themselves comes back to you. It’s like a fountain of resources that you carry around in your head. Not speaking English when I came to the U.S. from Colombia taught me to really listen to language and to understand context beyond words, and that helped me become a writer.

I’ve always adored the coming-of-age genre, books like “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, “Nada” by Carmen Laforet, and writers such as Sandra Cisneros and Luis Álvarez. I found inspiration in my daughter, who was becoming a young woman when I was writing the book; I wanted to leave a lasting legacy for young people like her. Now my daughter has started sending me her journal writing. Like me, she has a career and also lets out her creative juices however she wants. People say you can have it all as a woman, just not all at the same time. There’s truth to that, but first a girl has to believe that she can have it all — that she has a right to have it all.

If you have families in your books, you have to live in them, too — it takes a lot of emotional engagement, which is another reason being older helps. You have more endurance for the struggles in your own family and in your fictional families. I learn from my characters’ mistakes.

When I do readings from my book, I can share experiences about immigrant realities that audience members never had. Some people have never really spoken to someone who grew up learning English as a second language, so for them, it’s kind of a discovery. I can build bridges of understanding to the immigrant population in a broader way than in my work as an immigration lawyer.

(Cheryl Senter/For The Washington Post)

I got some national media attention in Latina and O magazine when “Try to Remember” came out in 2010, but I didn’t get into the other major women’s magazines. I wondered if they thought I wasn’t cute enough. If I were some young bopper that they could dress up and pose, maybe they would have been more interested. There’s some uncertainty about how my age affects things. But I treasure the women writers and readers who have supported me. Women writers are a community for each other, and I don’t know if male writers do that for each other the way women do.

You can’t wait to have enough money to live your dream. I talk with a lot of people who think there will come a certain point that they’ll have the resources and then can start. But you have to start where you are. Even if you can’t dedicate as much time as you want, you can dedicate some. Take the time you can and believe in yourself — those are the key ingredients.

— As told to Joelle Renstrom

Ginny Donohue, 71, Syracuse, N.Y.

Left corporate finance to start a shoestring nonprofit

Ginny Donohue at On Point for College in Syracuse, N.Y. (Todd F. Michalek/For The Washington Post)

My daughter had a friend who was living from couch to couch and thought he could never go to college. She told him I could help, and I did. I helped him with applications and financial-aid forms; gave him some money for gas; took him on two college tours. Then I got stopped in the grocery store by two other kids who asked, "Would you get us in, too?" A kid would say, "Would you take me to see a college on Saturday?" and I'd say sure. Then another six kids would get in the car with me.

The kids started getting into college. I’d buy them $150 worth of clothes, get them a backpack full of supplies, buy their bedding for the dorm and drive them to school. I’d visit them in the beginning of the semester and get them bus tickets to come back. I helped seven students in eight years while working as an accountant, a controller and a CFO.

Then a kid named Nicholas said to me: “Because of you, I’m gonna have my dream. What’s your dream, and if that’s not the life you’re living, what steps are you taking to change it?” It was like I’d been kicked by a horse. I said to my husband, “I think I can get more than one or two kids into college a year.” And he said, “If that’s what you need to do, then that’s what you need to do.”

(Todd F. Michalek/For The Washington Post)

On April 13, 1999, I walked out of the corporate world and started On Point for College. It wasn’t that I was unhappy being a CFO. I did a good job, but I was never happier than when I was on a college campus. So it seemed like everything I’d done in my whole lifetime had been a preparation for this.

I didn’t get paid for most of the first year. Then we got a grant, and the board insisted I take a salary. It was one-fifth of what I made before. But we had always kept our life pretty simple in case we needed to live on one salary.

We find local students by going to community centers, homeless shelters, GED sites and libraries. Some of these kids have lived lives that in your worst nightmares you would never have thought of. But they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They just want someone to tell them where the obstacles are gonna be and give them a way out of poverty.

I started working out of my car and now have 24 employees. When I started On Point, I wanted to find 1,000 kids that never thought they could go to college, and I promised God that I’d never turn a single kid away. Now we’ve worked with 11,000 students, and we’ve placed 8,700 in college. I think God had bigger dreams than I did.

I’m retired now. Because I stopped being a CFO, my retirement is simpler than it would have been. I wasn’t able to dump money into my 401(k). But my husband and I spend four months a year in a pop-up camper. We’re not staying in five-star hotels, but we have a joyous life.

— As told to Harriet Brown

Ernestine Shepherd, 82, Baltimore

Became a champion bodybuilder after long avoiding exercise

Ernestine Shepherd at her home in Baltimore. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

At age 11, I got hit by a car and broke my ankle. The bones didn't heal correctly, and the doctors said I would never be able to do any type of exercise or ride a bike because one leg was slightly longer than the other. So I was always afraid to try. Then, in my 50s, my husband invited my sister, Velvet, and me to a church picnic. He said, "You girls can wear bathing suits." Velvet looked at me in the swimsuit and started laughing, and I looked at her and started laughing, and she said, "We need to do exercise."

Velvet started working out and was looking good, and I was looking like nothing. She said, “If you want what I have, you have to do what I’m doing.” So I started doing aerobics and working out. When I first started, I didn’t think I could keep up with everyone in the class, and I was afraid to do anything with my left leg. But when I started doing the exercise, I proved to myself that I could.

Velvet said to me, “If anything were to happen to me, do you think you can continue what we started through prayer, exercising, eating healthy, walking, running, lifting weights?” I said, “Yes, I could do it.”

Velvet died of a brain aneurysm in 1992. I suffered anxiety and depression and cried all the time because Velvet and I were very close. I stopped exercising. Then one night about two years after she died, Velvet came to me in a dream and said, “You’re not doing what I asked you to do.” In church, I said: “Here I am, Lord. I have heard you.”

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

I began slowly with walks and aerobics. Then I started working with a trainer at age 71, even though I thought I wasn’t up to it. He said, “You’re an athlete, and you will do it, and remember what your sister wanted.” In seven months, he had my body ready for my first bodybuilding show, for novice competitors of any age. I won first place.

Now I live by and teach a mantra: determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit. I always tell those I work with that age is nothing but a number. Many of those I have trained say they never thought they could do what they did at their age.

— As told to Gary Gately


Karen Weese is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati.

Sonam Vashi is a freelance journalist in Atlanta who's written for CNN and Atlanta magazine.

Elizabeth Leland is an author and freelance writer in North Carolina, where she worked as a newspaper reporter for 40 years.

Caren Lissner is a writer in New Jersey and author of the novel “Carrie Pilby,” which was made into a movie on Netflix.

Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist and commentator on politics, gender and culture.

Joelle Renstrom teaches at Boston University and writes about robots, space and sci-fi for the Daily Beast, Slate, and her blog, Could This Happen.

Harriet Brown is a professor of journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Gary Gately is a Baltimore journalist who has written for The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Baltimore Sun and other publications.

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Editing by Jenny Rogers. Copy editing by Emily Morman. Photo Editing by Robert Miller. Design and development by Audrey Valbuena.