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5 Lessons From the 1970s That Still Guide Me in My 70s

For many of us cool older women, the decade’s influence has been profound.

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photo collage of images with references from the 70s
Sean McCabe
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While I long ago cut off my waist-length hair and retired my bell-bottom jeans, rarely does a day go by that I don’t see how the 1970s’ influences impact me today. The 1970s brought us a presidential resignation, the emergence of women’s rights 2.0, and launched a technological revolution that disrupted, well, everything. Here are five life lessons I learned from the 1970s that I still live by in my 70s.

Casual sex is not for everybody. 

Thanks in no small part to Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying, casual sex became a thing – as in a really, really big thing. Casual sex equalized the playing field of pleasure for women and helped fuel the second wave of the women’s movement. Surely you remember the “zipless you-know-what”?

Fifty years later, I still worship at the altar of Jong for creating that treatise of my youth — that, among other things, gave women the right to expect — no, demand! — orgasms without suffering a minute of guilt or shame. Yes, women could, would and should be able to physically enjoy a roll in the sheets with the same ease and sans baggage as men. In doing so, women became seen.

Personally speaking, I learned in the 1970s that casual sex wasn’t for everyone, and especially not for me. To me, it was a contradiction of terms. To this day, when I’m enjoying intimacy, my feelings toward my partner are never anything close to casual. Call me a prude, perhaps. “Follow your gut, not your urges,” is what I taught both of my now-adult kids. And never use sex as a bartering tool for love or affection. I love the fact that so many of my age group continue to have active sex lives, although honestly, I wish more would use protection. It's embarrassing that STDs continue to rise among folks our age.

Authority deserves to be challenged — but intelligently.

As iconic rule-breakers during the 1970s, I learned that some rules really are meant to be broken. But not the ones that keep us from harm and allow us to collectively inhabit the Earth. Let’s face it: We need rules and laws to get along with each other. Without them, there would be chaos — or at least an awful lot of people not cleaning up after their dogs. Laws are the road map to peaceful coexistence. Hell, we even have rules for our wars and what we are allowed to do when we capture our wartime enemies. We have rules for how to behave when we disagree with the rules. So, yes, rules are abundant and most of them matter.

But there are some rules that seem to exist for no apparent reason except as a salve for an individual’s personal greed or ego. Those are the rules that still make me cringe. Who wasn’t rooting for Jack Nicholson’s character trying to order a side of toast in the famous chicken salad diner scene in that 1970 classic film “Five Easy Pieces”?  When authority oversteps itself, we should all be moved to challenge it. (That said, thanks in advance for wearing a mask in public during a global pandemic.)

Apologies matter.

There are lots of apologies going around today — from politicians, celebrities and even my mail carrier, who found an undelivered holiday card addressed to us long after December. Some apologies are sincere and heartfelt. Others, not so much. Perhaps they are still thinking Jenny was right in the 1970 movie Love Story when she opined to Oliver that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Yeah, she was wrong then and would still be wrong today. Apologies only count if they are done right. In my 70s now, I am quick to flag (and correct) someone who apologizes for my reaction to their wrongdoing. “I’m sorry you were hurt by that,” is not an apology at all. Own your behavior and let me be responsible for mine.

Sometimes, you really do have to yell to be heard.

The 1976 movie Network brought us newscaster Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) who has an on-air nervous breakdown that ends with everyone screaming out their open windows that they are “mad as hell” and not going to take any more of the world’s craziness. Well, hello 2020-2022! Need we say more, or is your window already open, too? I can think of nothing more healing and nothing more helpful than simply to howl our displeasure in the voting booth. No matter which side you are on, none of us feel particularly good.

News events are indeed history’s first draft.

In the 1970s, an unpopular war ended, a president was brought down by two investigative journalists in the Watergate scandal and most of us walked around with hair that looked like Chia Pets on a bad day. We danced under a disco ball, led by John Travolta in the 1977 critically acclaimed Saturday Night Fever.

At the time, it was all pretty monumental. But in comparison to today's headlines, the 1970s seem so naive and so simple. Few could have pointed to Afghanistan on a map, AIDS wouldn’t cause its 700,000 deaths in the United States for another 10 years, COVID-19 was on nobody’s radar, Ukraine was not yet an independent country. Hell, we weren’t even taking off our shoes to board a plane back then.

Now, don’t we all just wish we could recreate that simplicity by pulling on a nice pair of bell-bottoms?

Image Source: Book: Signet via Amazon; Jong: Getty; Love Story: Everett Collection; Five Easy Pieces: Everett Collection; Network: Alamy

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