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Midlife Crisis

The Feminist Origins of a Chauvinist Cliché

The phrase “midlife crisis” today conjures up images of male indulgence and irresponsibility—an affluent, middle-aged man speeding off in a red sports car with a woman half his age—but before it become a gendered cliché, it gained traction as a feminist concept. Journalist Gail Sheehy used the term to describe a midlife period when both men and women might reassess their choices and seek a change in life. Sheehy’s definition challenged the double standard of middle age—where aging is advantageous to men and detrimental to women—by viewing midlife as an opportunity rather than a crisis. Widely popular in the United States and internationally, the term was quickly appropriated by psychological and psychiatric experts and redefined as a male-centered, masculinist concept.

The first book-length history of this controversial concept, Susanne Schmidt’s Midlife Crisis recounts the surprising origin story of the midlife debate and traces its movement from popular culture into academia. Schmidt’s engaging narrative telling of the feminist construction—and ensuing antifeminist backlash—of the midlife crisis illuminates a lost legacy of feminist thought, shedding important new light on the history of gender and American social science in the 1970s and beyond.

Author Information

Susanne Schmidt is a research associate and lecturer in history at Freie Universität Berlin.


“The topic—which is of more than historical interest—has given Schmidt a window to look at the social and cultural history of the era and assess the impact of feminism on life cycle studies and vice versa. Her research in the popular literature and on the personalities and politics of publication and precedence are very interesting indeed and shed light on what was at stake for authors and readers of this time. Midlife Crisis fills a gap in the literature and addresses an issue that, as the author shows, is still with us.”
— Robert A. Nye, Oregon State University

"In this exceptional new book, Schmidt utilizes popular and professional contests about aging and gender to illuminate central themes of feminism and politics. Midlife Crisis is essential reading not only for historians of recent American culture but for anyone eager to understand the framing of aging and development as gender roles are transformed."
— Allan M. Brandt, Harvard University

"Schmidt’s engaging history of the midlife crisis takes as a central theme the generative contributions of feminist voices in public conversations about science in the Cold War United States, raising questions about the midlife opportunities and challenges experienced by men and women in American society that feel as pertinent today as they did to Gail Sheehy’s readers in 1976. Schmidtdeftly shows how an idea first articulated by a journalist wended its way into professional psychological discussions and has been with us ever since."
— Erika Lorraine Milam, author of Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

Audience: Professional and scholarly;