Lifestyle & Culture

The Unkindest (Prime) Cut of All

February 20, 2023



This essay first appeared in Prime Women.

By Nancy McKeon

WHAT DID YOU Google most recently? A different chicken recipe? A list of nearby veterinarians? Okay.

Was it to find out whether you were “in your prime”? I didn’t think so.

In case you missed it, here’s what happened on Thursday that raises this question. On “CNN This Morning,” the three hosts were discussing the suggestion made by Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley that politicians over age 75 undergo a mandatory mental competency test to make sure they were up to the job of president. 

A screen grab of “CNN This Morning” co-host Don Lemon asking his co-hosts (and the audience) not to shoot the messenger. It was Google that told him that women were past their prime by age 50. He later apologized. / CNN image.

Co-host Don Lemon then said the 51-year-old Haley should be careful when talking about politicians not in their prime. “Nikki Haley is not in her prime. Sorry.” A Google search had told him that a woman’s prime was in her 20s, 30s and 40s.

As his female co-hosts, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, sputtered and reacted, Lemon doubled down: “Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just saying what the facts are.” 

Lemon sent out a major mea culpa later that day on social media and to CNN staff and didn’t appear on the show on Friday, possibly taking the morning off to remove the large foot he had inserted in his mouth.

Aside from the fact that there are different answers that pop up on that Google search, not just the one cherry-picked by Lemon, the question immediately raised by Lemon’s co-hosts remains: Prime for what exactly? Childbearing? Sure, makes sense. Gymnastic competitions? No quarrel. Sexual attractiveness? Them’s fightin’ words.

What about corporate competence? Not even close. Climbing that ladder takes years of experience–years and experience that we as a society generally value in men. Aside from some tech Wunderkinder, there aren’t many 20-, 30- and 40-year-old CEOs out there.

In fact, I would argue that a woman doesn’t hit her stride until her 50s, when those childbearing 20s, 30s and 40s are in the rear-view mirror, when relationships have, with luck, stabilized, and when a woman can take a moment to measure the path she has been on professionally and weigh the possibilities ahead.

I’m not suggesting that women one day just poke their heads out of a gopher hole at age 52 and decide to become a Supreme Court justice (Ketanji Brown Jackson) or prime minister of the UK (Margaret Thatcher at age 54) or a US senator (Elizabeth Warren at age 64) or a presidential candidate (Nikki Haley at age 51, Hillary Clinton at ages 61 and 69). They’ve been laying the groundwork for years, layering job upon job, credential upon credential. By around age 50 the ambitious ones are champing at the bit.

You see it these days in the business world. Mary Barra became CEO of GM at age 53, Ursula Burns CEO of Xerox at 51. More recently, Karen S. Lynch, 58, and Rosalind Brewer, 59, became CEO of CVS and the Walgreens Boots Alliance, respectively. Slightly younger was Thasunda Brown Duckett, who took the helm of the TIAA retirement-investment powerhouse at 48; going back a few years, also at 48, Sherry Lansing at Paramount.

It’s an odd fact that little girls in general mature earlier than little boys, and then do better in school until . . . until the urge to mate slows them down, then even ties them down with the bulk of childrearing. But then, fast-forward, women’s opportunities do a quick fade, disappearing entirely by the end of their forties? It doesn’t sound right, but women’s “sell-by” date has always been notoriously earlier than their male counterparts’.

So, if you thought that “prime” was an arithmetical construct you forgot about from high school, last week may have been a wakeup call. Ditto if the word just triggered memories of your last great strip steak.

Bottom line: As far as having wisdom and verve and the experience to use both wisely, most women are in their prime after the age of 50. And whether it’s political or corporate leadership or just living lives in the public sphere, it’s best for all when everyone recognizes that.

14 thoughts on “The Unkindest (Prime) Cut of All

  1. Nancy McKeon says:

    Ah, Nancy, we think alike!

  2. Nancy McKeon says:

    Cynthia, thanks for mentioning Gail Sheehy’s work! Miss her!

  3. Nancy McKeon says:

    Oh, Kathy, I think Don Lemon has learned a few things over the past few days! (Like, for one thing, have some respect for your presumed audience!)

  4. Nancy McKeon says:

    Judy, I thought that comment was shameful at the time. Still do, but . . .

  5. Nancy McKeon says:

    Thanks, Christine. Not as entertaining as love monkeys ( , but . . .

  6. Nancy McKeon says:

    Hi, Carol! Unforced error, exactly! I don’t wish him ill, but apparently the show is a bit wobbly anyway, so they may put his 56-year-old rump elsewhere.

  7. Holly Pollinger says:

    At 83 I have to confess that I thought “strip steak” also, at first. Now I want to extend the idea that prime is also a state of mind – and it is still alive and kicking hard in my world. Prime at its best is well-aged – and that is a message to Haley.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Holly! You go, girl!

  8. Kathy Legg says:

    Let us not forget the unforgettable Miss Jean Brodie and the wonderful movie about her prime. I believe she could teach the possibly unteachable Don Lemon a thing or two.

  9. Although it might have been less than dignified to do so, former President Trump noted that Don Lemon was the dumbest person on television.

  10. cynthia tilson says:

    Thank you for sharing this piece!

    Gail Sheehy wrote this wonderful book about the “uncomfortable” metamorphosis men experience as they enter their 40s and beyond. Turns out it’s a massive case of projection as aging males reassign their own discomfort to aging women. Men lose everything that defines them as king of the jungle as they age, beginning with the loss of their hair.

    The truth is that once all women are beyond child-rearing years, physically and psychologically, they have an opportunity to enter the most powerful years of their lives…that is if they don’t buy into the idea that there is an expiration date on a woman’s wisdom, sexuality or social worth. Utter nonsense to believe otherwise!

  11. Nancy G says:

    Excellent. Personally, I think I hit my “prime” in my 50’s too. Kids launched, secure in my career and becoming better known in wider circles. There’s a certain and distinct liberation to hitting 50.

  12. Christine Ledbetter says:

    Great piece, Nancy.

  13. Carol says:

    Good thoughts here, just posted a legitimate article that all humans don’t hit their “prime” until 60!! An unforced error by Don. It may have cost him his job. He needs to think perhaps his prime is over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *