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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Serena Williams gives us 36 reasons to recalibrate our ideas of age and motherhood 

In Hollywood, sport and beyond, ageist and sexist notions of womanhood need to be stamped out, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Serena Williams returns a ball to Angelique Kerber in the women's singles final match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in London, Saturday July 14, 2018. John Walton / AP
Serena Williams returns a ball to Angelique Kerber in the women's singles final match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in London, Saturday July 14, 2018. John Walton / AP

"To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today," said Serena Williams last Saturday after the women’s singles final at Wimbledon. Ten months after having a baby and undergoing life-threatening surgery, she was the runner up at one of the world's most prestigious sports tournaments. She was reclaiming her status at the very top of the tennis world.

Mrs Williams has already broken stereotypes and challenged attitudes about what it means to be a strong, powerful black woman in an elitist world dominated by white men. But the events of last weekend invite us all to change the way we think about womanhood as a whole.

At 36, she is one of the oldest players at Wimbledon. The oldest women’s singles winner in the modern era was Martina Navratilova, at 33.

The 20th century brought profound changes to the realities and understanding of what it means to be a woman, and the expectations and roles of females.

But urgent shifts in the views of both men and women are required.

There is an assumption that age, particularly in women, reduces our ability to engage in the same fashion with the world around us. And this ageism arrives very early.

Hollywood’s female actors have been increasingly vocal about how "older" women simply don’t have the same opportunities. And incredibly, by older we mean just 30-years-old.

A study by Time Labs in 2015 showed that a female actor’s roles peak at the age of 30 and then drop off, compared to men’s roles, which peak at 46. I suspect this is broadly true for society as a whole, because whether life imitates art or vice versa, women over 30 are rarely the figures that define our ideas of womanhood. Which is why when the Serena Williams’s of this world come along, it makes so much noise. It shouldn’t.

We are all marrying later, having children later, living longer and living healthier lives. Yet our views around stage of life have yet to catch up. And this is particularly the case for women, who are often deemed to be over the hill after their thirties and after they have had children.

Sometimes this view is perpetuated by women themselves, who cast themselves in the role of the poor helpless older woman far too early. In many traditional cultures, when a woman becomes a mother-in-law she declares herself helpless and decrepid, pushing her children to nurse her.

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Read more from Shelina Janmohamed:

Today too many men are migrating to the dark side

Make your selfies the souvenir, not the experience, at this year's Hajj

This week a group of online trolls tried to drive me from public life. I won't let them win

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What a waste of life when life expectancy data and opportunities tell us that it is only life's half-way point.

Take the example of Kveta Peschke. While Serena Williams, aged 36, was fighting for the women’s title on Saturday on Centre Court, on the neighbouring Court Number 1, Ms Peschke, aged 43, was contesting the women’s doubles final.

Ms Peschke turned pro in 1991 and has therefore been playing world-class tennis for nearly three decades. She has notched up grand slam victories and won the Wimbledon doubles in 2011.

While I watched her play, Peschke's power, strength and skill blew me away. It’s astonishing to think we write women off as past it by their 30s and 40s, when these two women are demonstrably at the top of their game.

And they are not outliers or exceptions of womanhood. Mrs Williams articulated that the story of motherhood is not the end for women and it is not an exceptional story. “ I feel like if I can do it, they can do it,” she said.

Rightly, the trauma of childbirth that Mrs Williams experienced must be taken seriously. Motherhood is tough and challenging and not something that women can breeze through. There is a gritty reality, underpinned by both the mental and physical toll.

But when asked if she was a supermom, Mrs Williams has the right approach, answering that she was “just me".

The takeaway is that we need to reinvent our ideas of when a woman is “past it” and what mothers in particular are capable of physically.

We must recalibrate our ideas of age, especially when it comes to women. We also need to recalibrate what a woman is – not "just" a wife, not "just" a mother.

If Ms Williams on Centre Court at Wimbledon this week has shown us anything, it’s that we need to claim every inch, year and stretch mark of womanhood. And lay to rest outdated ageist notions of what it means to be a woman.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World