Joan Rivers, who passed away on Thursday, gave the world enough humor to fill a second Library of Congress. She was born in 1933, between the two World Wars, in an America struggling with the aftermath of the Great Depression. Rivers was born in the age of black and white, but died in the age of color. And did she ever bring the color into this world!
She was born into a world that needed humor to face tragedy. We still live in that world today, and we still need humor as much as ever. I was born in 1984, near the end of another kind of war—the Cold War. I am too young to have seen the rise of Rivers’ career when she was 30. But Rivers, through her style and wit, helped me have the confidence to be funny when things were serious, opinionated when I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion, and loving enough to care for family and colleagues while running a business.
We live in a world where jokes from 1967 are still funny today because inequality still exists:
"A girl, you're 30 years old, you're not married, you're an old maid. A man, he's 90 years old, he's not married, he's a catch." - Joan Rivers, 1967, Ed Sullivan Show
As young people, we may have not been alive when, in the late 1950s, Joan appeared on the backlit and flickering screens of late-night televisions. We may not be old enough to remember when, after a series of career setbacks, Joan’s husband committed suicide in 1987, leaving her a single parent and grieving widow.
But the world is still the same in most ways as it was in 1933. There are many single parents who struggle to manage a career and care for family members at the same time. There are many women who are more successful than their counterparts in industries traditionally shut out to women, and struggle precisely because of their success.
And we still live in a society that worships youth. For women, aging becomes an even more pointed issue. Women struggle to find roles in entertainment in their older years, as the prospect of motherhood and models of acceptable attractiveness wane into a twilight of post-childbearing years.
Americans, even today, seem unable to honor age as a normal part of life, and there is no doubt that aging brings sickness and new challenges. But the fact is, being 70 is as normal a part of life as being 20 and we should not apologize for being alive. Joan Rivers demonstrated this, continuinged her career through her entire life, similar to other matriarchs of cultural significance like Coco Chanel, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks.
Let us remember that youth is a spirit, and we will hold in ourselves the strength to protect the rights that women have fought to give our generation today.
The biggest lesson millennials can learn from Joan Rivers’ legacy is that freedom of expression has no age. Millennial women still face the same limited access to opportunities today, and most women in 2014 fare much worse than men in terms of access to health care, freedom of travel, right to work, and freedom of expression.
Joan wanted to make us think and laugh through the struggles we have. Let’s be bold. And laugh.