Analysis: Women in Their ‘Prime’ Outshine CNN Anchor’s Sexist, Ageist Comments
Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford Portrait by Nate Ryan

Analysis: Women in Their ‘Prime’ Outshine CNN Anchor’s Sexist, Ageist Comments

Beth Ford and Julie Sullivan exemplify the big impacts that women over 50 are having in leadership roles.

When raising children and building careers, it’s important to be exposed to many different environments, kinds of people, and viewpoints.

Exposure to a diverse world broadens perspectives and allows people to envision possibilities they might not imagine if they existed in an isolated or limited workplace or home.

That’s why it was so shocking on Feb. 16 when CNN anchor Don Lemon, who has had broad experiences, chose to characterize women as beyond their “prime” when they are older than their 20s, 30s, and “maybe” 40s.

His shallow remarks were made in the context of arguing that Nikki Haley, 51, newly announced Republican candidate for president, wasn’t in her prime.

Lemon, 56, was challenged on his assertion by anchor Poppy Harlow, 40, who asked whether he was referring to the prime child-bearing years of women.

The second time Lemon uttered that women are only in their prime in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, he was more adamant about it. “That’s not according to me,” Lemon said, while seated with his hands on his hips in a confident pose. “I’m just saying what the facts are. Google it.”

No, Lemon didn’t have any facts whatsoever. In his mind, he may have been referencing decades-old opinions held by some in society that women have value only when they are young and beautiful. But Lemon, a veteran broadcast journalist, was arrogantly stating that he was just citing facts.

Fortunately, Lemon isn’t a trial litigator, or he’d have an abbreviated career if he espoused unsubstantiated theories in a courtroom that have no basis in fact.

Lemon’s comments were so wrong-headed that they drew an immediate backlash on social media, so Lemon tried to clean up his mess just hours after his morning show aired.

On Twitter, Lemon wrote, “A woman’s age doesn’t define her either personally or professionally.” But he also called his comments on CNN “inartful” and “irrelevant.” Inartful is defined as something that is “awkwardly expressed but not necessarily untrue.” It was an odd word choice if someone wanted to genuinely apologize.

Veteran women leaders in their prime

Since Lemon made his sexist and ageist comments, I’ve been thinking about women in their prime who serve in important leadership roles in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. I’ve also been thinking about enlightened men who value the accomplishments, talent, and experienced perspectives of women 50 and older.

As we enter Women’s History Month in March, it’s a good time to spotlight effective women leaders and the men who recognize their important contributions.

Beth Ford became president and CEO of the Land O’Lakes cooperative in 2018. Now in her late 50s, Ford led the Fortune 500 company to $16 billion in net sales in 2021. In addition to steering the company through supply chain and other pandemic challenges, she spent three years advocating for high-speed internet service in rural America. When $65 billion for broadband made it into the federal infrastructure legislation, Ford was on hand at the White House when the bill was signed into law.

Ford is the first openly gay woman to serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The Land O’Lakes board that chose her for that role was all male and consisted of farmers and local co-op managers. Ford was chief operating officer before being promoted to the top job at Land O’Lakes.

“We needed somebody to run Land O’Lakes for the benefit of all of our membership, and she absolutely was the most qualified candidate to do that,” then-board chairman Pete Kappelman told me early in Ford’s CEO tenure. A veteran dairy producer from Wisconsin, Kappelman said his board didn’t focus on Ford’s sexual orientation or gender; instead, she was chosen because she was respected as “a proven leader.”

When Julie Sullivan was selected a year ago to become president of Santa Clara University in California, she was 64 years old. That would be well past her prime based on Lemon’s interpretation of women’s value based on Google searches.

Julie Sullivan served as president of the University of St. Thomas from July 2013 through mid-2022.
Julie Sullivan served as president of the University of St. Thomas from July 2013 through mid-2022.

Yet Sullivan wasn’t ready to spend her days reading novels on an easy chair. I met with her in St. Paul just before she completed a nine-year run as president of the University of St. Thomas, where she diversified the student body, led fundraising of nearly $300 million, and spearheaded the drive from Division III to Division I athletics. Sullivan told me she was excited to take on another big challenge.

Sullivan made history twice as a Catholic college president. She was the first layperson to serve as president of St. Thomas. In addition, Santa Clara’s board amended its bylaws to lift the requirement that the university president “must be a Jesuit priest.” As one male Twin Cities attorney told me: “Priests stepped aside for her twice.”

When Santa Clara University announced in 2022 that it had selected Sullivan for the presidency, Larry Sonsini, chair of the board of trustees, said that Sullivan’s leadership track record made her “ideally suited” to lead the university “in our pursuit of a more humane, a more just, and a more sustainable world.”

Lemon’s remarks become even more comical when one considers the career of actress Helen Mirren. At 77, she continues to land great roles.

Mirren co-stars in the Western series “1923” with Harrison Ford. Early this year, she stars in the movie “Golda” that’s based on the life of Golda Meir, who was Israel’s first woman prime minister. Mirren also plays an action character in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” which will be showing in theaters in March.

In a recent CBS interview, Ford, 80, said a major reason he accepted a role on “1923” was the opportunity to work with Mirren. They play a husband and wife, who he described as having a “deep, complex partnership.”

If Lemon wants to learn what it’s like for a woman to still be in her prime at 82, he should watch former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appearance on the CNN set the night President Biden gave his State of the Union speech.

With no notes in front of her, she fielded questions from three CNN journalists, framed policy issues, assessed the current political landscape in Congress, and cited how many Republicans voted for key bills she ushered through the U.S. House as the Democratic speaker.

Pelosi continues to represent a California district in Congress, and she has traveled extensively in her 80s. She was in the first phase of foreign leaders to travel to war-torn Ukraine, when it was uncertain whether such a trip would be safe.

When Pelosi’s portrait was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol in December, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner paid tribute to her. “No other speaker of the House in the modern era, Republican or Democrat, has wielded the gavel with such authority or with such consistent results,” Boehner said.

Women lack gender parity with men when one looks at what portion of women are CEOs, managing partners in big law firms, and members of the U.S. Senate. But in 2023, it’s ludicrous to think that women are no longer in their “prime” after they hit 50.

In communities large and small, women over 50 are successfully leading organizations. They’re all around us. You don’t even need to Google it to discover that’s the factual reality.

Liz Fedor has written extensively about women in leadership for Twin Cities Business.