When wannabe GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley claimed that men older than 75 years should be tested for mental competence when they run for president, CNN’s Don Lemon commented that Haley herself, at 51, is “past her prime.” The Sisterhood was enraged. Polite society was aghast. And of course Lemon grovelled. But the harsh fact is that biology says Lemon may be right. He inadvertently opened a discussion that must be had, apropos not only of the surprise resignations of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, but also of any possibility that Nikki Haley, or any woman, could be president of the United States.
As is generally the case with “upsetting” and “unacceptable” remarks these days, Lemon’s Kinsley Gaffe struck a nerve.
Lemon told CNN This Morning anchors Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins:
This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable.
I think it’s the wrong road to go down.
She says... politicians are not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. Sorry. A woman is considered to be in their prime in [her] 20s and 30s and maybe 40s [Don Lemon Absent From CNN for Second Day Following Nikki Haley Remarks, by Virginia Chamlee, Yahoo! News, February 20, 2023].
CNN's Don Lemon got personal when he criticized Nikki Haley's comments calling for competency tests for politicians over 75 years old — an apparent shot at Trump, 76, and Biden, 80.— POLITICO (@politico) February 16, 2023
"Haley isn’t in her prime.," he said. "A woman is in their prime in 20s and 30s and maybe 40s." pic.twitter.com/rJrTTnMPRB
He pointed out that a Google search would confirm he was right, he said, adding that “I’m not saying I agree with that.”
Harlow (age 40) marched off the set [Poppy Harlow leaves CNN set after tense exchange with Don Lemon, NY Post, February 16, 2023].
Lemon had to apologize not once but twice before he was allowed to return to the air [Don Lemon apologizes again before returning to CNN after Nikki Haley comments, by Amy Haneline and Elise Brisco, USA Today, February 22, 2023].
I appreciate the opportunity to be back on @CNNThisMorning today. To my network, my colleagues and our incredible audience — I’m sorry. I’ve heard you, I’m learning from you, and I’m committed to doing better.— Don Lemon (@donlemon) February 22, 2023
See you soon.
But facts are facts—particularly biological facts. Men and women reach their prime, looked at in various ways, at different ages.
Thus evolutionary psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas has found that a woman’s “mate value” peaks in her early 20s. Men primarily sexually select for fertility, as betokened by youth and beauty. That is when a woman is most fertile, beautiful, and sexually attractive. Those are her “prime years.” Thereafter, her “mate value” decreases. All else being equal she becomes less and less desirable [When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault, by David Buss, 2021].
By contrast, Buss says, women sexually select for status. In our evolutionary past, she and her offspring would be more likely to survive if the man she chose had resources to invest in them. His ability to attain high status indicates healthy genes that would be passed to children. So women sexually select, in direct contrast to men, for age. In general, older men are stronger and have more resources. Evolutionary theory suggests that girls go through puberty earlier than boys partly to ensure that they, the girls, land an older mate with status and resources.
“One of the things that women prioritize is a guy who has the resources but more important the qualities that lead to successful resource acquisition,” Bruss says. “And so does the guy have goals? Is he a hard worker? Is he ambitious? Does he have drive? Is he going places?”
“Long ago there were likely compelling reasons for a female to choose an older male mate,” explains Dr. Valerie Hay, a paediatrician at the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin:
“The older male is likely to be stronger and more established in his societal role.”
From an evolutionary perspective, women develop faster so they do not choose a male of their same age, who may be less able to protect and provide for them and their potential child. This is, of course, no longer the norm in modern society.
[Mind the gap: Why girls develop faster than boys, Shine365, December 6, 2022]
Women select for evidence of fertility and health, too, but they are less important than status. A man’s prime, then, is considerably later than a woman’s.
If men primarily select women for evidence of fertility, then a woman beyond is beyond her prime if she is menopausal. On average, women start menopause at about 50 years old, a year younger than Haley. Men are fertile all their lives, though sperm quality does decline with age.
Menopause sets off a period of transitional hormone imbalance that lasts anywhere from seven years to 14 years [What Is Menopause?, National Institute of Aging, September 30, 2021]. The symptoms include irritability, depression, intense anxiety, profound sadness, a lack of motivation, problems focusing and concentrating. In extreme cases, it can even cause psychosis.
Menopause is akin to having intense premenstrual syndrome for years [How can menopause affect your mental health?, Mental Health UK, 2023]. A study in 2016 found that menopause increases the risk of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and sleep disorders, and worsens psychiatric problems a woman already has [Risk of Psychiatric Disorders Following Symptomatic Menopausal Transition, by L. Hu et al., Medicine, 2016].
And as Bruss reported in his book, menopause also may cause a decline in IQ. Sixty percent of women have reported cognitive decline on reaching menopause—sometimes called “Brain Fog.” The fog affects memory and cognition [‘Brain fog’ during menopause is real— it can disrupt women’s work and spark dementia fears, The Conversation, December 13, 2021].
“The frequency of cognitive changes is higher in women than in men” and “hormonal factors likely contribute to cognitive decline,” The World Journal of Psychiatry reported two years ago:
In this sense, cognitive complaints are more common near menopause, a phase marked by a decrease in hormone levels, especially estrogen. Additionally, a tendency toward worsened cognitive performance has been reported in women during menopause. Vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes, sweating, and dizziness), vaginal dryness, irritability and forgetfulness are common and associated with a progressive decrease in ovarian function and a subsequent reduction in the serum estrogen concentration.
[Menopause and cognitive impairment: A narrative review of current knowledge, by Délio Marques Conde, et al., August 19, 2021]
And that cognitive decline affects a woman’s work performance. One study found that half of menopausal women “will find it somewhat, or fairly difficult, to cope with their work” [Working women and the menopause, by T. Kopenhager and F. Guidozzi, Climacteric: The Journal of the International Menopause Society, June 18, 2015].
Men decline too, but not as sharply.
Even night sweats during menopause will affect a woman at work, because they disrupt her sleep:
[W]ithin a workplace, the latent impact of night sweats can manifest as reduced work capacity and productivity, with increased error occurrence, which could result in greater workplace accidents or injury rates.
[Talking about menopause in the workplace, by Sarah Carter, et al., Case Reports in Women’s Health, Volume 30, April 2021]
So we can start to understand why Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon surprisingly resigned earlier this month, citing the “physical and mental impact” of her job [Scottish leader Sturgeon quits with independence goal unmet, by Danica Kirka, Associated Press, February 15, 2023]. She is 52 and almost certainly menopausal. Jacinda Ardern is only 42, but she has a history of mental illness, notably depression and anxiety [Burnout: Why Jacinda Ardern’s ‘rare’ admission about her mental health matters, by Meghan Baynes, Sky News, January 20, 2023]. She was pregnant and then a nursing mother while prime minister, which I have argued explained her intense and emotional response to the 2019 Christchurch shootings. And perimenopause, the very beginning of the process, commences among women that are exactly Ardern’s age [Menopause, Mount Sinai Health, 2023].
Of course, there are notable exceptions like Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. But some sense of this general reality probably underlies why a heroic minority (even of women—strikingly, about as many as men) is still brave enough tell pollsters that women are less suited to politics than men.
Let’s grant that Haley is right: Men 75 or older and past their prime should take a mental competency test if they run for president. A significant number of Americans, after all, believed Joe Biden had dementia before he was elected [38% of Voters Think Biden Has Dementia, Rasmussen Reports, June 29, 2020].
But what should menopausal candidates do? For if we accept competency testing for men past their prime, then we must test women past their prime to ensure that their mental health is sound enough to cope with the pressures of the highest office in the land.
Lemon probably doesn’t know why he is right.
But he does know now that telling the truth in Woke America is dangerous business.
Lance Welton [email him] is the pen name of a freelance journalist living in New York.