Tending the Fire of Our Circle of Older Women by Carolyn Lee Boyd

carolyn portraitIn some cultures, late autumn and winter are the seasons associated with the Goddess as an old woman. As the ice, snow, and long nights curl Her chilling fingers around us, it is fitting that we honor the older women in our midst.  Yet, the older I become, the more aware I am of how obsessively American culture has belittled and marginalized older women.  Bringing a powerful, vital, and wise image of the  older woman back into our  consciousness — whether by calling older women “Crones” or using other words — is, to me, a tremendous achievement of feminism and feminist spirituality So, too, is the recognition of the vigor and achievements of middle-aged women inherent in names for this time of life like “Queen”  and others.

Real middle-aged and older women who personify these fierce, brilliant, and successful role models are easy to find in my everyday life.  In my neighborhood is an informal circle of middle-aged and older women who have started their own businesses – a tea shop, a gift and clothing store for teen girls, a natural foods store, and more – and support rather than compete with each other. An older woman has organized a successful movement to ban the sale of individual bottles of water in my community that could spread nationwide. Many of the volunteers who lead local communities like mine are older women.  Other such middle-aged and older women abound on this blogsite, in politics, in the arts, sciences, and religion, leading organizations and movements and in many other places.

However, from the struggles of other older women I know, I realize that contemporary older women also have other, more troubling, aspects of their lives. Earlier this fall, Wider Opportunities for Women issued a report based on US Census data titled “Living Below the Line: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans” stating that  half of all older women who live alone or with an elder spouse are economically insecure, with that percentage rising to 62% for women living alone. About 80% of older women live alone or only with a spouse. Wider Opportunities for Women defines economic insecurity as not having enough to pay for housing, food, transportation, and health care in their communities without borrowing money or relying on public assistance programs like Food Stamps.  Minority older women who live alone or only with elder spouses are even more likely to lack enough money to meet all their needs. Fully 77% of Hispanic elder women, 72% of African-American elder women, and 59% of Asian elder women, compared to 46% for white women and 40% for all older men, are economically insecure.

Going without the money to meet basic needs is not the only challenge older women face. According to the US Census chartbook, “Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well Being, ” more than one in three older women lives alone, which can lead to social isolation and economic insecurity. One in six suffers from depression. Almost half of women over 65 have difficulties with activities of daily living or are living in a nursing home. The rates for all these are lower for older men.  According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, up to one in ten or more older women have experienced some form of elder abuse in the past year.

Older lesbians, bisexual women, or transgender individuals have even greater  barriers to well being in later life. A recent report  by Caring and Aging with Pride of LGBT older adults found that older lesbian and bisexual women have higher rates of disability and mental distress than heterosexual women and that transgender elders have the highest rates of all.  Access to health care is essential for older adults who have the highest disability rates of any age population. Eleven percent of lesbians and bisexual women and 40% of transgender individuals report having been denied health care or receiving inferior care because of their orientation or gender identity.

What can we do to change this bleak picture of life for many older women? We must support those government and private programs like Social Security and Medicare, food stamps, Medicaid, and elder services that are the swiftly dissipating safety net for older women. We can personally assist those who, for whatever reason, need help in our neighborhoods and communities. We can affirm the importance of all older women to our movement and our society in our teaching, writing, speaking, and other interactions. We can support those organizations, like the Older Women’s League, that advocate for older women and issues of importance to them, and us. What else can you think of?

Advocating for the well being of older women is not only the right thing to do, but it is also  essential to feminism’s future. Together older women are a formidable force.  One in fourteen Americans is an older woman, a number that will grow to one in ten in 17 years.   Should a significant proportion of these women come together to demand positive change for themselves and all women, true progress would be much more certain than without their support. Still, it is much more difficult to be an activist when you must choose between paying for rent, food, or medication and are suffering from ill health, depression, or abuse.

In Norse mythology, Elle, the Goddess of Old Age, wrestles with Thor and, though she appears frail and he strong, she wins. Like Elle, older women have many kinds of strength and power.  The older women in our midst are not only our mothers and grandmothers, community leaders and givers of the fruits of long life experience, but ourselves as we age.  Supporting them and working with them to ensure that they are safe, healthy, happy, fulfilled, and have what they need to meet their basic needs is key to a more just, peaceful, abundant, and respectful world for all women.

Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog,www.goddessinateapot.com. She has also been an elder services professional for almost three decades in New York City, throughout Massachusetts, and in two local communities including projects focusing on the needs of older women.

Categories: Activism, Aging, Feminism

Tags: , , ,

14 replies

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and realize I need to get out there to visit with older women who are living alone or in senior homes. I have also been thinking about older women with respect to a related issue. I’ve been in a few feminist circles in which younger feminists, brilliant women in their late twenties to early forties, feel the need to “kill their mothers,” meaning take down the feminists who came before them. It horrifies me.

    To me, the essence of feminist scholarship is collaboration, acknowledgment, mutual respect, and lifting each other’s voices up. It is possible to talk about one’s relationship to older feminists’ work in terms of “moving from so and so’s work in a new direction” rather than “moving beyond” or, worse, calling their work, “no longer relevant.” It is possible to acknowledge all those who have come before you while you walk your own path. They do not seem to understand that the wisdom of our mothers is always relevant, never supplanted, but rather a rich source from which new thought grows. And that which continues to inspire thought and action! It reminds me, to be honest, of teenage girls slamming the door in their mothers’ faces and saying, “I’m not you!” Okay for teenagers. Not at all acceptable for us. And well, it does not just remind me of teenage girls. It also reminds me of patriarchal models of success.


    • Thank you for these insightful thoughts! I do agree that it is so important to honor and the work of feminists who have been working for so many decades and also those in our more distant history. Every community is stronger and richer when it celebrates its history, when younger people feel part of an ongoing story, and when we know that what we do will live on in the work of future generations. And you are so right about the parallels to patriarchy when older women are not respected, no matter by whom.


  2. Yes, thanks for writing this. I’m an older woman. Nearly all of my friends are at least five years younger than I am. Fortunately, I still have all my faculties (at least I think I do), but over the years I’ve known older women who have needed to be supported. A few of them were. Most of them were not. But we are not society’s discards!

    I wrote a novel about older women, Secret Lives. http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Lives-Barbara-Ardinger/dp/1466251786/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316117982&sr=1-7 It’s partly about what society does to women of all ages, partly about how the worship of the Goddess can help us all.


    • You have hit on something so important here about older women not being society’s discards. Both research and my own experience have shown that one of the most essential determinants of emotional, and therefore physical, health, and spiritual well being is the feeling that your life is meaningful and that you are a part of a larger community that respects you. When the feminist community as a whole honors older women, we all benefit.

      I look forward to reading your novel – it sounds wonderful!


  3. Carolyn, I sooo hear you. And in response to your question, What else can we do? we are looking for answers here in southern Oregon. A group is just now forming of older LBGT people with the goal of bringing services to this area specifically for them. Ideas have included education for medical facilities employees/volunteers in working with this demographic, providing lunches and/or a place to meet, and lots more. There are successful programs in Portland, New York and other areas now, and we are working to bring it here. These programs are often sponsored by AARP and other national concerns. Yes, the needs are immense. The older I get, the more I realize how big the present void is. But this is something we can fix.

    (And I’ll vote for “Queen”. “Crone” only validates the yucky image out there already.)


    • I’m so glad to hear about the group forming in southern Oregon. All the services you are talking about are so important. I would also encourage you to connect with the senior centers in your area since so many older people make them their “second homes.” They might be good for offering places to meet and have lunch, for example, and the more the staff, especially social workers, know about the challenges of being an older LGBT person, the more help they can be.


  4. Thanks, Caroline, for this necessary reminder of what U.S. patriarchal institutions DO to women. The statistics are especially shocking when we know that Congress is poised to make the financial state of older folks even worse than they have this year.


  5. How can anyone be surprised by the plight of older women? Look at our society! When even the churches view the elders as either”financial goal mines” or for those who struggle financially “INVISIBLE and NON_EXISTENT “,how can one expect that the economic culture would see US as having any worth? The problem is “lack of awareness” and “apathy”. This cycle must be broken for a society that is gradually growing older before our society as an aging one will live in the culture of our present day older woman/and man. The shame of this is that those who should lead the way for positive change, perpetuate it and in some cases,nurture it. I wish I had an answer, but unless this younger generation is raised to have a long-range view of life(which seems impossible) needed structural changes will not take place. For starters, let’s insure that the young learn their PAST.!


    • You are so right that so much of the problem is lack of awareness and apathy. So many people just don’t seem to make the connection that they will also be older one day and should support the societal changes, programs, and safety net supports that they would want for themselves when they get older. I would definitely say that one of the biggest parts of my jobs in elder services over the past 30 years has been raising awareness of the existence of elders and what their needs are. I still remember speaking to someone who lived in a town that was almost a third older people and she said “Well, there aren’t many seniors living here…” when they were all around her, she just didn’t see them.


  6. Two of my lesbian friends in their 60s face homelessness. Both were active and powerful feminists, both did a lot to help the cause of straight women. Both are living in poverty. I talked to a straight woman the other day who gave over $10,000 to support a male running for office. I really wonder about all this need of old lesbians, and what straight women do with their money — it tells me that perhaps lesbians should have never fought for straight women’s reproductive rights, and should have paid much more attention to lesbian survival and housing issues.


  7. I must say, on a positive note, that being an older lesbian is really a joy. I have far less trouble with men harassing me, I feel alive and intellectually powerful, and I love being in communities of women where no one wears make-up and looks real to me. Even some straight women have come into my life because their children are grown. I have no interest in dealing with children at all, and nothing in common with women consumed with taking care of men and children. So old women are great! Also, I have a take no prisoners attitude toward life. I am proud of my radical feminist work, proud of what lesbians have done in the world, proud that I never once sold my body to men, and proud that I never had kids, and focused on a strong intellectual self. Nothing made me give in to hetero-normative indoctrination, I reject completely and utterly male dominance, and model this for all women who come across my path.

    There is something satisfying in creating a world that suited me, for refusing to cooperate with patriarchy, for seeing the triumph of lesbians everywhere. And butch power is at last on the rise again!!! Old lesbians have vast advantages over hetero women who still seek energy and attention from men, whereas lesbians could care less about men, and most certainly don’t want them harassing us.


  8. This post really speaks to me. I have many amazing older women in my life. None of them are my family. As a new wife and mother I moved to the Midwest and I was overwhelmed with all of the changes I was going through. It was the women who I met in spirituality groups and quilting groups that saved my sanity, and my family. I have since sought out older women wherever my life has taken me. I need my crones. I wish young women realized what amazing resources older women are, and how much richer they would be if they honored them. Blessed be.


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