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Next Chapter, Women's History Month

Women over 50 Making a Difference

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A while ago I had the delightful experience of hearing Dr. Gene Cohen, gerontologist, psychologist, and author, speak about the developmental stages of later adult life, as he sees them. Rather than thinking of life after 50--until death--as a single phase as others have proposed, he views the years between one’s 40s and 80s+ as encompassing several stages: Midlife Re-Evaluation; Liberation; Summing-Up; and Encore. 

His conclusion: not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes the old dogs can learn the tricks better than the young dogs. 

This being Women's History Month, I decided to do some digging and find women who accomplished great things after age 50.

As a former Girl Scout, I happily start out the post with Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Born in 1860 to a wealthy Savannah, Georgia family, she lived a life of privilege, meeting her husband while on a trip to England. When he died after 19 years of marriage, the 46-year-old Low started traveling the world to find some direction in her life. She met Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and became determined to bring a similar organization for girls to the U.S.

 In 1912, the first Girl Scout troop was founded in Savannah—and Ms. Low’s niece Daisy was the first registered Girl Scout. Now there are 3.7 million.

I must say I felt a little envious that the early Girl Scout handbook included sections on topics such as, “How to secure a burglar with six inches of cord” and “How to kill and dress poultry.” I earned quite a few badges in my Girl Scout days, but didn’t learn about these practical subjects in my troop on Long Island.

And, though the Girl Scouts are so much more than cookies, that is probably what you’re thinking of—so check out the website for the handy Find Cookies button.

You’ll find several biographies of Juliette Gordon Low, as well as chapters by or about her, in books in The New York Public Library. I also recommend the slim illustrated volume, 100 American Women who Shaped American History. Besides single-page biographies of fascinating females arranged by birth date, ranging from Anne Hutchinson (b. 1591) to Maya Lin (b. 1959), there’s a challenging quiz at the end to test your knowledge. Also, for the opera lovers—have you heard of the 2-act opera by Julia Smith, Daisy, based on Juliette Gordon Low’s life? We have the piano-vocal score if you’re interested.

You may know Maggie Kuhn as the founder of the Gray Panthers. True, but there’s always the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. Born in Buffalo in 1905, she was of the time and social class that she later wore large hats with decorative birds (note: these are entire birds, formerly live). But activism was in her bones. Caring for a troubled younger brother, who later developed full-blown mental illness, and early exposure to the difficult lives of black cotton pickers while living in Memphis were among the many factors that led to a lifelong concern with protecting the rights of those with less opportunities.

Until age 65, her abundant passion and energy were poured into the Y.W.C.A., where she worked from her mid-20s to mid-40s, and the Presbyterian Church, her employer till she was forced to retire upon turning 65. This came as a shock, so she called a meeting of five friends in similar situations to discuss ideas, social issues, and how retirees can be actively involved. Opposition to the Vietnam War galvanized the group, which soon grew geometrically and forged connections with the young war protesters, becoming known as the Gray Panthers in the early 1970s. She served as key spokesperson for the group until her death in 1995. Her concern for quality of life at all ages also led her to help found the National Shared Housing Resource Center to give older people another alternative to living alone, with their children, or in a nursing home.

Learn more about Maggie Kuhn by reading her provocative autobiography, No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn, written with Christina Long and Laura Quinn.

For a look at quite a different person, pick up the biography by Fran Grace, Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life. Ms. Nation changed the spelling of her first name and retained her second husband’s surname after they were divorced, to indicate what she believed to be her God-given role: to “carry a nation.” My previous knowledge of Carry Nation was shallow—I just knew she destroyed many saloons with a hatchet in the cause of temperance. But when I learned that she started her "hatchetation" at age 54, I examined this rather scholarly, yet fascinating biography.

Carry Amelia Moore was born in 1846 in Kentucky, and later lived in Missouri, Texas, Kansas, and the Oklahoma Territory. Hand-in-hand with industrial growth and expansion, saloons and other liquor-serving establishments were springing up everywhere in the Midwest during her childhood. Carry’s first husband died of alcoholism shortly after they were married and she observed the sad plight of many as a result of alcohol abuse, including her own daughter, who had an alcoholic, abusive husband. Carry had early departed from the orthodox Christianity of her youth and adopted an eclectic, emotional and “spirit-filled” system of religious belief and practice. Tireless, fearless, and compassionate, she started preaching and soon became involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

But the turning point came in 1900 when Carry, now Mrs. Nation, destroyed three saloons in Kiowa, Kansas with unattended billiard balls and cue sticks, and brickbats she had brought from home. After the outcry died down, she made her way to Wichita for a spectacular smashing of a hotel bar. Upon her release from jail for this act, she soon picked up the hatchet that became her trademark for the rest of her energetic endeavors. Although her detractors were many and vociferous, her army of followers and co-smashers was at least as ardent.

All in all, I found Carry Nation a far more likable woman than I had thought I would. No-one can deny her strong principles and courage, but she also showed great empathy and capacity for self-sacrifice. The women of Hatchet Hall, a type of settlement house she established primarily for battered women, said that whenever Mrs. Nation was in the house it was full of fun, good conversation, and bountiful, tasty food, often prepared by Carry herself.

These are just a few of the fascinating women I’ve enjoyed reading about lately. Though Women’s History Month is drawing to a close, I urge you to read a few biographies of the women who have helped to make this world a better place.

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Women are just getting

Women are just getting started at 50!

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