by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
One Christmas a number of years ago, my son Dave and I were visiting my mother in Florida. At the time, David was a 19-year old university student, I was in my mid-40s, and Mother was in her late 70s. As we were driving to a drugstore to pick up Mom’s heart medicine and diabetic supplies, she started telling us how nice her pharmacist was. “And he has six children,” she informed us. Then, with a sense of amazement, she added, “And mind you, he’s no older than we are!”
For an instant, there was total silence as we all realized what had just happened. Mother had simply forgotten how old she was — or how old we were. It was as though we were just a group of friends in a car together, all experiencing the same moment in time. And in that sense, we were all the same age! Dave called out, “Way to go, Grandma!” And we all laughed.
I think about that incident when I think of the wide range of ages within EEWC’s membership and leadership. Alena Amato Ruggerio, still in her 20s, served ably as EEWC’s coordinator throughout 2003. Jeanne Hanson, EEWC’s central office manager, recently celebrated her 75th birthday. (See Jeanne’s article in this issue of EEWC Update.) We have older members who have been with us for a long time and are now in their 80s. And we have young members, such as Sarah Oesch who have just come onboard. (See Sarah’s review essay also in this issue of EEWC Update.) In between, we have members all along the age spectrum.
Over the past year, three of us have been engaged in a weekly Bible study through a phone plan that provides such 3-way calls at no extra charge. One of us is on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, and one in the Midwest. One was born in 1935, another in 1955, and the third in 1975. But in our weekly phone get-togethers, we don’t even think about these 20-year age spreads. We simply relate as sisters in Christ, united by our feminism, our concerns for social justice, our desire to learn more about the Bible, and our yearning to draw closer to God.
Chronological age doesn’t make much difference in EEWC. Older members learn from the fresh perspectives of the younger members, and younger members learn from the life experiences of older members, many of whom also know a great deal about EEWC’s history.
The key is contemporaneity. We’re all living at this particular moment in time with all its challenges and all its opportunities. And like my son, mother, and me in that car long ago, all of us in EEWC are on the same journey together, enjoying one another’s company along the way.
An attitude of contemporaneity is important for at least two reasons. One is to counter the notion that “third wave” and “second wave” feminists must be at odds — that a feminist “generation gap” is inevitable and often bitterly divisive. Alena Amato Ruggerio discussed this in her article “God’s Grrrl: Biblical Feminism and the Secular Third Wave” in the Winter 2001-2002 EEWC Update.
But a second reason for practicing contemporaneity is that it’s a statement of resistance against the ageism in our society. (See Marie Shear’s excellent review of Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging by Margaret Cruikshank in the January, 2004 issue of the Women’s Review of Books.)
In the words of a Holly Near song, “We are young and old together, and we are singing for our lives.” Every one of us matters in EEWC. Such an attitude can go a long way toward removing the fear of growing older.
This point was driven home forcefully to many of us this past October when we read that the feminist author Carolyn Heilbrun, sometimes called the mother of academic feminism, had committed suicide at age 77. In her book, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, though generally a positive view of her life as an older person, Heilbrun nevertheless stated her belief that we should choose the time of our deaths rather than waiting for the mental and physical decline that she associated with aging and then being too feeble to end it all. She shocked her readers by revealing that she had originally planned to set a date to commit suicide upon reaching age 70 but had changed her mind as she looked back on her 60s and was surprised to have found that decade quite pleasurable.
When apparently without warning, she took her life at age 77 — even though still healthy, vigorous, and highly esteemed for her work — most of her admirers were shocked, grieved, even angered, and wondered how they might have prevented her death. Some, on the other hand, considered it an ultimate act of strength and will on Heilbrun’s part, a carrying out of the resolve she had earlier written about. But in an article in the December 28, 2003 issue of The New York Times, author Katha Pollitt raises an important question by asking, “Is it selfish for me to have wanted Heilbrun to set an example of how to age — as a writer, a woman, a feminist?”
We live in an age that worships youth, and women in particular need positive examples of how to age. As feminists, and especially as Christian feminists, we have already learned to question and challenge the prevailing values of our society, including notions of beauty as promoted by the advertisement and entertainment industries and the obsession with youth that stereotypes and devalues older people.
EEWC, with its mix of young and old and every age in between, and its sense of contemporaneity — we’re all in this together at the same time and place in history and each of us has something to contribute — provides countless opportunities for demonstrating what it means to be a feminist and Christian at any age.
The oldest speaker we ever had was at the 1980 EEWC conference in Saratoga Springs, NY when Rev. Victoria Booth Demarest, granddaughter of the founders of the Salvation Army, gave a rousing and powerful sermon at the age of 91. Years before, when she was 74, Victoria had written a poem entitled, “I Am Thy Prophet Still,” in which she had asked God for more opportunities to serve, saying that once it was gender that tried to silence her preaching but now it was age. “The years, the years — and people say, ‘Too old, you are too old.'” Her poem went on to say she was better equipped for ministry than ever, that she had so much to offer at this time of life when her soul had “matured by knowledge and by pain.” (To her dying day, Victoria never forgot EEWC’s invitation to speak, and she bequeathed her Bible to our organization.) At that same conference, 64-year-old Dr. Susan B. Anthony II, grandniece of the suffragist, provided us with another link to history. EEWC has always sought to honor those who have gone before us and to hold up positive examples of aging.
Perhaps Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide struck me particularly because it occurred as I realized I was now at the age my dad had been when he died of a sudden heart attack years before. That age seemed so “old” and far off then! Shortly before his death, he had told me he wished he were younger because there was so much more he wanted to do. I don’t wish I were younger, but I echo his feeling of wanting to do so much more. As Jeanne Hanson points out in her article, this yearning to keep doing worthwhile work, learning, and looking forward to the future seem to be key factors in a positive experience of aging. EEWC provides companions and role models along the way.
* Definition from the Hyperdictionary, a useful free online resource
© 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC-Update, Volume 27, Number 3, Fall (October-December) 2003.