Old women know how to change the world

LorenSophia Loren, now past 80, wound up near the top of the list when 2,000 women were asked recently to select the 10 most beautiful women in the world. Also named in a 1999 British poll as the world’s most beautiful woman when she was a mere 65, Loren has been quoted as asserting, “Everything you see here I owe to spaghetti.”  

The line may be apocryphal, but it reminds us of the narrowness of our culture’s twin obsessions with thinness and youth. As more of us in the industrialized world live longer, aging is the new uncharted territory for women who refuse to see menopause as the end of their useful lives, and who refuse to slide gracefully into silence, inactivity and invisibility.

“Time and trouble,” wrote essayist and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, “will tame an advanced young woman. An advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.” One of my favorite old women — Susan B. Anthony — was born 195 years ago on Feb. 15. Another, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony’s lifelong colleague and a fellow architect of the American women’s rights movement, will have her 200th birthday marked this coming November. Together, well into old age, they were an earthly force to be reckoned with.

Anthony, the resolute and indefatigable organizer, traveled in all kinds of weather, to the largest cities and the most isolated farms, rallying support for women’s rights until just before her death in March 1906, a few weeks after her 86th birthday. Cady Stanton, her vision failing but her mind still rapier-sharp, continued writing and publishing almost until her death in 1902, just weeks before her 87th birthday.

Anthony wrote to her friend, after having visited her in June 1902: “It is fifty-one years since we first met and we have been busy through every one of them. … The older we grow, the more keenly we feel the humiliation of disenfranchisement. …We little dreamed … that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. … These strong, courageous, capable young women will take our place and complete our work. There is an army of them, where we were but a handful.”

Anthony was right. While they witnessed significant changes, neither lived long enough to see U.S. women wielding the most basic right of citizenship. The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women’s right to vote, was ratified in August 1920.

Anthony continued for tactical reasons to focus primarily on women’s suffrage. Cady Stanton theorized more broadly as the years passed. Never one to mince words, she did so even less as she aged. In 1895, her 80th year, she published the first part of her Woman’s Bible, perhaps her most radical work of all.

Not only “unstoppable by any earthly force,” Cady Stanton took on higher powers, as well, penning a scathing and witty treatise on the role of organized religion in suppressing women. Arguing that the Bible was not really the word of God, but that “these degrading ideas of woman emanated from the brain of man,” Cady Stanton took on in her final years what she saw as the fundamental source of women’s inferior social and legal status: “From the inauguration of the movement for women’s emancipation,” she wrote, “the Bible has been used to hold her in her ‘divinely ordained sphere,’” and she insisted that the Bible be read and examined “like any other book, to be judged on its merits.”

Those conservative supporters of suffrage for whom the vote was a single, narrow issue were aghast. Despite Anthony’s defense of her old friend, Cady Stanton was disavowed by many of those who now carried on the movement she had helped to build. While hurt and angry, she was unrepentant — untameable — believing that the Woman’s Bible was the logical culmination of her life’s work.

Anthony and Cady Stanton envisioned an army of “strong, courageous, capable young women” to continue their work. And Gloria Steinem, surely one of their successors, has noted, “One day, an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the earth.” The good news is that we can be all of those women, simply becoming — like Sophia Loren — more of who we are.

© Rhea Hirshman 2015

(To read this column on the New Haven Register website, click here.)

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