Feminism, Aging and Discovering Senior Space

I am a 70’s feminist. I retired at 63 from my time as a professor of english and women’s studies from the University of Colorado, and I’m now 76. The years between then and now were a period that I have come to call “senior space”—the time between middle and old age. Within them, my feminism evolved even further.

Molly Adams

I went to graduate school at Berkeley in the sixties as a married woman with one, then two, children. Later, in the eighties, I became a full professor at a university that did not like, hire or promote women—especially married women, and especially mothers. My feminism, flowering in the early seventies, gave me a politics, a philosophy and a community. It supported my attempt to have a profession in the first place, for in the sixties it was against the rules for middle-class mothers to work professionally. It helped me not to give up after five years of rejection when, after obtaining my prestigious PhD, I sought work unsuccessfully as an assistant professor. It helped me to survive in, and challenge, the university where I finally did work.

This is a long story, and I will not tell it in detail here, although I do so in the book that I have just published: Discovering Senior SpaceBut a few examples will suffice.

In the sixties, for me, there was no feminism. There was no support—except from my generous husband—for me to go to graduate school as a young mother with a child. At Berkeley, professors told women graduate students outright that they should stop at their Masters and teach high school. We were not encouraged to seek out doctorate programs, where we would “only get married and drop out anyway.”

Only later, in 1971, did Ms. magazine’s famous “aha” moment come to me and save my self-esteem during that long period—after I achieved the PhD anyway, and no one would hire me for a tenure track position.

When the University of Colorado gave me a position as an assistant professor in 1974, I discovered, to my surprise and delight, that women were just beginning to try to form a women’s studies program and to think about courses about women. My own research and writing focused on women writers. I considered myself an “academic feminist.” I served on the first board of the new program, and created and taught the first courses on women writers in my department. (In the English department, only one or two women writers were ever included in the curriculum.) Later, I served on newly created committees for salary equity and affirmative action. I fought for women on the Dean’s Committee, and later on the Chancellor’ Committee for Promotion and Tenure, and in less formal ways as well. 

All of this was neither easy nor simple, but there was a small but growing community of women to support such work on campus. Earlier, when I was an Instructor at Bucknell, I had I joined a consciousness-raising group where women met to share our lives and difficulties. Most of our members were also instructors with PhDs. These groups were the backbone of the women’s movement throughout the country, and my group’s great achievement was to write a document on the status of women at Bucknell that we sent to every administrator and published in the school newspaper. I myself addressed the English department’s deplorable treatment of instructors—an issue still very relevant today.

Did it help? I think so. 

This is a condensed version of over 40 years, but it brings me the present—to retirement, and to aging. I had looked forward to this time. In the eighties, my life at CU had grown more and more difficult and unpleasant. My students did not “like” feminists, and my rank as full professor—and the only woman in my department and one of few in my university or indeed in the profession at large to reach it—did not bring the change in status that I had anticipated. I was still a woman. Even at the highest rank, I still did not belong.

I kept calling my early retirement “graduation.” I wanted to use the other gifts that I possess, including what I referred to as writing for the “real world.” As a creative writing major in college, I had been writing poetry, personal essays, even a novel, throughout my academic years—but I never included this work in my vitae, for it didn’t count at the university. I certainly had no idea of the great changes that had occurred in the world of trade publishing, but I did think that I would learn how to do it. I had retired early and ended my academic career for this new start.

Media, books and the world at-large told me in my mid-sixties that I hadn’t really changed at all, that “sixty was the new forty.” I believed them, and I was shocked by my growing sense of confusion and disorientation. Changes in my body and a diagnosis of severe arthritis in my back, hip, neck, knee and ankle didn’t help. More and more, I felt myself on shaky ground, and grew uncertain of my identity.

I needed to understand this new place where I now was living, and I found little out there in the form of guidance. Seniors in the pages of Arthritis Today were all depicted walking briskly, with their sweater thrown over their shoulders and happy smiles on their faces. What was the matter with me? I wasn’t always happy, and I couldn’t always manage that walk. So I wrote about it.

I wrote short pieces about my daily life and about my past. Slowly this writing coalesced into a manuscript, now my recently published book, that explores aging. Looking at the present took me to the past. Writing from my present perspective, I tell of my life as daughter, mother, grandmother, lover, teacher, writer, feminist. Through stories and reflection, I explore the threads of my earlier identity to see how they are woven together and how they might help to define who I am today: an aging woman.

This writing itself was an act of discovery. It showed me my selfhood, rolling along through time, adding on more experience so that things got more complex, and sometimes more perplexing, but staying at heart much the same. I continue to imagine a place for myself where I feel more settled, and thus stronger, more effective. Today, since I’ve been here for a while, and I haven’t fallen off the edge, I can see how the challenges that I experience are as much a part of this time as the vertigo.

Why is this book a feminist act? It is certainly not what I did in academia on committees or in classes or even what I wrote before, when as a feminist literary critic I brought a feminist perspective and feminist theory to my subject, and my scholarship was a part of my political activity.

But the book, using my life as example, attempts to understand a time, a condition, a situation, a state of being barely understood or even truly contemplated in our culture—no matter that more and more people are joining its ranks. Younger people don’t need and don’t want to know about it, and society at large pays lip service only to it. Let’s find some housing for those seniors. Let’s make some disabled parking places. Let’s provide lectures from their “superiors” and maybe offer outings in buses to keep them busy.

Many seniors are still very independent, working as they did before. (Hooray for Ruth Bader Ginsburg!) But whether they continue to hold jobs or, on the other extreme, become “burdens” to their families, what do they feel about who they have become?  What is it like to be older? Who really cares? Most seniors don’t tell—except maybe to their therapists, if they’ve got one. It’s more socially acceptable to dissemble. It’s easier for the world to believe that you haven’t changed.

Discovering Senior Space is an attempt (and there are others, for I’m not alone) to provide some answer these questions. To raise the issue that there are questions. My book is a drop in society’s bucket, just as my full professorship was, and still is, a drop in the university’s bucket.

I’m not “out there” anymore. I choose to be in here. But I am still working as a feminist, believing in my right as a woman to have a full life and not to be discriminated against, and not to feel guilt that my “issues” are embarrassing or my fault.

Working as a feminist, I wrote this book—hoping to help shed some light on today’s deeply ingrained ageism, and to offer information that is missing.

About

Suzanne Juhasz is the author of many books and essays, most recently Discovering Senior Space: A Memoir. She is a retired professor and the founding editor of The Emily Dickinson Journal, and in 1998, she received the Distinguished Senior Scholar Award from the American Association of University Women. Suzanne lives in Boulder, Colorado with her partner. She is a proud mother and grandmother.