Some American Women Over Fifty Years of Age, October 1914

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Perhaps one of the most remarkable changes in the lives of women in this country, so full of astounding revolutions, has been the postponement of old age. Chiefly because they had nothing else to do, our grandmothers after their children had been reared and safely launched into homes of their own, expected to give their remaining years to a general over sight of the households of their sons and daughters, and to the upbringing of their grandchildren, conforming both as nearly as possible to their own excellent, although somewhat inflexible standards.

It is [useless] to deny that this admirable and highly domestic occupation occasionally led to difficulties. A vigorous woman accustomed to the cares of a large household, in which her word was law, when deprived of an absorbing occupation, could not all at once reduce herself to a negligible quantity, and the traditional "mother-in-law" was quite as much the victim of circumstances as were the cherished family upon whom her unused energies were expended.

The easy assumption of old age under these circumstances, is readily understood for when the individual valued herself largely as a repository of wisdom and tradition, it was quite in character to don a cap and to sit knitting innumerable pairs of stockings where she might easily be consulted. Almost any family album will reveal these sweet-faced women, a fold of linen over their placid breasts, a cap upon their smooth hair, whom we are happy to claim as our grandmothers, and yet if we knew their exact ages, in almost every instance we would be surprised to discover how young they were, many of them scarcely fifty years old. They assumed that life was over for them at the very time their husbands were still in the midst of business and professional activities, often receiving their highest honors and rendering their most distinguished public service after they were fifty years old. [page 2]

We regret the passing of these charming women and we certainly deplore those women of seventy years occasionally seen rushing from one social function to another, attired in modish gowns, with picture hats surmounting their elaborately coiffed heads. Although so dissimilar, it is nevertheless true that both types, of women are without adequate activity. The former dissembled a placidity which certainly they could not have felt in every instance; the latter continue a round of vapid occupations which they fear to drop lest they be faced by an insupportable leisure, both are obviously without absorbing interests and occupations.

Happily, there is another type of woman between the age of fifty and seventy years of whom every section of America has its shining examples; first discovered perhaps, through church [sewing] circles and missionary societies, although the widely spread W.T.C.U. organizations had much to do with enabling her to find herself. The Woman's Club movement has also been a great factor in developing the powers of women who are over fifty years old. Many of them learned to write papers, to address audiences, to preside over meetings, to organize committees for the first time after they were fifty years old <had passed that age>. As young girls they had no such opportunity for the Woman's Club movement had not yet been developed nor were grown-up daughters encouraged to have interests outside the home; as young matrons, they had been much absorbed in the care of their households and their children and many of them did not feel this lack of wider activity until the last child had left home.

The Women's Clubs also gave to thousands of women their first sense of responsibility in regard to public education and civic reform. It was largely through the efforts of these older Club women that kindergartens, Manual training and Domestic Science were introduced into the public school system of America in many cities. These women were also the pioneers in agitating for public play grounds and vacation schools, they spent wearisome hours talking with indifferent public officials, securing money from skeptical business men, creating public sentiment and in many cases, actually secured and equipped a [page 3] play ground or a schoolhouse for whose direction and support they were themselves responsible.

These same elderly women who in their youth, had been sheltered from any knowledge of crime and the ways of criminals, and who would have considered it most unladylike to even refer to a disreputable woman, were often responsible for securing matrons in the police station, teachers in the jail, the establishment of Juvenile Courts, and the abolition of vice districts. These women who years ago had been most superficially taught to play on the [piano], to make wax flowers and to copy water colors, are now in no small measure responsible for municipal concerts, for Craft and Trade schools and for exhibitions for the encouragement of local artists. In their girlhood, they knew no exercise more violent than playing croquet, no dietary more rigid than preserves and sponge cake for supper, no notion but that all diseases were heaven-sent and that a certain number of children must inevitably die in infancy, but they are now agitating for public gymnasiums and municipal baths, for pure food laws and a clean milk supply, they are quite tiger-like in insisting that all children shall be protected from contagious diseases through school nursing and medical inspection, and they have come to consider a high death-rate among infants as a disgrace and a reproach to the community.

Various types of women over fifty years old who are leading interesting, socially useful and self-developing lives, are to be found in all parts of America. It is not necessary to mention such women as Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, the able head of the great Public School System of the city of Chicago, nor scores of other public school teachers who have grown gray in the public service nor yet the presidents and faculties of the large colleges for women, the successful women in medicine, those engaged in charitable and penal institutions, because they are professional women who prepared for their chosen activity quite as a man trains himself for his career. Most of these women have been obliged to give their undivided time and energy to their work, although some of them have fortunately combined professional and domestic life as men have, long been able to do. [page 4]

Another group of brilliant American women who are more than fifty years old are able writers and speakers. An English critic has lately placed <Mrs.> Wharton as the leading novelist of America and Mrs. Deland as the writer of the best short story, and this is said at a moment when America is teeming with novels and novelettes. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association is one of the most popular speakers in the country, not only because she is eloquent and witty but because she presents her theme with the enthusiasm of a great advocate. There are dozens of other women in America who speak for suffrage and other great causes before popular audiences, Legislative hearings and Congressional Committees. Many of them give all their energy to these movements but a very much larger number find time to serve these causes in the midst of other pressing activities.

Because the fate of the unfortunate, the suffering, the criminal are daily forced upon woman's attention in painful and intimate ways, it is but natural that she should desire to modify the unsatisfactory social conditions which are responsible for so much wrong doing and wretchedness and that many women have quite unconsciously enlarged their activities receiving the inevitable reward of increasing interests and friendships.

One such woman of sixty whom I know is most widely [useful] in many church activities, not only in the local circles of her denomination, but as the President of a State organization. Her husband died several years ago, her children are both married and living in two distant cities. It would be hard to imagine a more desolate life than hers might be did she not have an outlet, not only for her splendid energy but also for her social gifts and her affection.

The women in her Mother's meetings are not merely the units of an organization but her warm friends whom she is able to help through her sympathy and understanding of life. When she addresses a large audience in a remote part of the State and urges the Churchwomen there to express their religious [page 5] zeal and devotion through the channels of civic righteousness and well-organized philanthropic effort, her own sweetness and genuine kindliness appeals to all that is best and most maternal in them.

Her small but charming house does not give an impression of emptiness but as if it were the center of beneficent activity and a place where a woman dwelt not alone but surrounded by the affection of countless friends. It would be absurd to say that if she had remained "quietly at home" exchanging social amenities with her neighbors that her life would have been so filled with satisfactory interests. She is reaping the results of [intelligent] effort and well directed labor extended over a number of years, during which time there of course, many periods of futile disappointments and baffling difficulties.

To illustrate again, is to instance a woman over fifty years old who is the executive head of a national organization which has for years urged and secured better conditions for working women and children, both through [legislation] and voluntary effort. Her interest in child labor began when her own children were still so small that they needed her constant attention although the training received in an American college and a European University enabled her to do the research and writing which were the foundations of her splendid preparation for the work she has since so brilliantly carried on.

Each year she is ready to modify the activities of her large organization in response to changing needs, and although keen and decisive by temperament through the possession of an open mind, she avoids both the dogmatism and self-sufficiency which are too apt to characterize the successful administrator.

It would of course, be impossible for this woman to fill her place of wide usefulness if she had not begun her public activities long before she was fifty years old and yet she was over thirty years old when she took a course in law and was admitted to the Bar; she later fulfilled the arduous duties of State Factory Inspector, organizing a staff in a State in which the [page 6] manufacturers opposed every possible regulation of industry. She has moved from one difficult piece of social organization to another until probably no one in the United States at the present moment is more conversant with the conditions surrounding working women and children in every part of the country, of the laws which have been enacted on their behalf and of the efficiency of their enforcement. She herself has long been a potent factor in the slow and steady advance which is being made in the matter of industrial protection.

No one would imagine seeing her in the Summer time at her simple farm house on the New England coast, with her children and grandchildren about her, that she was less womanly than those other mothers and grandmothers who never give a thought to the one million seven hundred and fifty two thousand American children wasting their young lives in shops and factories, nor to the six <million> young girls, many of whom are working long hours, under insanitary conditions and for inadequate wages. The purely domestic woman concerned only for the children and young people in their own families, are according to any genuine definition, much less womanly than she who, as life advances, has been able to widen her interests and affections until they include all of the unprotected children and young girls of the nation.

The third illustration differs from the preceding in that the woman over fifty years of age has brought into her public service the resources of large wealth, as well as the matured powers of an energetic nature and unusual capacity. Through her girlhood, in various ways, she was active in the then-existing charities and church activities, a small Bible class in Sunday-School, grew under her tutelage, into a group of one hundred young men with Club rooms of their own, supplied through her generosity.

During the years when her children were small she gave her undivided attention to them and to her social obligations, although always holding important positions on hospital boards and similar fashionable charities. As her children grew older and were more and more absorbed in school, she found her time free for public effort; with her mind and judgment tempered through [page 7] the experience which life brings, she was able not only to be of the greatest possible assistance to existing agencies but also to organize and initiate new ones.

To illustrate only from one line of her activity; she was for seven years President of the Juvenile Court Committee of Chicago whose function it was to select and pay the Probation Officers connected with the Juvenile Court, to provide a Detention Home for the children awaiting trial, and in every possible way to develop a special Court for children long before the Tax-payers either understood its significance or were willing to support it. When the necessary legislation was finally secured and the Committees activities were absorbed by public officials, she felt that their knowledge of wayward children should be utilized to minimize the conditions which were so clearly responsible for Juvenile delinquency. The Juvenile Protection Association which was then organized has been in operation for seven years and has since been instituted in many other cities. The woman who has continuously been its President has of necessity, been brought in contact with the most bewildering problems of city life, in her effort to protect boys and girls from overwhelming temptation, she has been a factor in securing the censorship and supervision of the moving picture shows; She has protested against the sale of liquor in dance-halls before organizations of saloon keepers and of brewers, as well as before other public bodies and she has minimized their total lack of supervision through the appointment of women police and other safe-guards. She has been influential in securing the specialization and socialization of the Chicago Municipal Courts, the Court of Domestic Relations, the [Morals] Court, and lastly of all, the Boy's Court.

She has become an extremely able speaker and continually presents through addresses and publications, the needs of the boys in the jails, the lack of industrial opportunity for colored young people, the temptations of girls employed in department stores, hotels and restaurants, the dangers to [page 8] young girls on excursion boats and in amusement parks, the disastrous effects of street trading for boys and girls and many other similar subjects.

She has realized the necessity for better legislation and adequate law enforcement in many directions, from birth registration which shall provide at least a minimum of protection to the more than one thousand illegitimate children who are annually lost in the city of Chicago, to the most, advanced industrial legislation for vocational training and the minimum wage.

As a large stockholder in industrial corporations, she has been able more than once, to improve conditions for employees, protecting them from industrial diseases and night work.

This mass of large and varied interests, touching life at many points, has been the result of hard work and sustained effort through many hours of every day. Her husband up to the time of his death three years ago, was greatly interested in all her undertakings and the beautiful Country Club given in his memory is enjoyed by hundreds of young people every Summer who would otherwise without a visit to the country. It would have been a great wrong, not only to her own family, now all married and settled near her, but to hundreds of other families in the community, had not this woman utilized her unusual abilities for the public welfare.

That weariness and dullness which adheres both in domestic and social affairs when they are carried on by men alone, will no longer be a necessary attribute of public life, when gracious and gray-haired women become a part of it and when new social movements in which men as well as women are concerned naturally utilize woman's experience and ability.

Do we not see the ever widening channels are gradually being provided through which woman's increasing moral energy may flow and may we not predict that in the end public affairs will be amazingly re-vivified from those new fountain heads fed in the upper reaches of woman's matured capacity? [page 9]

used as illustrations

Women over Fifty

Mrs [Frederick] Greeley

Florence Kelley

L. dk. B.