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On Women Turning 60:
Embracing the Age of Fulfillment

Interviews and Photography
by Cathleen Rountree

Foreword by Carolyn Heilbrun

Elayne Jones
Elayne Jones

Challenges keep life going. If you don’t have a challenge, I think you die. I need challenges, I love challenges. Any time somebody says something is difficult or impossible, that’s what I like. People tried to tell me my hip replacement surgery would be easy. I didn’t want to hear that; I wanted something to fight . . . If you don’t have challenges, you never learn to develop your inner strength.
--- Elayne Jones

It is true that as they age people get more fixed in their ways of being. It’s hard not to. Again, I think it takes a lot of energy to keep your mind open on any subject . . . . I can feel my mind creaking sometimes where it used to swing free. And to hold the door open can be a real tough job . . . . Having watched my father and mother continue to use their minds right up to the end, I feel very strongly that I want to be that way --- to stay open and keep learning.
--- Ursula K. Le Guin

At this age, I love being a single woman. When I divorced some years ago, after thirty years of marriage, i looked on it as a failure because I had all the old tapes in my head. I still mourn the loss of that institution in my own life, but it’s more out of romanticism about the notion of marriage that it is about reality. I enjoy being single.
--- Ann Richards

Filling up and spilling over . . . . That’s what I feel is happening for me in my sixties. For the first time I feel my age, I feel appropriate. I don’t think that has to do with being sixty or with aging so much as accepting where I am, and that feels full. Full and present, and what could feel better?
--- Terry Sendgraff

Vijali Hamilton
Vijali Hamilton

Sometimes, when I walk by a mirror and catch my image, I see an older woman looking back. For a moment, I don’t realize it is actually me. Inside, I always feel as though I am just beginning life. I’m excited about what I’m doing now . . . .
--- Vijali Hamilton

Words of Praise
from Deena Metzger

This is Cathleen Rountree’s most surprising and important book yet. It was a confirmation but not a surprise to learn that women experience the 40s and 50s as remarkable times. But it overturns all assumptions and expectations to discover that the sixties are exceptional times for women, cornucopia’s overflowing. Having just turned 60, I was thinking I was uniquely blessed to be experiencing enhanced creativity, confidence, effectiveness in the world; I did not know that women can expect this.

Informed by the evidence of this book, women will now enter their 60s with enthusiasm and expectation. Lives well-lived coming to fruition energetically, intellectually, creatively, spiritually, even erotically. What incredible women are interviewed here. How eloquent they are, how powerfully wise. We knew that once allowed voice and participation, women would contribute to and shape culture in profound ways. But I don’t think any of us were prepared for the awesome presence and contributions of women in their 60s. And for the necessity to assume that the 70s and 80s can joyfully astonish us as well.

Thank you, Cathleen, for having the audacity to imagine this, the sensitivity to perceive it and the skillful means to demonstrate its truth. And thank you, Cathleen, for transforming fearsome aging into a beloved and most welcome ally.
Deena Metzger
"Tree, Essays and Pieces", North Atlantic Books
"Writing for Your Life", Harper San Francisco

Reviews for “On Women Turning 60”

From “Kirkus Reviews,” August 1, 1997

A delightful series of interviews with accomplished women in their 60s that celebrates both the pain and the newfound freedom of growing older. Rountree (The Heart of Marriage, not reviewed, etc.) does not draw on the usual cast of feminist icons. The subjects constitute a cross-section of women, including politicians, performers, artists, writers, activists, and even one who styles herself a ``woman warrior.'' Some are relatively well-known--folk singer Mary Travers, author Ursula K. LeGuin, primatologist Jane Goodall; others are accomplished in other spheres--poet Nellie Wong, tympanist Elayne Jones, quilter Virginia Harris. There are 20 women in all, each one briefly introduced with a picture and a bio, followed by a first-person narrative reflecting on the meanings of turning 60. The bios verge on the gushing sometimes, but Rountree is a skilled interviewer and leads her subjects to reflect honestly and often eloquently about the decade that
Carolyn G. Heilbrun, who wrote the foreword to this volume, has called a ``gift.'' Their voices are distinctive--Matilda Cuomo speaks in the carefully framed sentences of a longtime political wife as she outlines her plans for a national mentoring program for young people, while Oh Shinnah Fast Wolf, the warrior, offers rich stories about her ``messy'' life. The women sometimes disagree about fundamentals. ``Grow'' older rather than ``get'' older is one piece of advice novelist Fay Weldon crankily contradicts: ``Stop trying to grow . . . [have] a little less passion for self-improvement or perfection.'' What they frequently have in common is a drive to stay healthy (many have no health insurance) and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about sex and romance. Inspiring, yes, and as full of vivid anecdotes as a gossipy letter from an old friend. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

From “Publisher’s Weekly,” August 25, 1997

Rountree (“On Women Turning 40” and “50”) continues her interesting series by interviewing 20 articulate and inspiring women aged 60 and over. While several of them have high profiles (Ann Richards, Jane Goodall, Mary Travers), others are lesser known. The author has focused on diversity, including women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, such as Elayne Jones, an African American tympanist for the San Francisco Opera, and Nellie Wong, a Chinese American poet. Rountree allows her subjects to reflect, in their own words, on how they are dealing with aging and the satisfactions they have experienced in love and work. British novelist Fay Weldon provides a lighthearted but thoughtful look at the pleasures of loving a younger man -- “There is no contradiction between being mature and romantic” -- and Argentinean dancer Luly Santangelo discusses her long career. Although the women interviewed lead very different lives, they have in common a strong desire to live fully. As actress Maureen Stapleton puts it, “I think you oughta hang in for as long as you can.” Copyright ©1997, Publisher’s Weekly. All rights reserved.

From “San Jose Mercury News”: Bay Area Books section, November 23, 1997

Life-changing voyages to India make cameo appearances in several of the portraits in On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment.” Sticking with the successful formula for “On Women Turning 40” and “On Women Turning 50,” Aptos writer and photographer Cathleen Rountree offers profiles of 20 women. Rountree interviews women who are interesting in their own right, not just because of their age. Remember Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary? She’s here, side-by-side with former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin, chimp researcher Jane Goodall, and eyebrow-pierced performance artist Rachel Rosenthal.

My friends can tell you I have a habit of saying I’m looking forward to being 60, and these women remind me why: Most are doing exactly what they want, past worrying what other people will think. Virginia R. Harris is an African American who attended segregated schools and found that, circa 1961, not even a master’s degree in chemistry would assure her a job. Interviewers told her she needed a doctorate; when she asked what they would want after she got one, one recruiter responded honestly, “Two.” She opted instead to work as a consultant, living in East Palo Alto for years. Recently, she moved to Albuquerque, unable to afford the Bay Area any longer and eager to free up time for her newfound talent: making art quilts on subjects such as lynchings and church burnings.

Although the book would make a fine gift for anyone’s mother or grandmother -- it’s carefully diverse, with at least one woman from every major ethnic group -- it’s probably we younger folk who can benefit most from the unique historical perspectives and life stories these women offer. Copyright ©1997, San Jose Mercury News. All rights reserved.

It is quite wrong to think of old age as a downward slope. On the contrary, one climbs higher and higher with advancing years, and that, too, with surprising strides. Brain-work comes as easily to the old as exertion to the child.
--George Sand,
George Sand: In Her Own Words, Ed., Joseph Barry

There is the notion that women in their sixties are what Americans call “over the hill.” Rather, I feel that I’m not even halfway up and I’m going to keep climbing strong.
--Riane Eisler

When I was approaching sixty, that round number 6 - 0 meant “over the hill,” “youth gone,” “out to pasture.” My fear was that I would have to think about decline and reordering my life, about changing my priorities and staying home, and I don’t want to do any of those things.
--Rose Styron

Table of Contents

Terry Sendgraff
Foreward by Carolyn Heilbrun

Introduction by Cathleen Rountree

1. Mary Travers ~ The Singing Activist

2. Jane Goodall ~ A Woman in the Wild

3. Elayne Jones ~ The Rhythm Lover

4. Ursula K. Le Guin ~ The Space Crone

5. Terry Sendgraff ~ The Soaring Woman

6. Luly Santangelo ~ The Dance of Life

7. Fay Weldon ~ New Love at Sixty

8. Marion Woodman ~ The Body’s Wisdom

9. Nellie Wong ~ A Radical Poet

10. Rachel Rosenthal ~ An Unconventional Woman

11. Maureen Stapleton ~ An Actress’s Life

12. Oh Shinnah Fast Wolf ~ The Woman Warrior

13. Matilda Cuomo ~ The Gift of Mentoring

14. Vijali Hamilton ~ The World Visionary

15. Riane Eisler ~ 20th Century Renaissance Woman

16. Virginia R. Harris ~ An American Quilter

17. June Canoles S.N.D. ~ The Nun’s Story

18. Rose Styron ~ A Poetic Passion for Justice

19. Nabeela George ~ An Inspiring Life

20. Ann Richards ~ The Personal as the Political

"...stay open and keep learning."
Ursula K. Le Guin

Anne Richards

Excerpt: On Women Turning 60:
Embracing the Age of Fulfillment


When I first started thinking about women in their sixties, I was surprised about how many of whom I thought Oh, she can’t be in her sixties. How vital and dynamic these women are! Like most individuals in Western culture, I, too, had fallen prey to the myth (as Riane Eisler, Rose Styron, and others articulate in this book) that for a woman in her sixties her “youth is gone,” that she is “over the hill” and needs to be put “out to pasture.” I was dismayed to discover that I myself held this stereotype about women in their sixties. On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment shatters the fallacy of “over the hill” once and for all. And, good riddance!

On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment is a collection of interviews with women from diverse cultural, geographic, economic, and professional circumstances, and assorted lifestyles. This book presents dedicated women between the ages of sixty and seventy who share passionate concerns about their lives and pioneering visions for the world. By developing their intrinsic inner authority, the following women have devised their own “initiations” into a productive later life or third age. On Women Turning 60 explores the effects on women’s lives of aging, meaningful work, relationship, feminism, creativity, and spirituality, in a deeply personal manner. It offers women in their later years a variety of role models to contemplate and hold as positive internal images. It gives the reader a feeling of pride and strength in her maturity and provides alternative ways of viewing herself and of moving through her remaining years.

Although I am “only” forty-eight (Einstein was right: Everything -- including age -- is relative), I have cloistered my own fears of aging. Undoubtedly, this apprehension has been the fundamental motivating factor for my ten-year-long study on the subject of women and aging. My previous books on the subject: On Women Turning 40: Coming into Our Fullness and On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Midlife Discoveries, along with my nation-wide workshops for women in midlife, have acted as an analgesic on my anxiety about aging. Perhaps the singular most affecting benefit I personally have received from my work is the opportunity to confront these demons of dread head-on and unmask them for what they are: a fiction. In so doing I then have the privilege of sharing my revelations with you, the readers of this book.

Who are women in their sixties? Women over sixty-five are the fastest-growing segment of the United States population. They are our mothers or grandmothers, our sisters, our aunts, our neighbors, teachers, and friends. They are ourselves, either now or later. This book offers insights into the sixty-something woman’s consciousness: her joys and sorrows, her aspirations and compromises, her liberties and responsibilities, her visions and restraints. It can help us to understand these women and eventually ourselves at their age. These women are role models and trail-blazers who are helping to free society from its handicap and constraints of ageism; from the epithet of “over the hill.” The women in this book are guides for how to “grow” older rather than to “get” old. They offer us the wisdom of their years and it behooves us to acknowledge them.

While writing On Women Turning 60, I came across a film that beautifully elucidated this myth of “over the hill.” Appropriately titled, Over the Hill, it starred Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis as a widow named Alma. It begins at her sixtieth birthday party in her new basement apartment in Bar Harbor, Maine. The apartment has recently been remodeled by Alma’s well-meaning son, Steven, in order to accommodate her. Alma has been coerced into selling the home in which she had lived with her husband and raised her two children because, now as a single woman, “the family” feels that it is too large for her to keep up on her own and that, as “an older woman,” she would be “much better off” living with them. Unfortunately, Alma (which means “bountiful or nourishing” in Latin and “soul” in Spanish) is not consulted about what she wants for herself. Rather, she is made to feel that her “youth is gone,” that she is “over the hill” and needs to be put “out to pasture.”

Alma looks bewildered and her submissive body language indicates that she has resigned herself to the future of invisibility that is allocated to all “old” women. She appears, at first, to accept her fate. But, as Steven hands her a birthday cake that, like a portentous fiery Medusa’s head, blazes with five dozen candles, Alma, without a word, walks calmly and purposefully upstairs and, opening the front door, heaves the cake out on its face into the snow as if she were exorcising a demon. She is, of course, the demon of compliance, of fearful acquiescence, the demon of self-doubt and defeat. The look on Alma’s face is one of triumph mixed with the glee of an eleven-year-old who has just disobeyed her parents for the first time and affirms to herself incredulously, “I did it!”

The palpable rage toward family, life circumstances, age, fate, and herself, that led to the action of this fictional character are genuine and recognizable to every woman who is accused of, or sees herself as being, “over the hill.”

In the next scene we are shown a 747 jetliner flying over the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and we learn that Alma has run away from “home.” In Sydney, she arrives unannounced and uninvited at the estate of her estranged daughter, Elizabeth, and son-in-law. The couple, caught up in their own lives, are quick to convey to Alma that she is not only unwelcome but, worse, an embarrassment to them.

Feeling as though she has nothing to lose, Alma buys a souped-up 1959 Chevy Bel Air from her granddaughter’s boyfriend and drives off “over the hill,” into the bush, and on her way to Melbourne where she plans to “loupe the loupe” by making a complete circuit around the Australian continent. “Travel broadens the behind,” she impishly tells her stunned daughter as she revs the throttle. This double entendre on the phrase “over the hill” brings a second, more constructive, and hopeful meaning into play. Rather than washed up, wasted, and of no use, we begin to associate “over the hill” with independence, adventure, determination, and new horizons, vistas and perspectives. As Alma, in her duckbill cap and black mirror wrap-around eye shades, heads into the Australian outback alone, we root for her, we’re proud of her, and we identify with her spirited demonstration of defiance. Ironically, Over the Hill was directed by George Miller, the man who helped Mel Gibson sweep to world-wide recognition in the macho films Mad Max and Road Warrior. In its way, Over the Hill is a feminist Road Warrior. It is about a sixty-year-old budding Amazon who meets her fears of the unknown full-face and assumes responsibility (probably for the first time, the film suggests) for her own life. We watch as an initially naive Alma is briefly terrorized by a band of desert hooligans, then rescued and pleasingly seduced by an eccentric retired dentist who refers to himself as “a middle class gypsy.” After a series of escapades suitable for an Amazon, Alma, at last, (in the words of Ursula Le Guin) “becomes pregnant with herself.” After a lifetime of taking care of others, Alma, the nourisher, learns how to nurture herself. Alma/soul enters the world of soulmaking. As a result of her experiences, she is rewarded with the self-confidence to live her own life and the courage to choose what that life will be. She refuses to accept anyone else’s prescription for her life. Alma discovers that, far from being “over the hill” in the negative sense, her life is filled with potential for growth, adventure, love, friendship, sex, and, above all, independence. She has recognized and embraced the age of fulfillment.

Because several women I interviewed for this book spoke to me about their fears of being considered by others as “over the hill” -- and their ultimate refusal to view themselves as such -- this film had a special resonance for me. The women I met, like the fictional character Alma, have struggled with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity in regard to their age. As a sixtieth birthday gift to herself, my friend, Susanne Short, embraced her fulfillment by embracing the world: She circumnavigated the globe in a nine-week journey. “I started thinking of all the things and places I wanted to do and visit and experience before I get too old,” she told me. Susanne visited Buddhist monasteries and temples, Islamic mosques, and Christian shrines in Russia and the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, Bali, and China. “It was like fulfilling a dream that I thought I might not ever get to do,” she said, smiling. Full with memories.

Not yet old, but no longer young, the sixties can be an almost awkward decade, for, as Carolyn Heilbrun perceptively told me, “It can be a time of feeling very alive without any particular external evidence of it.” According to Susanne Short, “The sixties are such an in-between time of life; it takes some adjusting to being in this interim. I don’t feel old -- I think of old as being seventy-five or eighty -- and young is certainly younger than I am. One starts to think about life in terms of time left and what to do with it.”

Unlike menopause in the fifties and cronehood in the seventies, there are no traditional designations for sixty, and, with the official age of retirement inching closer to seventy, there are few limits. In her latest book, Ms. Heilbrun exemplifies this decade in her title: The Last Gift of Time. I think she is accurate. The women I interviewed primarily looked forward to their sixties and, indeed, felt them to be a gift. Because it is a decade without definition, no one -- young or old -- seems to have any expectations of what people in their sixties are like or should be doing. As Sue Hubbell wrote in her New York Times Magazine article, “A Gift Decade,” “Our sixties are like a decade-long February 29, a ten-year leap second. I think we are getting away with something: an extra time before old age and after life’s middle.”

During the course of researching this book, I came to understand that women, in their sixties, such as Susanne, are older, yes, but not -- thank you very much -- old. Phasing out of midlife and often enjoying what Margaret Mead referred to as a post-menopausal zest, I found women in their sixties to be entering what the French call, the Third Age and what I call “the third third” of life. In fact, aided by a vigorous life of the mind, the creative powers of many women I met are only now beginning to peak. As sixty-four-year-old British novelist Fay Weldon optimistically told me in regard to her creativity: “There’s always more where that came from!” At sixty-three, former Texas governor, Ann Richards believes that she has “at least twenty good years left.” While, at sixty-five, author and futurist Riane Eisler counts on working another thirty years. “Over the hill”? Hardly.

After sixty, there is often an increased level of self-confidence, personal authority, a deepening trust of the inner process, and an ability to be present in, pay attention to, and appreciate the “now.” An older woman can have as much or more vitality, passion, and focus than a younger woman half her age. I have seen them. I know them. And, heaven forbid, there is still sex -- in variance to what Francine du Plessix Gray cagily regards as, “the quaint taboos that still shroud the association of carnality and old age” -- even if it is “only” “sex with one” as quilter Virginia Harris, who is single, calls it.

Is it true that memory diminishes with age as the current theory would have us believe and therefore fear? Not according to tympanist Elayne Jones, sixty-eight, who remembers literally hundreds of scores to operas and symphonies as well as (without hesitation, I might add) the names of people and places she knew and visited either yesterday or more than fifty years ago. A number of women did make reference to their “poor memories,” but I discovered that a recent study in Italy shows that the reason for the apparent decline of memory in the elderly may be loss of self-confidence (italics mine). Latest research indicates that while the human brain may lose some of its speed and capacity with age, this decrease is offset by other aspects of intelligence that are honed by practice, and function best in later life. Unsurprisingly, it was noted that our mental attitude influences the brain. An up-beat, cheerful outlook improves brain function at any age.

What are women in their sixties doing with their lives? The women I met are: teaching other women to “fly” on low-flying trapezes and to “walk tall” on stilts; rewriting school curriculums; working with rape victims in Bosnia; educating the world about chimpanzees and other wildlife; mentoring the young; raising funds for elders; performing in symphony orchestras; directing plays; writing poetry and novels; acting in films; singing in concerts; lobbying for rights in Washington, D. C.; traveling the globe on behalf of world peace; making quilts; analyzing handwriting; and, would you believe? learning to surf. Nothing seems impossible to these women.

Few women I met can imagine themselves retiring: “I expect to die, but I don’t plan to retire,” Margaret Mead once stated. “I’ll drop dead first!” was graphologist, sixty-seven year old, June Canoles’ adamant assertion. Both Ann Richards and Elayne Jones look forward in later life to buying sea-side properties on, respectively, the Gulf Coast, and in Barbados. Rose Styron, sixty-three, who is addicted to travel, expects to be hiking off into the sunset as long as her body can carry her. Primatologist, Jane Goodall, sixty-three, whose mother and father are ninety-four and ninety-six, dryly says, “Nobody dies in my family.” She, therefore, expects her hearty ancestry to transport her through at least another three decades. However, poet, Nellie Wong, sixty-three, who began working at sixteen, looks forward to retiring in two years when she can devote herself more to her writing and the political causes she fosters. She says she will also enjoy “going to the movies at a senior discount.”

Because the world of the Arts -- literature, cinema, theatre, dance, music, opera -- are alive for us with sociological relevance, we look to them as a mirror of the Zeitgeist and as paradigms for ourselves in our own lives. The Arts assist us in viewing ourselves as we are or as we wish to become. They provide a context in which we can observe what society is thinking about us and itself. In contemporary art forms we are seeing more constructive and enthusiastic role models of women in their sixties. In 1995, on Broadway, I saw a superb production starring not one but two sixty-something actresses, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins (who also adapted the play), in Vita and Virginia, the story of the intense love affair between the writer Virginia Woolf and the novelist Vita Sackville-West. In the film Unhook the Stars, Gena Rowlands, sixty-six, plays a lonely widow in her sixties who begins to partake in life and laughter once more through her friendship with a small neighborhood boy. In this movie she also dates a much younger man, a truck driver, played by Gerard Depardieu. Talk about fulfillment! In the 1994 film Summer House starring a radiant and vivacious Jeanne Moreau, Mademoiselle Moreau, then in her mid-sixties, portrayed a wise, but obviously still sexy older woman who, with a flare of true panache, helps save her niece from a fate worse than death: a loveless marriage. And from the author of the widely read early feminist novel The Women’s Room, comes the most recent novel from Marilyn French (a woman in her sixties) about an aging heroine, an adamantly erotic romance novelist, who finds herself, once again, ambushed by love. In My Summer with George, Ms. French challenges convention and pungently raises the possibility of a full romantic life for a woman in her sixties. Encore!

Unforeseen, but very gratifying, I found that vanity plays less of a role in the lives of women in their sixties than it does for women in their forties and fifties. Women in their sixties grasp that, as Betty Friedan wrote, “It takes so much effort to hold onto the illusion of youth, to keep the fear of age at bay.” It was a real relief to discover that most of these women no longer worry about how they look. They care about looking their best, but not to the exclusion of more pressing matters like writing novels or directing plays or working for world peace or gardening or quilting or stilt-walking, or spending time with grandchildren or friends, or just going out in nature for a walk. I wondered if this is because women now in their sixties are the last generation to be spared the compulsively addictive concern with how their bodies and faces age. (The next generation down and subsequent generations of baby boomers have come to be obsessed with their looks.) Or does this ease with the basic process of aging come naturally to us at a certain point in our daily routine when we more readily redirect our attentions into other areas? Of course some women become even more militant about their looks as they try to beat back the years. In this attempt they may have facelifts or dye their hair or painfully adhere to an insistent and merciless regime of diets and exercise.

Louise Erdrich calls these women, “Valiant Looks Warriors, hard-working, airbrushed grandmas, who refuse to go gently or at all.” I know what she means. A few weeks ago I saw a well-known actress, who is only fifty (funny how young fifty now seems, isn’t it?), on the Charlie Rose show. She looked as though it hurt to smile! True, she didn’t have any wrinkles, but what price beauty? I’ll take the late Italian actress -- the haggard, earthy, love-besotted -- Anna Magnani who said to her director Federico Fellini, “Don’t retouch my wrinkles, it took me so long to get them.” Germane to this is George Bernard Shaw’s statement comparing the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who apparently wore gobs of make-up, with another Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who wore relatively little: “I prefer the Italian because her wrinkles are the credentials of humanity.”

Still, cosmetic surgery or not (as each woman must decide for herself), there is the need for what one woman called “higher maintenance,” as she good-humoredly grumbled about having to take twenty minutes in front of a mirror each morning in her sixties as opposed to the five it had always taken her before when she was younger. Consistent with the wish to make less of a fuss with their physical presentation, there seems to be an undercurrent of desire to simplify: “Just keep it simple,” was a stipulation I heard from a number of women. And Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman at sixty-eight, is following that advice by cleaning out years worth of her files of notes, boxes of pictures, and closets of old clothes, “I’m getting life down to the essence,” she said with a wise smile.

That “essence” was expressed by others in the term soulmaking, which was epitomized by the aforementioned film Over the Hill. This concept is built into the Hindu view of human life in which, after a certain age, according to writer Ursula Le Guin, age sixty-eight, “When a woman gets older she drops most of her plates and concentrates on learning to be alone. She focuses on her spiritual powers.” Dancer Luly Santangelo, sixty, calls this the “distillation process” when a woman becomes “more economic with her energy.” By the time they reach their sixties, women know who they are, what is important to them, and how they wish to spend (or not spend) their time. There is what could be called a wise distribution of energy. In a recent telephone conversation with the writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison who is sixty, she humorously signed off from me by saying, “Well, I’ve got to get back to doing nothing.” Women in their sixties are gutsy, dauntless, and emboldened to be exactly who they are and to say exactly what they think and feel.

Unquestionably, I believe this growing concern with a spiritual life during the seventh decade is directly related to an increased cognizance of one’s mortality, a recognition of finitude. As Virginia Harris, sixty, explained, “We know that our destination is death.” The eventuality of death is very real to these women. But, rather than holding them hostage in a paralyzed state of fear, it seems to add an intensity to their lives. They become more committed, in the Buddhist sense, to living fully in the present moment and less concerned with either their past or future.

This heightened awareness seems to have less to do with an actual fear of death, than with the dread of an incapacitating illness, either physical, mental, or emotional. Matilda Cuomo spoke to me at length about her involvement with raising funds for breast cancer research after losing twenty-one friends to this disease that has reached epidemic proportions. Three of the women in this book have survived cancer. And Nabeela George, a woman who had lived with the crippling effects of polio since she was eleven months old, was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks prior to my interviewing her for this book. Three months later she was dead. I have chosen to include her as I feel that her inspiring story merits telling, but also because the sobering fact is: Women can and do die in their sixties. In a society that unrelentingly seeks to avoid the reality of death, we need inspiring forerunners who move through this passage with courage, heart, and tranquility, and who teach us how to die.

The seemingly eternally youthful Audrey Hepburn died at the age of sixty-four, Jackie Onassis, who appeared to be at her peak of happiness in terms of a satisfying career, a meaningful romantic relationship, and a joyous involvement with her grandchildren, was just sixty-three. Who among us did not take for granted that these icons of beauty and success would endure forever? During the course of writing this book, the beloved former Democratic Congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, succumbed to complications from multiple sclerosis at the age of sixty. Illness and mortality seem synonymous with aging. But it can be helpful to view the impermanence of life as a gift or a wake-up call to the present moment and the appreciation and fulfillment of the time left.

Financial security is another major concern of aging women -- and should be. Women over sixty-five are the fastest-growing segment of the United States population, and one in five lives in poverty. “If you are a woman,” writes one economist, “you have a sixty percent shot at being poor in old age.” Even Ann Richards revealed to me that the rather unlikely possibility of her becoming a Bag Lady is her “greatest fear.” Two of the women in this book, for lack of funds, do not carry health insurance. They each told me that because they “cannot afford to get sick,” they take special care planning and following their diet and exercise programs.

When I think about women in their sixties -- actual, living entities -- it is hard to believe that many of them, such as the “sex kitten” of the 1950s, Brigitte Bardot, are in their sixties. To give you a vivid picture of the spirit of aliveness that can exist at sixty, the following is only a partial list of the names of the most recognizable women in their early-, mid-, and late-sixties: Elizabeth Taylor, Joanne Woodward, Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft, Gena Rowlands, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Walters, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Rita Moreno, Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Debbie Reynolds, Mary Tyler Moore, Claire Bloom, Gloria Steinem, Helen Frankenthaler, Kate Millet, Cicely Tyson, Trish Brown, Olympia Dukakis, Toni Morrison, Jeanne Moreau, Adrienne Rich, Sophia Loren, Edna O’Brien, Yoko Ono, Maya Angelou, Della Reese, Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Didion, Eleanor Coppola, and Jill Ker Conway. If these women’s lives, which are representative of lives filled with creative expression, are possibilities of what we have to look forward to in our sixties, what are we afraid of?!

Far from being “over the hill,” the women mentioned above and those on the following pages offer us a hopeful, yet realistic look at the possibilities that await us as we “grow” rather than “get” older. We should celebrate our aging process, be thankful for our life, and embrace the decade of the sixties as the age of fulfillment that it represents. Instead of being (as performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, sixty-nine, expressed it) “bamboozled by the completely denigrating views of chronological time and what it means,” which are commonly held by our society, we must respect and enjoy ourselves and each other as older women for the receptacles of knowledge, experience, and wisdom that we are and for the sheer amount of time we have spent on the planet.

The women in On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment are altering the image of age. They are champions, heroines, if you will, at the forefront of change: Changing a society obsessed with the fantasies of maintaining youth to one driven by the realities and potentialities of age. In the words of Dorothy L. Sayers, they “believe in age.” And they truly embrace the age of fulfillment.

Sixty years bring with them the privilege of discernment and vision: A capacity to behold, in the blink of an eye, the sweeping panorama of a life fully lived. This perspective lends itself to the metaphor of the tapestry. “I see now,” said Marion Woodman, “how all the threads have miraculously come together. All are woven into the single tapestry that is my life and work.” Every woman I interviewed spoke, in her own eloquent way, about the meshing of her life experiences. How she now better than ever before understands, more easily accepts, the integration of her life into a whole. How she has come full circle and “over the hill” into the age of fulfillment.

copyright ©1997 by Cathleen Rountree

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