Last month Granny D came to town. I’d never seen her in person, although I was well aware of her political activism, including her trek across America for social justice at the age of ninety. (It took two years.) I’d seen the documentary film of this amazing woman, Democratic nominee to the New Hampshire legislature when she was ninety-four years old. But I’d never experienced her firsthand. And an experience it is to be in her presence.
Now ninety-eight, Granny D is still as feisty, funny and furious as ever. (She cast her first vote for socialist Eugene Debs, women having been granted the right to vote in this country only shortly before she went to the polls.) Granny D, whose My Space posting on the Internet reveals that she “loves Scrabble, email, political agitating, hell-raising and a good date – of the dried fruit variety,” hails from Peterborough, NH. She was in Vermont stumping for the Democrats a few weeks before the election because, as she says, “Politics is my passion.” It was amazing to watch her, wearing a bright red coat and a gaily decorated straw hat, stand at the podium (having abandoned her cane) and remain completely composed as a train chugged out of the station behind her, interrupting her speech. It was moving to listen to her reminisce about her earlier political activities and achievements. And it was inspiring to hear her call to action as she urged listeners to get behind public financing of political campaigns.
Whenever I feel sorry for myself because I’m getting older and the prospect of aging depresses me, I think about women like Granny D – women in their eighties and nineties who live their lives with such vitality and such meaning they put me to shame. They also re-invigorate me. Their commitment to live actively, remaining engaged in the issues they’ve been dedicated to, motivates and moves me. They keep me focused on the things that matter.
One of the women I’ve been inspired by in this way was Esther Petersen, a part-time Vermonter whose political career spanned nearly seventy decades. Esther and I met in Washington, D.C. when she was working for the Carter White House and I was advocating for women’s health. Along with women like Mildred Marcy, Catherine East, and Virginia Allen, she had been instrumental in the establishment of a Presidential Commission for Women during the Nixon Administration, which ultimately led to ubiquitous state commissions. Esther, who got her start as the first woman lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, served as head of the Women’s Bureau under JFK and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Lyndon Johnson. In her late eighties, having distinguished herself as a consumer activist, she was sent to the United Nations by Bill Clinton. Near the end of her long, productive life, Esther and I spent many happy hours sharing political views (always in violent agreement). But we also talked about things like marriage and children, good books and films, and the challenges of modern life. Once, knowing of her deep affection for her own mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt, I confessed that she was my Eleanor. “Oh, my dear,” she said, “I am mightily moved!”
Another woman I think of who helped shape my life in meaningful ways was Alberta Jacoby, a former actress who, as a communications expert, became a professor at Yale University. Alberta was a world-class golfer, a consummate bridge player, and a woman who swam laps every day into her eighties until she died of ageism: The doctors missed her cancer because they thought she was too old to be complaining about not feeling well.
Then there was Peg Siskey, my local Scrabble partner until her death at the age of one hundred. Peg graduated from Wellesley College in 1931 and then got her masters in social work at the New School in New York. She headed a social welfare department in Connecticut until she retired to her cabin in the Vermont woods. (When I met her she had moved into an apartment in the village.) During one of our first conversations, Peg asked me what I thought about attempts to roll back Roe v. Wade. I had no idea what her politics were so I attempted discretion in my reply. “Well,” she said, “as far as I’m concerned, the government has no damn business in your bedroom!”
There are so many others I think of as role models: the late Elizabeth Campbell, founder of the public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C. and the first woman to serve on the Arlington, Va. school board (she died at the age of one-hundred-and-one); the unforgettable Bella Abzug, who even in illness championed women rights around the globe in her trademark hats; my former neighbor, Sandy Saunders, a retired educator whose career took her to Asia during World War II and who at ninety-two remains a dedicated sports maven and still argues vehemently with me over politics.
All these women, and so many more like them, have left their mark on the world, and on me. The work they’ve done, their worldviews, their tireless engagement in causes dear to them, their energy for life is remarkable. Thank you, Granny D, for reminding me of them and for helping me to remember that as the good poet said, I have “miles to go before I sleep.”
I, too, am mightily moved.