Women who are in their sixties and older have been on my mind lately. While I have a few years before my own 60th birthday, I’m noticing that late middle-age/ early old age can be one of the most powerful and vibrant times in a woman’s life.
It started at a Patty Larkin concert that took place right here in Concord. I’ve listened to her music for years, but I’d never seen her in person.
If you’d asked me to describe her voice, I’d have told you that it has a smile in it. And after seeing her play, I can now say that, in fact, she does smile when she sings.
From where I sat, Larkin looked and sounded like a woman in her early forties. Her body is toned, and her smooth, youthful voice reveals none of the wear and tear that often comes with time. And the inventive way she noodled around on her electric guitar reminded me of my 29-year-old son, who plays and composes experimental music.
“How old do you think she is?” I asked my husband during intermission. He pulled out his smartphone and looked her up. “Sixty-one,” he told me. Really? Wow.
Close up she may not look quite as young as she does from afar, but the vibrancy and joy she exudes while performing is that of an artist at the height of her powers.
A few weeks later, another powerful, older woman came across my radar. I reviewed Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.
After 19 years as a supervisor, Ledbetter learned that Goodyear was paying her significantly less than her male counterparts. She took her battle for fair pay all the way to the Supreme Court.
The court decided against her, ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on her claim. She lost her personal battle, but she had the guts (and grit) to persevere so that the rest of us wouldn’t be treated in the same way.
In one of his first official actions as President, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which provides a more reasonable time limit for such claims. Now in her early 70s, Ledbetter went from the factory floor, to testify before Congress.
While reading Ledbetter’s memoir — which I could barely put down—I was reminded of how filthy factory work is (I welded electronic bug zappers during college), and of the gauntlet many women must run when they work with men who are unable to check their sexual urges at the workplace door.
Ledbetter isn’t an artist, nor is she a glamorous celebrity (though she’s both eloquent and elegant in words and appearance), but a regular person who grew up in poverty, worked grueling hours to help support her family, and then became a spokeswoman for us all. She is forever on my list of inspirational women.
Then last week, at another event in town, I heard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, 69, and photographer Annie Leibovitz, 62, discuss Leibovitz’s latest project, “Pilgrimage,” which is currently on exhibit at the Concord Museum.
These two smart, articulate women shared personal stories filled with self-deprecating humor. And while Goodwin awakened my somewhat dormant interest in history, my focus was on Leibovitz.
“Pilgrimage” is a photographic study of places and the personal effects, work, and surroundings of several historical figures. Some of them, Thoreau, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott once lived here in Concord.
Leibovitz began the project during a difficult time in her own life. She needed to do something that wasn’t an editor’s assignment, but that was instead self-driven and that satisfied her own interests and curiousity. In healing herself, she did what many of us do —what I do when I’m overwhelmed, sad, or in a rut — she shifted gears and focused on the minutiae.
While I might weed the garden, detail the house, or start a cooking project, Leibovitz focused her camera on the light outside Emerson’s window, the beat-up surface of Virginia Woolf’s desk, and Georgia O’Keefe’s box of handmade pastels.
Both Leibovitz and Goodwin agreed that it is these kinds of details that make the person come alive. Later, as I walked through the exhibit past photographs of Annie Oakley’s riding boots, Marion Anderson’s concert gown, and the top edge of Eleanor Roosevelt’s desk drawer, etched with her signature, they came alive for me too.
Rather than becoming diminished as they age, these women are only getting stronger. I have heard women my own age complain that they feel invisible. With no regular job and an empty nest, I occasionally feel this way too.
Women like these show us that we don’t have to fade away. If we keep working, doing, and learning, we can be better, we can do more.
I leave you with another video of Patty Larkin. Check out the way she works that electric guitar with her bow.