Page One

Older women grow with feminist movement

By Helen Wheeler
Tuesday March 13, 2001

“History is written by winners... and the bad witch is old.” 

— Child, interviewed on “The Goddess Remembered” Public Broadcasting Stations. 


March is National Women’s History Month, a time for re-examining and celebrating the wide range of females’ contributions and achievements. 

The month is of special significance to senior citizens and those who care about and for us. Records still omit the history of females, and when something is noted, it is often distorted. The majority of senior citizens and caregivers are women.  

Herstory was coined to emphasize that women’s lives, deeds and participation in human affairs have been neglected or undervalued in standard histories. I asked at random several well–known local women how they have grown through feminism – belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes – and how they have coped, or sometimes, not.  

For some, like 87–year old professional librarian and educator Betty Bacon, feminism is a lifestyle reflecting her attitudes and values. She declares that “feminism has greatly influenced me by the fact that it is something on which I rely. It has been a part of my person and of my life.” Betty has served extensively on her tenants’ association executive committee. Her book, “How Much Truth Do We Tell the Children?: The Politics of Children’s Literature” was published in 1988.  

When I asked 71–year old award–winning novelist and playwright Dorothy Bryant about herstory, she responded heartily, “Do women and men grow through feminism? Or does feminism grow through us? My grandmother and my mother knew very well that women didn’t get a fair shake, but they couldn’t act to change anything (wouldn’t have dreamt of it!). They did what they could, which was to pass their consciousness on to me, along with exhortations to make myself independent enough to act. I took a step beyond them, and I think my tiny step helped contribute to the big leaps by younger women in the 1970s. Now we need more women and men to stop the backlash, and go on growing toward deeper feminism.”  

Joyce Jacobson and Joanna Ok Yone Selby mentioned denial of equal rights in the area of credit. “My former husband claims we were divorced because I became a feminist. In 1971, I couldn’t get credit in my own name because of the now–illegal practice of requiring a male relative to co–sign. I can go on and on about feminism – a subject dear to my heart.”  

Aware of her feminist responsibilities, Joyce was a founder of the Oklahoma City National Women’s Political Caucus, and recently accepted appointment to the Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging, serving on its Legislative Advocacy Committee. Joanna was born in Korea in 1931, “...somewhat different from the rest of the young women. As my mother always said, dowry can be exhausted but acquired knowledge will stay with you. So I always felt (being a) housewife was not my future. I went to the Ewha Women’s University in Seoul and took course of political science.”  

She said she lived during the Korean “antiquated” concept of male superiority over women, and the years of war and post–war survival that impinge on females inordinately. “So I became a feminist and independent without relying on anyone else.”  

Today Joanna volunteers in behalf of seniors, chairing the Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging.  

Pat Cody concentrates her activism on health, in particular, DES (Diethylstilbestrol) mothers and daughters. DES was a drug given to women in risk of miscarriage. 

Co–founder of Cody’s Books, she now serves as DES Action Program Director. Pat said she considers the feminist movement “critical in the development of the women’s health network. That in turn provided the support and model to develop DES Action, a consumer group for those exposed in utero to DES and their mothers.”  

Another activist is 81–year old Charlotte Lichterman, who works as NOW Treasurer and League of Women Voters Consultant for Reproductive Choice. Having grown up in a “very traditional orthodox Jewish family where the father was the dominant figure, I went on to life in an all–male family – one husband and 2 sons – again, the father was the dominant figure.” Shy, quiet and retiring, it took many years of toil in behalf of human rights to imbue Charlotte with courage to speak up in public and eventually to run for a School Board seat. “That election changed my life. For the first time I recognized my own worth and the ways in which women were denigrated.” Status–of–women and reproductive choice in particular have been her feminist focus ever since.  

Fulbright Scholar and UCB Lecturer in Human Rights, 72–year old Rita Maran reports that “a great deal of my work inside the university and out among grassroots organizations marks the point of convergence of feminism and human rights, spoken of globally as ‘women’s human rights.’ Whether in Bosnia, Argentina, or Indonesia, women’s struggles for peace and human rights face sky–high obstacles.”  

In contrast, 75–year old UC Berkeley Professor of Anatomy Marian Cleeves Diamond says she “grew before feminism, because I had a mission that I wished to pursue. Having direction certainly helps through the rough spots.”  


Helen Rippier Wheeler is a feminist senior who teaches a women studies class in the Berkeley Adult School Older Adults Program; her book, A Guide to the Literature of Women and Aging, is available in the Berkeley Public Library. She can be reached at