SENIOR POWER: A crone is… a noun

Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday September 19, 2014 - 11:40:00 AM

What’s a crone? I’m referring to the word variously used in the contexts of religion, spirituality, and witches. Ye olde Oxford English Dictionary (OED) informs that ca 1386 Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) first considered crone, and that it is rarely applied to an old man. By 1844, crone was applied contemptuously when used about an old woman. 

Time marches on. People over age 75 used to be called ‘old old,’ but that term now refers to those over 85, because the 75 to 84 group stays healthier and lives more independently than previously.  

Feminist theologian and educator Mary Daly (1928- 2010) spoke admiringly of Crones as strong women with powers of endurance. Her Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (first published in 1978) is available from Amazon and in many public libraries via The Link. It is Dr. Daly’s synthesis of theology, mythology, philosophy, history and medicine. 

“Crones can well be suspicious of dictionaries which, in listing possible etymologies for crone, suggest that it is ‘derived from a term meaning carrion. The OED discusses this possibility, but also suggests that crone is probably from carogne, meaning ‘a cantankerous or mischievous woman.’ This meaning seems somewhat appropriate. It is noteworthy that Merriam-Webster gives as the etymology of crony the Greek cronos, meaning long-lasting, which in turn is from chronos, meaning time. It would seem eminently logical to think that crone is rooted in the word for ‘long-lasting,’ for this is what Crones are.” 

In The Church & the Second Sex, her focus was on spirituality. She wrote “Women who are committed to achieving liberation and equality often turn away from organized religion, seeing it either as irrelevant or as a stubborn and powerful enemy, placing obstacles to all they seek to attain. Having been turned off by institutional religion, they choose to leave it behind and forget it, except when it really shows muscle – as in the struggle over abortion laws. Some, on the other hand, have opted to continue their relationship with church or synagogue in the hopes of changing sexist beliefs, laws, and customs in these institutions. The second choice is based upon a conviction that there are important values transmitted through these institutions that make it worth the pain and effort of staying in and fighting the system.”  

Barbara G. Walker’s 1985 book, The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, is the history of “the key issues of the grass roots movement of elder women and the women’s spirituality movement” and the historic role of female elders until their displacement by patriarchal religion are traced. The transition from ancient goddess to witch has led to the archetypal elder woman—invisible or superfluous. But she also represents wisdom, teaching and healing. Walker presents myths from many cultures, documents past roles of female elders, and includes consideration of the prepatriarchal goddess, religious aspects of matriarchy and patriarchy, and a final chapter devoted to “The future crone.”  

Rosalie Maggio’s Nonsexist Word Finer; A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage (1987, long out of print, alas) and her Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage; A Guide to Nondiscriminatory Language (1991) advise crone-wise, “avoid the pejorative use. In other times, the Crone was a wise, balanced, powerful elder honored by her society. Although this role is generally unacknowledged today, some women are reclaiming it, asking why we do not have some of our many wise older women alongside our wise older men at public events, in newspaper columns, on speaker podiums, at society’s head tables.”  

In 2001, psychiatrist, Jungian analyst and activist Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D, in her Goddesses In Older Women; Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, predicted “As the baby-boomer generation of women pass into this third crone phase, I anticipate that the connotation of the word ‘crone’ itself will shift to help women recognize the archetypes that become accessible as sources of energy and direction at this time.”  

In 2003, in her Crones Don’t Whine; Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women, she identifies qualities to cultivate: Crones don’t whine. They’re juicy, and they trust their own instincts. They don’t grovel. They do meditate. They choose the path with heart. Crones are fierce about what matters most to them. They speak the truth with compassion. They listen to their bodies, reinvent themselves as needed, and savor the good in their lives. Bolen is the initiator and the leading advocate for a United Nations 5th World Conference on Women (, which was supported by the Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly in 2012.  

Today, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language’s crone noun refers to an ugly, withered old woman, a hag. That’s progress in an ageist-sexist society? Optical illusion websites usually include at least one old crone/young lady. 

The Golden Girls American sitcom, created by Susan Harris, originally aired on NBC from September 14, 1985 to May 9, 1992. Estelle Getty was one year younger than her TV daughter, Bea Arthur. During the first season, it took the makeup department 45 minutes to transform her into Sophia.  

The two-part episode titled “Sick and Tired” was based on Harris’ real-life struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Dorothy’s struggle to find a doctor who would take her symptoms seriously is still relevant today for many women. A 2011 study showed that 62% of doctors referred men to cardiologists when they complained of chest pain and shortness of breath, while less than 30% did so for their female patients—instead, they counseled them to “take it easy” and prescribed anti-anxiety medications. 

Golden Girls was hailed by some as a media breakthrough, while it reminded others of the old saying that the most oppressed people are those who do not recognize their oppression. The characters did have a sense of humor, shared housing, were sexual beings, and the mother of one of the “girls” lived with them… all good things. But… there were also sexist/ageist aspects damaging older women, and thus all women. It was a putdown of aging, especially as it pertained to looking older, and the Girls spent most of their time arguing or insulting each other. Blanche’s portrayal of a middle aged southern belle nympho seemed to be an obsession. (San Francisco, Minneapolis and several other large cities Gray Panthers protested.) 

In 2011, Harry’s Law appeared on NBC with a strong female lead, Kathy Bates in the character of Harriet “Harry” Korn, an attorney running her own firm. I am reminded of the Vermont girls’ summer camp vintage 1937 in which the director required each camper to adjust her first name to the male equivalent. I too became a Harry.  

The show attracted millions of viewers, mostly over age 50. Korn was a mature woman with strong “male” and “female” traits: smart, self-confident, independent, unconventional, purposeful and clear-sighted, but also caring and compassionate. She saw the good in people, even when they were guilty of wrongdoing. She could be abrasive in getting others to admit the truth, but her sharp tongue was often tempered by dry wit. Bates was the closest thing to a “crone” to appear on national television since Bea Arthur’s Golden Girls Dorothy Zbornak character.  

When Harry’s Law was cancelled the following year, a network official explained that, even though it averaged 8.8 million viewers and was the second most-watched television drama, “its audience skewed very old, and it is hard to monetize that.” The Kathy Bates crone character was not profitable. 

Activating the crone image at this time in history, as Golden Girls and Harry’s Law did a la Hollywood would benefit society, says Bolen. When the crone archetype is activated, the old woman is valued, her image is widely circulated and actual women of crone age become more visible and influential. When the crone archetype is feared and suppressed, as it has been in Western culture for centuries, the image of the old woman becomes ugly; she is a witch or hag. Actual old women are trivialized, ignored, and made fun of; they hold little social value, and they are regarded as “burdens” on society. 

It takes courage to grow old in an ageist culture that diminishes old people. Lacking media images that promote the value of old women and men, Americans will need to activate the crone archetype by other means. We could start with our own lives, challenging negative stereotypes and refusing to buy into a consumer culture that tells us we need anti-aging products and expensive procedures when our bodies show signs of aging. We could focus more on the potential advantages (to ourselves and others) of growing old — competence in many areas, greater self-knowledge and acceptance, emotional maturity, coping skills and resilience. The Golden Girls character Rose Nylund, played by Betty White, learned a valuable lesson from a crone in her own life: “My mother always used to say, ‘The older you get the better you get — unless you’re a banana.’” 

Read more: 

Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D. Crones Don’t Whine; Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women 

Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D. Goddesses In Older Women; Archetypes in Women Over Fifty 

Conway, D. J. Maiden, Mother, Crone 

Crone Chronicles, published from 1989-2001, succeeded by Crone Magazine 

Daly, Mary. The Church & the Second Sex 

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism 

Eller, Cynthia. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory 

Karpen, Ruth Ray. Golden Girls: Rediscovering the Crone. Research, December 16,2013.  

Maggio, Rosalie. Nonsexist Word Finer; A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage 

Maggio, Rosalie. Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage; A Guide to Nondiscriminatory Language  

Walker, Barbara G. The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power 

Wilshire, Donna. Virgin Mother Crone 



Databank USA Emergency Care rankings for access to emergency are (with 1 as the best) are: California: 42nd. Washington, D.C.:1. New Mexico: 51. Nevada: 51. [AARP Bulletin Sept 2014 p 36] 

"Demand, costs on the rise for long-term elder care," by Tim Sheehan (Fresno Bee, September 13, 2014). 


Chickenpox, shingles, herpes zoster…Oy vey. In a Harris poll, 88% of respondents 69+ years of age supported vaccines for children for such diseases as measles, mumps and whooping cough. 99% of people age 40+ in the U.S. have had chickenpox and are therefore vulnerable to shingles, and 10,000 people are turning 65 every day. Shingles risk rises sharply at age 50 and then increases. For 20% of patients, there are potential complications—postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) can last a lifetime. Yet only 20% have had the shingles vaccine, which is now available via one’s Medicare Part D. Read more: "A Vaccine Mystery Hits Older Americans," by Virginia Postrel (Bloomberg News, Sept. 4, 2014). 

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read - September 21−27, 2014.

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. 

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Kathy Greenlee spent last week in Geneva, Switzerland at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) moderating a workshop on Elder Abuse and Violence Against Older Women. She was joined by Keith Harper, U.S. Ambassador to the HRC, who opened the event, and by four experts on elder abuse and the rights of older adults. This was the first time a panel on elder abuse was convened at the HRC. ASA Greenlee said in her blog, "I am proud to continue to work with advocates in U.S. and abroad who share my passion about combating abuse... We must tackle the complex problems of abuse at every opportunity. We have friends around the world who stand with us in this fight."