Editor's note: Social and political activist Jane Addams (Sept. 6, 1860–May 21, 1935) was a prolific writer whose work regularly appeared in "women's magazines" of her day. This article originally ran in the October 1914 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal, when Addams was 54 years old.
One of the most remarkable changes in the lives of women in this country has been the postponement of old age. Chiefly because they had nothing else to do, our grandmothers, after their children had been reared and safely launched into homes of their own, expected to give their remaining years to a general oversight of the households of their sons and daughters and to the upbringing of their grandchildren, conforming both as nearly as possible to their own excellent although somewhat inflexible standards.
It is useless to deny that this admirable and highly domestic occupation occasionally led to difficulties. A vigorous woman, accustomed to the cares of a large household in which her word was law, when deprived of an absorbing occupation could not all at once reduce herself to a negligible quantity, and the traditional "mother-in-law" was quite as much the victim of circumstances as were the cherished family upon whom her unused energies were expended.
The easy assumption of old age under the circumstances is readily understood, for when the individual valued herself largely as a repository of wisdom and tradition it was quite in character to don a cap, and to sit, knitting innumerable pairs of stockings, where she might easily be consulted. Almost any family album will reveal these sweet-faced women, a fold of linen over their placid breasts, a cap upon their smooth hair, whom we are happy to claim as our grandmothers, and yet if we knew their exact ages, in almost every instance we would be surprised to discover how young they were, many of them scarcely 50 years old. They assumed that life was over for them at the very time their husbands were still in the midst of business and professional activities, often receiving their highest honors and rendering their most distinguished public services after they were 50 years old.
We regret the passing of these charming women and we certainly deplore those women of 70 years occasionally seen rushing from one social function to another, attired in modish gowns, with picture hats surmounting their elaborately coifed heads. Although so dissimilar it is nevertheless true that both types of women are without adequate activity. The former dissembled a placidity which certainly they could not have felt in every instance; the latter continue a round of vapid occupations which they fear to drop lest they be faced by an insupportable leisure. Both are obviously without absorbing interests.
Happily there is another type of woman between the ages of 50 and 70 years of whom every section of America has its shining examples; first discovered perhaps through church sewing circles and missionary societies, although the widely spread Woman's Christian Temperance Union organizations had much to do with enabling her to find herself. The Woman's Club movement has also been a great factor in developing the powers of women who are over 50 years old. Many of them learned to write papers, to address audiences, to preside over meetings, to organize committees for the first time after they had passed that age. The women's clubs also gave to thousands of women their first sense of responsibility in regard to public education and civic reform. It was largely through the efforts of these older club women that kindergartens, manual training and domestic science were introduced into the public-school system of America. In many cities these women were also the pioneers in agitating for public playgrounds and vacation schools.
These same elderly women who, in their youth, had been sheltered from any knowledge of crime and the ways of criminals, and who would have considered it most unladylike even to refer to a disreputable woman, were often responsible for securing matrons in the police stations, teachers in the jails, the establishment of juvenile courts and the abolition of vice districts. These women are now in no small measure responsible for municipal concerts, for crafts and trades schools and for exhibitions for the encouragement of local artists. In their girlhood they knew no exercise more violent than playing croquet, no dietary more rigid than preserves and sponge cake for supper, no notion but that all diseases were Heaven-sent, and that a certain number of children must inevitably die in infancy, but they are now agitating for public gymnasiums and municipal baths, for pure-food laws and a clean milk supply; they are quite tigerlike in insisting that all children shall be protected from contagious diseases through school nursing and medical inspection, and they have come to consider a high death rate among infants as a disgrace and a reproach to the community.
Women over 50 years old who are today leading interesting and socially useful lives are to be found in all parts of America: Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, for an example, as the head of the public-school system of Chicago; Mrs. Margaret Deland and Mrs. Edith Wharton among the best fictionists of America; Doctor Anna Howard Shaw as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
One woman of 60 whom I know is most widely useful in many church activities, not only in the local circles of her denomination but also as the president of a State organization. Her husband died several years ago, her children are both married and living in two distant cities. It would be hard to imagine a more desolate life than hers might be did she not have an outlet, not only for her splendid energy, but also for her social gifts and her affection. Her small but charming house does not give an impression of emptiness, but is as if it were the center of beneficent activity, a place where a woman dwelt not alone but surrounded by the affection of countless friends. It would be absurd to say that if she had
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