A coworker in her early 30s recently asked me about the role of a sister organization in the anti-violence movement. I launched into the history of the organization and why it was formed. A look of irritation passed over her face. Oh, I say- you mean today, what they do today. It’s not the first time I realized that I am talking too much about the past.
Over the past month, I have had dozens of conversations with women my age (56) and older, sometimes by a decade, about our plans for growing old. Although we laughed at the thought of aging, fear lurked beneath the surface of every conversation. We agreed that the times call for new leadership. We expressed awe of the power and dynamism of young women. We wondered what our contributions should be, could be in this new phase of our lives. And we worried about the economic realities we are facing.
Many older women in the anti-violence movement never finished college, while others are under-educated for today’s times with only undergraduate degrees. We weren’t taught to negotiate for salaries, we didn’t learn how to brand ourselves, and we never thought about self-care. We fought for health insurance. Many of us are survivors, and some of us face chronic health problems as a result. The more fortunate among us had partners with higher incomes and greater benefits, only to see whatever wealth we had accumulated vanish in the economic downturn. Some of us are still paying student loans. Many of us are lesbians or partnered with other women, which means our households are doubly underpaid. We fall into the dangerous age range for women, where age discrimination in hiring is blatant and we can’t yet claim what will be our too-low social security.
As a white woman, I write this conscious of my own race and class privilege. I think of the well-documented and vast differences in financial assets between black and white communities. I think of the many women of color I have met who are devoting what resources they have to their communities, taking women and children into their homes and caring for them. No foundation, government funder, or private donor is paying for this way of working. And while all the women I talked to were struggling, the black women in these conversations were faring the worst, having experienced many years of discrimination in hiring and salaries.
While I have been participating in one set of conversations, I have been overhearing others. At conferences, in elevators, in hallways, I hear young women grumbling about older women. “She needs to get out of the way”, I have heard more times than I can count. “And go where”, I have answered back- but only in my head, because I have more questions than I have answers.
How can we in the anti-violence movement make the necessary generational shifts in a way that makes space for everyone? How can older women move out of day-to-day leadership roles and still contribute? How do we know when its time to step aside? How do we confront the connections between race, white privilege, leadership, and economics in this movement? And let’s really push ourselves to ask: how does our economic dependence on our jobs affect the way we do the work? I can’t answer these questions myself, and that’s why I am glad to be part of the Move to End Violence community. It’s a place to think deeply, look at all the intersections, and explore answers together.
A few years ago, I wanted to express my thanks to an older woman who had taught me a great deal. “You passed on the work with such care,” I said. She looked surprised, then hurt. I didn’t understand at the time, but later on I got it: I had spoken as if she was no longer a part of the work, as if she was no longer relevant. That’s not what I meant, of course.