Helping Women Think About Retirement

Last year the former prima donna and arts leader Beverly Sills announced her resignation as chair of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, explaining, "I've got to take some time off to smell the roses."

Six months later, however, the 73-year-old diva was back on the Upper West Side arts campus, accepting the position of chair of the Metropolitan Opera. "I suddenly developed an allergy to roses," Sills said, "I don’t do well in unstructured time."

Nan Bauer-Maglin is apparently of a similar mind. After teaching for 27 years at Borough of Manhattan Community College, the professor of English relinquished her tenure—not for the smell the roses, but rather the sweet smell of baccalaureate success. Bauer-Maglin became the director of the CUNY BA, an undergraduate program based at the Graduate Center which encourages self-designed, non-traditional, often interdisciplinary courses of study.

She "loves the work, which is both all-consuming and very empowering," but as she reaches the age of 60 she has yet again begun to think of the consequences of her next job closure, when her contract with the University ends. "This tension (loving my job and seeing an end to it) has led me to rehearse various and previously unimagined scenarios, including the Peace Corps, as well as retirement."

Nan Bauer-Maglin
One way to mull the question—a way that doubtless required Bauer-Maglin to sharpen her skills at structuring time—was to co-edit a new book from Rutgers University Press, Women Confronting Retirement: A Nontraditional Guide. This project, she says in its preface, was one of her attempts "to think [my] way forward."

Her co-editor, Alice Radosh, who earned her Ph.D. in neuropsychology at the Graduate School, has already taken the plunge. Her teaching and research career has centered on women’s reproductive health, notably as director of the City’s mayoral Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Services. Radosh recently retired as a senior program officer at the Academy for Educational Development and rusticated upstate to Woodstock.

In the collection’s 32 essays, the two editors say in the introduction, their contributors "examine, challenge, cringe at, and laugh at the traditional definitions of retirement." Bauer-Maglin and Radosh also note that, with the baby-boomer generation reaching retirement age, the need for a new conversation about the optimal design for life after the end of one’s primary life’s work is becoming particularly apparent.

Alice Radosh.
And especially for women. Professor emerita of women’s studies at New Jersey City University Barbara Rubin, in "Every Day a Sunday? Reflections on a First Year of Retirement," tartly observes, "nothing has prepared me for retirement: not the model of a father who vegetated in it for 30 years and not a society that really does not appreciate those of us who are ‘modernly mature.’"

Shirley Geok-lin Lim, a professor of English at U.C. Santa Barbara, points out that "Retiring, as a term used to describe women, functioned as an adjective rather than a verb in an earlier century. It was frequently applied in approving ways to women seen as reserved, shy, unobtrusive, and contented with private lives of domestic seclusion." But then, in her essay on "Rethinking Ambition: Women on the Edge of Retiring," Lim explores some challenging questions that were seldom asked by previous generations: "what happens when ambitious women, who have spent their lives breaking the mould and acting as pioneers in the world of work, reach the so-called age of retirement? What are some of the contradictions inherent in the narratives of lives dominated by the ambition to emerge from the condition of ‘retiring’ women?"

The editors point out that the central theme of the collection is that "there is a population of women retiring now in the U.S. who have had a different relationship to paid work than women have had traditionally, and that this difference is reflected in their attitudes, feelings, and questions about retirement." Bauer-Maglin and Radosh observe that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique of 1963 "played a major part in encouraging women to question their attitudes about work," and that a 1977 anthology, Working It Out: Twenty-three Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work, edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, "spoke to women who were part of the emerging second wave of feminism." The editors of Women Confronting Retirement suggest that "the women who wrote for that book are the same women, figuratively speaking, who are writing for our book."

The editors also found general agreement that retirement is in need of redefinition. Phillipa Kafka, in her essay "Afterthoughts," wonders why the term is so scary and suggests an alternative: "Had I been in my thirties, forties, fifties, I would not describe leaving teaching as retirement, but as a career change." In her essay "Change of Life," Mary Stuart declares, "I am ‘retired’ from many jobs and careers, but it is difficult to retire from life." One contributor who has decided not to retire, Joy Dryfoos, asks the obvious rhetorical question, "How can you retire from your beliefs?"

Merle Rubine acerbically suggests a more radical resolution of the matter, "One retires for the night, the Navy retires battleships, economists talk about retiring the debt. . . .I think we should retire the word retire."

Acknowledging that "retirement does not separate neatly into orderly, independent components," the editors have divided their contributors into three sections. In the first, "Thinking about Retirement," are such essays as Lim’s and others both general ("Baby Boom Women: The Generation of Firsts") and more focused ("Circling the Wagons: A Guide to Lesbian Retirement"). Only in her mid-thirties now, Sylvia Henneberg gets a considerable head start on the process with her essay "Exploring the No-Woman’s Land of Old Age," which takes inspiration from the works of the author May Sarton. Henneberg, who has done research on women poets and aging, particularly emphasizes Sarton’s belief in continued growth and her ability to distinguish between aging and dying.

The second section addresses "Stages of Retirement." Among its contents are Esther Ratner’s wittily titled "Still in Circulation: A Librarian Retires" and Laura Weaver’ s "A Mennonite Retirement: From Work Projects to Play Projects." Notable, too, is "Does an Activist Ever Retire?" The answer is emphatically "no," as this interview with 86-year-old psychologist Carolyn Goodman. She is currently the director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which was founded in memory of her son, a victim of violence in 1964 when he was demonstrating for civil rights in Mississippi.

An especially fearless look into the future-as-retirement is Carole Ganim’s "Creating a Self in Context," which includes a long list of what she fears the future might hold. Everyone will recognize them (these are but a few from her harrowing list):

     I am afraid of loss of ego and importance.
     I am afraid I will slide into indolence and purposelessness.
     I am afraid that the long emptiness ahead of me will tempt
         me to become a full-time consumer and home beautifier.
     I am worried that I will overdo, that I will become the eternal volunteer.
     I am afraid I will become cranky when I am no longer in control.

After her last entry ("I am afraid that I will be making lists on my deathbed"), Ganim breaks the tension by remarking, "I sometimes feel like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock: will the eternal Footman snicker at me?"
The last section of the collection, as one might guess, is "Never Retire." Carol Scott begins her essay "Retirement: From Rags to Rags," "Coming from a poor, African American family with nine children, retirement was not a word I ever heard growing up in the hills of Pennsylvania." Now 58, she would be delighted to retire, but the financial drain of raising two children as a single parent makes that impossible. "Because of the choices I made, I must continue to work."

Seventy-six-year-old Joy Dryfoos’s "Never Retire," ends the collection on a more upbeat note. The independent researcher has spent her life seeking "to improve the life chances for poor and minority people," and doesn’t intend to stop. Her last paragraph, however offers a sobering reminder and a lesson: "I should add a caveat to this optimistic portrayal of life. Several weeks after I began to write this piece, I was literally struck down by a serious back problem that required surgery. For several months I was in pain and unable to function very well. . . .I still feel very vulnerable. I recognize that a time may come when my physical condition may force me to retire. And that would be a very different story. At least for now, I am back at my desk for short periods of time. The lesson here is that we don’t really ever know what will happen, further evidence for doing as much as one can while one is able."

And as for Alice Radosh, she is enjoying a Woodstock festival of retirement activities: she’s a volunteer firefighter, studies the piano, works on local social issues, and tries to keep up with reading groups and a garden (she and her husband have four grown children).

Nan Bauer-Maglin is continuing to mull her options, though one thing seems certain. Her four children and four grandchildren are spread out from New Jersey to Kansas, but she plans to remain in New York City.

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