The Women in the Tower by Cynthia Rich. From Look Me In the Eye: Old Women, Aging, and Ageism, Expanded Edition, by Barbara Macdonald with Cynthia Rich, 76-87. Minneapolis: Spinsters Ink, 1983.
In April 1982 a group of Black women demand a meeting with the Boston Housing Authority. They are women between the ages of sixty-six and eighty-one. Their lives, in the “housing tower for the elderly” where they live, are in continual danger. “You’re afraid to get on the elevator and you’re afraid to get off,” says Mamie Buggs, sixty-six. Odella Keenan, sixty-nine, is wakened in the nights by men pounding on her apartment door. Katherine Jefferson, eighty-one, put three locks on her door, but “I’ve come back to my apartment and found a group of men there eating my food.”
The menace, the violence, is nothing new, they say. They have reported it before, but lately it has become intolerable. There are pictures in the Boston Globe of three women, and their eyes flash with anger. “We pay our rent, and we’re entitled to some security,” says Mamie Buggs. Two weeks ago, a man attacked and beat up Ida Burres, seventy-five in the recreation room. Her head wound required forty stitches.
The headline in the Boston Globe reads, “Elderly in Roxbury building plead with BHA for 24-hour security.” Ida Burres is described in the story as “a feisty, sparrow-like woman with well-cared-for gray hair, café au lait skin and a lilting voice.” The byline reads “Viola Osgood.”
I feel that in my lifetime I will not get to the bottom of this story, of these pictures, of these words.
Feisty, sparrow-like, well-cared-for gray hair, café au lait skin, lilting voice.
Feisty. Touchy, excitable, quarrelsome, like a mongrel dog. “Feisty” is the standard word in newspaper speak for an old person who says what she thinks. As you grow older, the younger person sees your strongly felt convictions or your protest against an intolerable life situation as an amusing overreaction, a defect of personality common to mongrels and old people. To insist that you are a person deepens the stigma of your Otherness. Your protest is not a specific, legitimate response to an outside threat. It is a generic and arbitrary quirkiness, coming from the queer stuff within yourself – sometimes annoying, sometimes quaint or even endearing, never, never to be responded to seriously.
Sparrow-like. Imagine for a moment that you have confronted those who have power over you, demanding that they do something to end the terror of your days and nights. You and other women have organized a meeting of protest. You have called the press. Imagine then opening the newspaper and seeing yourself described as “sparrow-like.” That is no simple indignity, no mere humiliation. The fact that you can be described as “sparrow-like” is in part why you live in the tower, why nobody attends. Because you do not look like a natural person – that is, a young or middle-aged person – you look like a sparrow. The real sparrow is, after all, a sparrow and is seen merely as homely, but a woman who is sparrow-like is unnatural and ugly.
A white widow tells of smiling at a group of small children on the street and one of them saying, “You’re ugly, ugly, ugly.” It is what society has imprinted on that child’s mind: to be old, and to look old, is to be ugly, so ugly that you do not deserved to live. Crow’s feet. Liver spots. The media: “I’m going to wash that gray right out of my hair and wash in my ‘natural’ color.” “Get rid of those unsightly spots.” And if you were raised to believe that old is ugly, you play strange tricks in your own head. An upper middle class white woman, a woman with courage and zest for life, writes in 1982: “When we love we do not see our mates as the young view us – wrinkled, misshapen, unattractive.” But then she continues: “We still retain, somewhere, the memory of one another as beautiful and lustful, and we see each other at our once-best.”
Old is ugly and unnatural in a society where power is male-defined, powerlessness disgraceful. A society where natural death is dreaded and concealed, while unnatural death is courted and glorified. But old is ugliest for women. A white woman newscaster in her forties remarks to a sportscaster who is celebrating his sixtieth birthday: “What women really resent about men is that you get more attractive as you get older.” A man is as old as he feels, a woman as old as she looks. You’re ugly, ugly, ugly.
Aging has a special stigma for women. When our wombs are no longer ready for procreation, when our vaginas are no longer tight, when we no longer serve men, we are unnatural and ugly. In medical school terminology, we are a “crock”; in the language of the street, we are an “old bag.” The Sanskrit word for widow is “empty.” But there is more than that.
Sparrow-like. Writing for white men, did Viola Osgood unconsciously wish to say, “Ida Burres is not a selfish vulture – even though she is doing what old women are not meant to do, speak for their own interests (not their children’s or grandchildren’s but their own). She is an innocent sparrow, frail and helpless”? Or had she herself so incorporated that demeaning image – sparrow-like – that she saw Ida Burres through those eyes? Or both?
Well-care-for gray hair. Is that about race? About class? An attempt to dispel the notion that a poor Black woman is unkempt? Would Viola Osgood describe a Black welfare mother in terms of her “well-groomed afro”? Or does she mean to dispel the notion that this old woman is unkempt? Only the young can afford to be careless about their hair, their dress. The care that the old woman takes with her appearance is not merely to reduce the stigma of ugly; often it is her most essential tactic for survival: it signals to the person who sees her, I am old, but I am not senile. My hair is gray but is well-cared-for. Because to be old is to be guilty of craziness and incapacity unless proven otherwise.
Café au lait skin. Race? Class? Age? Not dark black like Katherine Jefferson, but blackness mitigated. White male reader, who has the power to save these women’s lives, you can’t dismiss her as Black, poor, old. She is almost all right, she is almost white. She is Black and old, but she has something in common with the young mulatto woman whose skin you have sometimes found exotic and sensual. And she is not the power of darkness that you fear in the Terrible Mother.
A lilting voice. I try to read these words in a lilting voice: “I almost got my eyes knocked out. A crazy guy just came in here and knocked me down and hit me in the face. We need security.” These words do not lilt to me. A woman is making a demand, speaking truth to power, affirming her right to live – Black, Old, Poor, Woman. Is the “lilting” to say, “Although her words are strong, although she is bonding with other women, she is not tough and dykey”? Is the “lilting” to say, “Although she is sparrow-like, although she is gray-haired, something of the mannerisms you find pleasing in young women remain, so do not ignore her as you routinely do old women”?
I write this not knowing whether Viola Osgood is Black or white. I know that she is a woman. And I know that it matters whether she is Black or white, that this is not a case of one size fits all. But I know that Black or white, any woman who writes news articles for the Globe, or for any mainstream newspaper, is mandated to write to white men, in white men’s language. That any messages to women, Black or white, which challenge white men’s thinking can at best only be conveyed covertly, subversively. That any messages of appeal to those white men must be phrased in ways that do not seriously threaten their assumptions, and that such language itself perpetuates the power men have assumed for themselves. And I know that Black or white, ageism blows in the wind around us and certainly through the offices of the Globe. I write this guessing that Viola Osgood is Black, because she has known that the story is important, cared enough to make sure the photographer was there. I write this guessing that the story might never have found its way into the Globe unless through a Black reporter. Later, I find out that she is Black, thirty-five.
And I think that Viola Osgood has her own story to tell. I think that I, white Jewish woman of fifty, still sorting through to find the realities beneath the lies, denials and ignorance of my lifetime of segregations, cannot write this essay. I think that even when we try to cross the lines meant to separate us as women – old and young, Black and white, Jew and non-Jew – the seeds of division cling to our clothes. And I think this must be true of what I write now. But we cannot stop crossing, we cannot stop writing.
Elderly in Roxbury building plead with BHA for 24-hour security. Doubtless, Viola Osgood did not write the headline. Ten words and it contains two lies – lies that routinely obscure the struggles of old women. Elderly. This is not a story of elderly people, it is the story of old women, Black old women. Three-fifths of the “elderly” are women; almost all of the residents of this tower are women. An old woman has half the income of an old man. One out of three widows – women without the immediate presence of a man – lives below the official poverty line, and most women live one third of their lives as widows. In the United States, as throughout the world, old women are the poorest of the poor. Seven percent of old white men live in poverty, forty-seven percent of old Black women. “The Elderly,” “Old People,” “Senior Citizens,” are inclusive words that blot out these differences. Old women are twice unseen – unseen because they are old, unseen because they are women. Black old women are thrice unseen. “Elderly” conveniently clouds the realities of power and economics. It clouds the convergence of racial hatred and fear, hatred and fear of the aged, hatred and fear of women. It also clouds the power of female bonding, of these women in the tower who are acting together as women for women.
Plead. Nothing that these women say, nothing in their photographs, suggests pleading. These women are angry, and if one can demand where there is no leverage – and one can – they are demanding. They are demanding their lives, to which they know full well they have a right. Their anger is clear, direct, unwavering. “Pleading” erases the force of their confrontation. It allows us to continue to think of old women, if we think of them at all, as meek, cowed, to be pitied, occasionally as amusingly “feisty,” but not as outraged, outrageous women. Old women’s anger is denied, tamed, drugged, infantilized, trivialized. And yet anger in an old woman is a remarkable act of bravery, so dangerous is her world, and her status in that world so marginal, precarious. Her anger is an act of insubordination – the refusal to accept her subordinate status even when everyone, children, men, younger women, and often other older women, assumes it. “We pay our rent, and we’re entitled to some security.” When will a headline tell the truth: Old, Black, poor women confront the BHA demanding 24-hour security?
The housing tower for the elderly. A tall building filled with women, courageous women who bond together, but who with every year are less able to defend themselves against male attack. A tower of women under siege. A ghetto within a ghetto. The white male solution to the “problem of the elderly” is to isolate the Terrible Mother.
That tower, however, is not simply architectural. Nor is the male violence an “inner city problem.” Ten days later, in nearby Stoughton, a man will have beaten to death an eighty-seven year-old white woman, leaving her body with “multiple blunt injuries around her face, head and shoulders.” This woman was not living in a housing tower for the elderly. She lived in the house where she was born. “She was very, very spry. She worked in her garden a lot and she drove her own car,” reports a neighbor. She had the advantages of race, class, a small home of her own, a car of her own. Nor did she turn away from a world that rejects and demeans old women (“spry,” like “feisty,” is a segregating and demeaning word). At the time of her murder, she was involved in planning the anniversary celebration at her parish.
Yet she was dead for a week before anyone found her body. Why? The reporter finds it perfectly natural. “She outlived her contemporaries and her circle of immediate relatives.” Of course. How natural. Unless we remember de Beauvoir: “One of the ruses of oppression is to camouflage itself behind a natural situation since, after all, one cannot revolt against nature.” How natural that young people, or even the middle aged, should have nothing in common with an old woman. Unthinkable that she should have formed friendships with anyone who was not in her or his seventies or eighties or nineties. It is natural that without family, who must tolerate the stigma, or other old people who share the stigma, she would have no close ties. And it is natural that no woman, old or young, anywhere in the world, should be safe from male violence.
But it is not natural. It is not natural, and it is dangerous, for younger women to be divided as by a taboo from old women – to live in our own shaky towers of youth. It is intended, but it is not natural that we be ashamed of, dissociated from, our future selves, sharing men’s loathing for the women we are daily becoming. It is intended, but it is not natural that we be kept ignorant of our deep bonds with old women. And it is not natural that today, as we reconnect with each other, old women are still an absence for younger women.
As a child – a golden-haired Jew in the segregated South while the barbed wire was going up around the Warsaw ghetto – I was given fairy tales to read. Among them, the story of Rapunzel, the golden-haired young woman confined to a tower by an old witch until she was rescued by a young prince. My hair darkened and now it is light again with gray. I know that I have been made to live unnaturally in a tower for most of my fifty years. My knowledge of my history – as a woman, as a lesbian, as a light-skinned woman in a world of dark-skinned women, as the Other in a Jew-hating world – shut out. My knowledge of my future – as an old woman – shut out.
Today I reject those mythic opposites: young/old, light/darkness, life/death, other/self, Rapunzel/Witch, Good Mother/Terrible Mother. As I listen to the voices of the old women of Warren Tower, and of my aging self, I know that I have always been aging, always been dying. Those voices speak of wholeness: To nurture Self = to defy those who endanger that Self. To declare the I of my unique existence = to assert the We of my connections with other women. To accept the absolute rightness of my natural death = to defend the absolute value of my life. To affirm the mystery of my daily dying and the mystery of my daily living = to challenge men’s violent cheapening of both.
But I cannot hear these voices clearly if I am still afraid of the old witch, the Terrible Mother in myself, or if I am estranged from the real old women of this world. For it is not the wicked witch who keeps Rapunzel in her tower. It is the prince and our divided selves.
Note: There was no follow-up article on the women of the tower, but Ida Burres, Mamie Buggs, Mary Gordon, Katherine Jefferson, Odella Keenan, and the other women of Warren Tower, did win what they consider to be adequate security – “of course, it is never all that you could wish,” said Vallie Burton, President of the Warrant Tower Association. They won because of their own bonding, their demands, and also, no doubt, because of Viola Osgood.
Biography taken from www.oldwomensproject.org
Cynthia Rich is an activist who has been exposing ageism against old women for more than 25 years. She co-authored the trailblazing essay collection Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging, and Ageism with her partner Barbara Macdonald in 1983; a second, expanded edition was issued in 1991. Another expansion of that edition was published in 2001 after Macdonald’s death at age 86, so that the essays span more than twenty years of analysis and activism, addressing society’s pervasive ageism from a feminist perspective. Rich lives in San Diego, where she is a co-founder of The Old Women’s Project. According to the project website, the group “works to make visible how old women are directly affected by all issues of social justice, and to combat the ageist attitudes that ignore, trivialize or demean us. We are a group of old women who use actions of various kinds to achieve this goal. We welcome women of all ages who wish to join in our actions” (The Old Women’s Project, 2005).