We have "Battling" Bella Abzug to thank for Women's Equality Day on August 26. The crusading Congresswoman from New York initiated the legislation that mandated it back in 1971. Writing an oral history of Bella with my late girlfriend and colleague Mary Thom was a lesson in courage, passion, brilliance, humor, and wisdom; when I am searching for inspiration or insight, I ask myself, "What would Bella do?"
A particular piece of wisdom stuck with me. We have gone from DEpendence to INdependence, she observed, but we have one more step: INTERdependence. As always, Bella was speaking of the personal as well as political. On the personal level, that insight helped me understand the new kind of intimacy that I was finding among women of my generation as I researched my book How We Love Now. It also adds perspective to the progress (or lack thereof) toward women's equality. Until we won the vote in 1920, after 72 years of protests, marches, speeches, and civil disobedience, we were dependent on men for our survival; the passage of the 19th amendment enabled us to speak for ourselves, the first step toward independence. For another seventy-plus years, we broke rules and broke ceilings and broke free.
In recent decades, despite setbacks, we have reached a critical mass, and the breakthroughs we have achieved and the networks we have established, are fostering an interdependence that empowers all of us. Recently I have encountered a handful of the growing number of women -- I call them entrepreneurs of empowerment -- who are developing specific projects that reflect the spirit of support, sisterhood, and truth-telling that binds us into a formidable force for equality.
Propelling them all is our secret ingredient that becomes more potent with age: the community of women, what I call (in my new ebook You Gotta Have Girlfriends, a "post fifty posse." I have seen two documentaries that capture that special chemistry.
In Tuesday Lunch Diane Stark follows a group of Long Island women who have met every week since 1969. They remind me of my own Post-50 posse; we've been having dinner once a month since 1989. Like us, they have shared tragedy and joy, discovery and loss (the only member who has died is Starks's own mother, which is how she got to the group in the first place). She had almost all the footage she needed when hurricane Sandy hit their area; now she is looking for funding to go back and document the way they helped each other survive that disaster.
Alice and Elizabeth's One Woman Show is a video of a performance by Alice Barden that chronicles the friendship between herself and Elizabeth that began when they were starting out as two fiercely single women and the choices they made to stay that way - until Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. It is touching and at the same time a celebration of a profound connection that enriched both lives.
New friendships are also the order of the day. As our lives change, we look for new qualities and experiences and new kind of compatibility. Karen Venable is coming at this reality from a particular and practical angle. She told me about her project over a cup of coffee at the Women at Woodstock gathering (created by model entrepreneur of empowerment, Ann Voorhees Baker) in Berkeley California. She is developing a match.com-like operation called "Roommates 4 Boomers" to pair up single women over fifty whose circumstances have changed and need to double up on living arrangements. She understands that the trick is to elicit from both parties the quirks, phobias, and habits that make or break compatibility. I thought it was a terrific response to a trend I have noticed - women forming new communities that offer the social and economic support that will allow them to continue to be engaged and effective members of society. I look forward to the launch of her website next month.
A spontaneous example of the honesty, humor and courage that women together generate occurred at an event sponsored by WHOA! Network (Women Honoring Our Age) founders Lynn Forbes and Darryle Pollack, whose new Google+ hangout, a meeting place for women is one of my favorite haunts, and a start-up Wine Sisterhood co-founded by Terry Wheatley to welcome women into the conversation about wine in a friendly, fun community online. The women were introducing their National Girlfriends Day event with the familiar analogy between a good friend and a good bra (both hold you up, stick close, won't let you down....) when Terry made a very personal and unscripted comment, to which Darryle responded in stunned and instant intimacy, "Me too!" Telling the truth about our lives has wondrous consequences:
Truth-telling is a form of empowerment that we have been perfecting over our journey from dependence to interdependence, but there are some truths we still avoid. Soon after my friend Ellen Goodman retired from writing her Pulitzer-prize winning column, her sister was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. As she confronted the realities of her sister's decline, Ellen became aware of an important conversation she had not had with her sister or anyone - about end of life wishes. To help all of us break the ice, she created The Conversation Project, a website that offers advice and worksheets that enable us to begin by asking ourselves some questions and then share our choices with children, spouses, doctors, friends.
When Amy Litzenberger, a former banker and neighbor of mine in upstate New York and Gloria Feldt, former head of Planned Parenthood and women's movement comrade in arms, began talking about their concern that young women are not learning the tricks of the trade of how to get, hold onto, and wield power, I thought they would never be able to come up with a concrete solution, but now, a little over a year later, Take the Lead is up and running. Its goal is to empower young women to achieve parity with men in top leadership roles by 2025; they have come up with a teaching module that is available online or on campus that "cracks the code" for success.
The minute I saw Cindy Joseph I was hooked. It was her gorgeous long white hair that got me. I later recognized her as one of the very few models who look our age. She is also a crusader against ageism, and when I met her, she had just organized a rally in downtown San Francisco to preach age pride. Her message of empowerment is: embrace the beauty of your age. Her cosmetic company defies the "anti-age, anti-wrinkle, anti-us" message of other make up pitches. "A woman's face tells an individual life story," she says. "Our beauty is born out of self knowledge, confidence and wisdom. Let's reveal and celebrate the beauty we have earned!" Amen to that!
All these women have extraordinary chutzpah and determination, but behind their visions is the understanding that empowerment is a team sport. Every one of us who is making change and taking risks in her own life is on the team.