Professor Emerita Ruth Saxton offers alternate visions for “coming to age” in The Book of Old Ladies
By Dawn Cunningham ‘85
Four years ago, at the age of 75, Ruth O. Saxton, MA ’72, retired from teaching English full-time at Mills College, a job she had held since 1974. Honored with the title of professor emerita, Saxton had earned the right to look back with satisfaction at her career as a preeminent Virginia Woolf scholar, an exemplary edu- cator and beloved mentor, the College’s first dean of letters, and the co-founder of the Women’s Studies Program—among other accomplishments. For many faculty, achieving emeritus status means it’s time to disengage from the constant demands of students and colleagues, the challenges of learning new pedagogical methods and technologies, and the pressure of publishing.
Not for Saxton. Instead, “retirement” opened one of her career’s most productive chapters, a highlight of which is the recent publication of a landmark work of literary criticism, The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction. The book provided the foundation for Saxton’s final class at Mills: Coming to Age, a unique community-based course she taught this past spring in collaboration with the Downtown Oakland Senior Center. To bring both the course and the book to fruition, she mobilized a network of students, alumnae, colleagues, and family.
Saxton says she wrote The Book of Old Ladies because she “wanted to complicate people’s notions of old women. We’re capable of a lot more growth and change than you would guess from portrayals in books.” But it’s not only the content of the book that dismantles stereotypes. Over the past two decades, Saxton’s own journey as an author and a teacher demonstrates how women of a certain age continue to use their cre- ative and intellectual prowess to surmount loss, to grow, and to innovate.
For The Book of Old Ladies, Saxton selected 31 works of fiction—novels and short stories from the 20th and 21st centuries—that illustrate key themes in plots featuring “Old Lady” protagonists. In the book’s introduction, Saxton explains:
I have always read fiction to find models for how to live, how to be…. Stories offer us ways to make sense of our pasts and to forge a way of being in our presents and futures…
I wanted to gather examples of good aging, of wise or surprising women over sixty and into their nineties, like beads on a string, a secular rosary to help fend off the fear of becoming elderly in a society whose mainstream vision of aging women is marked by fear, loathing, refusal, or reduction. I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory, and become increasingly their truest selves.
The resulting rosary ranges from well-known works by celebrated authors, such as Love, Again by Doris Lessing, to first novels by writers newer to the literary scene, such as Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. A gifted storyteller herself, Saxton provides engaging synopses of each piece while analyzing how the plots limit or expand the possibilities open to old ladies as they confront romance, sexuality, aging and mortality, loss and growth, and their own creative potential.
The Book of Old Ladies is the culmination of rigorous and highly original scholarship: Saxton reviewed more than 100 works to identify plot themes and make her selections. No other critical work has focused on analyzing the figure of the Old Lady in contemporary literature by women. Yet Saxton avoids academic writing style and jargon, allowing her own passion as a reader to shine through. “I didn’t want it to be a scholarly book,” she says. “I wanted it to be accessible, affordable, and available in paperback.” Her approach has won accolades from reviewers, including the respected literary magazine Kirkus Reviews.
The story behind The Book of Old Ladies begins more than 20 years ago, when Saxton was researching and teaching about the figure of “The Girl” in fiction. She edited a volume of scholarly essays, The Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women, in 1998. Narratives about girls’ coming-of-age, she observed, were often propelled by themes of romantic fulfillment or rejection—an evolution of the marriage plot in Victorian novels, which commonly revolved around the questions of whether and whom the young heroine would marry.
Saxton also found that many coming-of-age plots involved friction between daughters and mothers. “An older woman—a grandmother or an aunt—would be brought into the plot to help things move forward for the daughter,” she notes. “But we never get inside the older woman’s head.” Typically, neither the mother nor the older woman had much of a creative intellectual or artistic life.
“As I approached 60, I realized I was the age of these old women, and that wasn’t my experience of life at all,” she recalls. “I started looking for stories about old women the way I had looked for stories about girls.” One novel in particular set her off to write the book: Evening by Susan Minot. Evening’s protagonist, a 65-year-old woman dying of cancer, drifts into memories of an affair she had in her youth. Reviews hailed the book, published in 1998, as a complex portrait of a woman at the end of life; it later became a movie with Meryl Streep. “It drew me in, but I thought, something’s wrong,” Saxton says. “When I’m on my deathbed, I hope I’m not pre- occupied by some unrequited love from my adolescence!”
Saxton includes Evening in the first section of The Book of Old Ladies as an example of a plot she calls the “Deathbed Bookend,” in which “fictional old women are portrayed at the end of their lives remembering their youth rather than looking inward or outward at their present situations.”
From then on, “I tried to find imaginative plots that differed from Deathbed Bookends,” Saxton says. “I didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that life is only good when you’re young, that romance is all that matters.” Most of the stories in her book feature feisty old ladies who break away from stereotypes and are as varied as young characters.
For example, in Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, an elderly widow defies the expectations of her children and retreats to a new home where she forbids any visitors under the age of 70 and makes friends with several eccentric old men. Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad depicts a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who slips between her inner “memory palace”—filled with paintings from Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, where she worked in the 1940s—and the confusion of her current life in the Pacific Northwest.
“Most of these characters have experienced some sort of loss,” Saxton observes. “If you live long enough, there will be major things that happen. What I ask is, what do you do next?”
That question—what do you do after a loss?—has deep personal relevance for Saxton. “In the early days of this project,” she writes in a postscript, “I looked forward to completing the book within two years, hoping to benefit from my discoveries about how to age gracefully and well, but a car accident changed not only my plans but my entire life.”
One evening in fall 2004, Saxton and her husband were on their way to a res taurant in Oakland. She recalls, “As we were parking, a big SUV rammed into us. It totaled our Volvo, but we didn’t have a scratch.”
When she returned to the classroom that week, she couldn’t remember her students’ names. She was uncharacteristically disorganized and could no longer read or write easily. She was only 63 years old; “I feared I had early dementia,” she says. Her doctor thought she had a concussion, but weeks went by and she didn’t improve. Six months later, a scan revealed that she had sustained a traumatic brain injury.
“Rather than experiencing a gradual decline into old age, I had been hurtled into that strange terrain in an instant,” Saxton writes in The Book of Old Ladies. Her neurologist suggested that she retire, but she wasn’t ready to stop doing the work she loved. Instead, she developed new daily routines and systems.
In the classroom, she began to ask students to take more responsibility for presentations and discussions. “I took copious notes,” she says. “I talked less and listened more.” Her classes became more student-centered, more welcoming toward students who faced struggles of their own. Her daughter Kirsten Saxton ’90, now a professor of English at Mills, says Ruth gained “an awareness that a [student’s] need for accommodation does not imply a lack,” which makes her a better teacher.
Saxton also refused to give up on her goal of completing the book. Although writing remained a struggle for her for several years after the accident, she made progress by working with research assistants and other collaborators. “I learned to ask for help,” she says. “Now I have a team of women who’ve worked collaboratively with me on the book. I rely on these amazing women who have skills I don’t.”
Elizabeth Mathews, MFA ’09, served as Saxton’s first research assistant while she was a graduate student at Mills. Mathews would review texts that Saxton was considering for the book. “I would come to Ruth’s house, sit in her kitchen, talk about the books with her, and write up notes based on our conversation,” Mathews says. “By 2010, Ruth was able to read and write again, and she got into a routine of writing down general impressions or close readings in the mornings, which I would piece together into documents for her to work with.”
After Mathews left the Bay Area to begin a PhD program at University of California, Irvine, Saxton engaged with several other assistants who were Mills students or alumnae, including Emily Travis, MA ’17; Monique Iles, MA ’16; and Linda Gray, MA ’05. Travis set up a website for the book, ruthsaxton.com, where Saxton plans to expand the discussion to stories not included in The Book of Old Ladies.
Kirsten Saxton is another member of the team. “Ever since I began graduate school in 1990, my mom and I have been one another’s sounding boards….We read one another’s drafts and think through organizational structures and how the pieces can be improved,” she says. After the accident, Kirsten adds, “I was always confident that my mom would be able to return to the book because she could talk through the ideas, and even at the worst stage, she was able to be a terrific close reader and editor of other people’s work.” She currently helps Ruth manage social media for the book, including Instagram and Facebook author pages.
As Saxton healed and regained her writing abilities, Mathews introduced her to a writing coach, Brooke Warner, who helped her structure the book and guided as she wrote the chapters in their current form. In 2018, Saxton completed the manuscript, which Mathews edited. Warner selected the book for publication by She Writes Press, an independent publisher she co-founded.
Since the early aughts, Saxton had been exploring the figure of the Old Lady not only through her scholarship, but also through the literature courses she taught. One of these was a graduate seminar called Coming to Age, which focused entirely on Old Lady stories. After she “retired” to the role of professor emerita in 2016, Saxton continued to teach one course at Mills almost every year, concluding in spring 2020 with an undergraduate version of the Coming to Age seminar.
For this final course, Saxton had the idea of retooling the syllabus to enable students to interact substantively with actual old ladies and fulfill the College’s new undergraduate requirement for community-engaged learning. She also had the perfect collaborator for this effort: her former student Jennifer King ’00, MA ’02, who has directed the Downtown Oakland Senior Center (DOSC) for 15 years. With King’s help, Saxton designed a plan for the class to meet once each month at DOSC so that elders could join students in reading and discussing the stories. Fifteen Mills students enrolled and more than twice that number of elders signed up to participate.
“Our first meeting with the seniors stopped the students in their tracks,” Saxton noted in her blog. Together they discussed the short story “My Man Bovanne” by Toni Cade Bambara; Saxton described the conversation as “electric and filled with surprises, insights, and laughter.” The revelations continued throughout the course.
“I was heartened by how politically active the seniors were, how interested they were in connecting with younger people,” says Lila Goehring ’21. “They had a lot of thoughts about the books and related them to their own lives. They outdid us and inspired us to work harder.”
Another student, Grace Hirschfeld ’22, found insights relevant to relationships in her family: “My grandmother—whose parents immigrated from China—has always been seen as someone who cares for others and rarely does anything for herself. But since her husband died, she’s been taking more time for herself, investing more in what she enjoys. This class gave me more respect for her wishes for herself as an individual.”
“People seemed open and genuinely interested in each other’s ideas and experiences,” says Carole Glanzer, one of the DOSC elders who participated. “The value of intergenerational relationships is that they break down stereotypes and thereby can change negative ageist attitudes, coming from either end of the age spectrum. We don’t forget that we are of different generations, but we are more likely to see each other as individuals.”
Just after the class met for its second book discussion at DOSC, Alameda County issued shelter-in-place orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of a sudden, Saxton had to switch to teaching the class online, while still trying to achieve her goal “to help students see older women as individual persons.” She invited the elders to participate in class meetings via Zoom. Though many of them initially struggled with the technology, “they stuck with it and figured out how to join the discussions from their own homes,” King says.
Patricia Powell, who teaches creative writing at Mills, joined one of the online sessions as a guest speaker. She read from her work-in-progress, Balm Yard, a novel that explores women’s spiritual practices in rural Jamaica and features a mother-daughter relationship involving older women.
“After years in which I could not find stories focused on the present lives of older women characters—not just their pasts—I am excited to introduce… stories that get inside the heads of old women, see the world through their eyes, and abandon tired old stereotypes,” Saxton wrote in her blog about the class. King, who is in her 60s and a poet, says the examples provided by The Book of Old Ladies are already providing inspiration for her new work. “I’m writing about love in the 60s. I would never have had the courage to write about that before,” she says. “We don’t lose our sensuality. It gets more nuanced.”
The Coming to Age course proved that old ladies don’t lose their adaptability, either. Students say Saxton’s transition to online teaching was just as smooth as that of younger professors. Yet she is content to let her first online course be her last teaching experience.
“In an odd way, COVID-19 made the end of my teaching career easier,” she says. “There was something magic about stepping into a classroom. I am grateful that I won’t be teaching classes that are entirely online.”
Despite that, Saxton hasn’t disengaged from her professorial role entirely. She’s still mentoring former students and writing letters of recommendation, even as she enjoys having time to spend with a new grandchild.
Among Mills alumnae, she has established a legacy of helping women discover new models for their own coming to age. “Knowing Ruth has changed my perspective on my future,” Mathews says. “She’s like one of the characters she writes about. She had this amazing life, then this horrific accident. But she still went on to write this entire book and continue teaching. She has been an incredible model of resilience for me.”
Kirsten Saxton says her view of aging has been shaped by “growing up with a woman who thinks deeply about the import of cultural representations and who has lived as an example of refusing narratives that limited her capacity to write, teach, mother, and be a full self.”
That woman concludes The Book of Old Ladies by observing: “I have now lived longer than many of the female protagonists whose stories I had hoped would inform me…. I have discovered through my own experience that loss does not need to define us, and that old women have at our disposal many ways we can adapt and learn and continue to see the world with wonder and joy.”
With the publication of The Book of Old Ladies, Ruth Saxton presents a timeless gift to women of all ages: a compendium of alternative visions for growing old, coping with loss, and defying expectations. She reminds us that we always have time to experience ourselves and our world in new ways.
Queering old age: Invisibility and hypervisibility
By Lila Goehring ’21
Professor Ruth Saxton’s class Coming To Age was a transformative experience that helped break down barriers of ageism and negative stereotypes of elderly women perpetuated by mainstream media. A diverse selection of readings showcased how empowerment, agency, and creativity can look like later in life, and through the unique community engagement aspect of the class, Mills students were able to engage in meaningful discussions with members of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center. Even though our visits were cut short by the effects of COVID-19, the connections I made in this class—and of course, the lessons I learned from the course material—will stay with me forever and empower me as I age.
The class’s final project assignment allowed for a lot of creativity, which gave me an exciting focus and purpose during a uniquely difficult time. I decided to delve into a project that was personal yet challenging, which was to examine the ways in which older members of the lesbian community have navigated life and its challenges. While researching this topic by examining pieces of media and reflecting on the experiences of older lesbians in my life, I attempted to answer this question: how have older lesbians faced both invisibility and hypervisibility in their lives?
I was initially inspired to take on this project after watching a documentary called A Secret Life, which is about a couple, Pat and Terry, who spent nearly 70 years together, yet only came out to their family in the decade before Terry’s death in 2019. The two were known by everyone as best friends. “Anybody who was not gay didn’t know, they simply didn’t,” they said. “They just thought we were good friends, and of course we were—very good friends.” When they did come out, one family member felt angry, as if Pat and Terry had been lying to her for their whole lives. But others reminded us that they were alive in a time when “difference was not looked on as something good.” When Pat and Terry were in public, they dressed in a feminine way to avoid consequences. They never went to gay or lesbian bars, which were constantly raided during the 1950s and ’60s.
This led me to think about a completely opposite subject: visibility, and even hypervisibility, for older lesbians. Lesbians who present as “butch” are highly visible to society. In her book Fun Home, Alison Bechdel talks about the first time she saw a butch lesbian in public as a child, and felt connected to her (this became the hit song “Ring of Keys” in the musical adaptation of her book). In an April feature in the New York Times headlined “The Renegades,” which explored the butch identity, writer Eileen Myles explained that their identity is a way to take up space as they age. Myles describes a butch identity as a way to take up space in the way that a man would: “I’m 70 years old,” Myles said. “It’s a real war…there’s a lot of [emphasis on] ‘the aging older woman,’ [which is] kind of gauze-y, and I’m like, dude, let me front load my masculinity and be kind of craggy, [and] hold space in the way that a man would.”
Others offered comparisons to other generations. “You think back to the 40s and 50s … those butches so wanted to wear men’s clothing, but they would get arrested for it,” explained filmmaker Kimberly Peirce in the piece. “They were fighting for their lives. Why would you wear men’s clothing if the risk was getting arrested? Because it’s who you are, because you have to do it…it’s a world and it’s a culture.
I also began to think about visibility in the lives of those I know personally. I thought of my neighbors, an older lesbian couple, who have lived in San Francisco for 30 years. Last year, while I interviewed one of them for a documentary, she revealed that she moved to San Francisco because she would be able to live openly: “I knew I was a lesbian, and I thought, I have got to get myself to San Francisco, where it will be much more accepting to be gay.” She and her partner love living in a place where they can walk around holding hands without fear—where they can be visible. But this isn’t the case for everyone: when I discussed public hand-holding with another older lesbian couple in my life, they said, “I wish we could do that.” They went on to explain that they could never, ever hold hands in their Southern city.
I came to understand that visibility is still a challenge for members of the LGBTQ community today, but learned a lot about how this issue has shown up differently for older people. Young people today will never know the same invisibility that older people lived with. We do, however, understand that living proudly in our identity is a form of survival, and admire and thank those who came before us. Coming To Age reminded me how important intergenerational friendships are and taught me the importance of dismantling ageism. Life does not end after 25, and I aspire to live a life as full of confidence and creativity as the women I came to know in this life-changing course.