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Wise Women Speak Up on Being Successful, Savvy and 70 Years Old

June 30, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the introduction to "On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom," author-photographer Cathleen Rountree mentions that her book proposal was turned down by numerous publishers who felt "no one cares about women in their 70s."

Which, perhaps, helps explain why Rountree chose as her 16 septuagenarian-and-beyond subjects not a cross-section of women--including those who have lived lives of quiet desperation--but accomplished, active, fulfilled women, among them such marquee names as feminist icon Betty Friedan and writer Doris Lessing.

For the most part, these women told Rountree being 70 is just swell.

Indeed, while acknowledging that, as a sex symbol, a woman at a certain age becomes "invisible," the women in "On Women Turning 70" (Jossey Bass, 1999) bubble with enthusiasm about the rewards and challenges of reaching one's seventh decade:

* It brings "liberation from the limitations. You don't have to prove anything to anybody, do you? The rest of your life is just where you want to take it" Ageism? "All this seems so obsolete to me. Obsolete." (Friedan)

* "People decide to get old. It's as if they've said, 'Right, that's it. I'm going to get old.' Then they become old." (Lessing)

* At 70, "You don't think two steps forward is impossible. And you don't think one step back is the end of the world." (Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, who chairs the Bay Area-based Institute for MultiRacial Justice--and who at 70 bought a black leather miniskirt.)

* Seniors should "get up and help others. There's no sense in being old and grumpy. There's no sense in resting. You got eternity to rest." (Enola Maxwell, executive director of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in the Bay Area.)

* "The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been." (Madeleine L'Engle, writer.)

To be fair, Rountree, 51, who in her "decade series" has written about women turning 40, 50 and 60, does not paint an altogether rosy picture for women at 70. Her subjects tell of the continuing shock of seeing an elderly woman looking back in their mirrors.

Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath, wife of playwright Arthur Miller, has eschewed hair dye and a face lift. "If you have an inner life, you are more concerned about other things than how you look," she says, adding, "I don't lie about my age, because you have to remember too many dates."

Scholar Elinor Gadon, a cultural historian with an interest in women's spirituality, admits, "I used to say, 'When I grow older, I want to have a face that looks like Isak Dinesen's, full of wrinkles and crevices, all those marks of experience that would show the world that I had really lived.' I'm not so sanguine about it now!"

The women do not shirk from discussing death, and most are more curious than fearful. The thing to fear, says Lessing, is "having doctors who will wire us up like chickens" at the end. At 40, poet Mitsuye Yamada was misdiagnosed and given a year to live. When asked how she felt about turning 70, she said she "felt like screaming 'I am so lucky.' "

Whatever "it" is, go for it, counsels artist Betye Saar, who wears her hair purple on top. All too soon, "you're staring at the ceiling in the hospital and you say, 'Now wasn't there something I was gonna do?' "

For more reviews, read Book Review

* Sunday: Ira Berlin on "Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation"; Benjamin Schwarz on "Remembering Slavery"; Anthony Platt on prison stories; and William H. McNeill on why history matters.

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