As part of the program of the Women’s Caucus of the Modern Language Association, I agreed to speak about retirement. And I did so by turning to a friend about whom I’ve written before. This is what I said publicly, but to the blog-readers I want also to note that the friend I am writing about is on her way from Argentina to visit me once again.
Gloria Bonder and I met in 1980 at the UN conference in Copenhagen. She was in her late thirties, and I was just past 50. Both of us were engaged in women’s studies in our own countries and also in the wider world of UN world policy. Our relationship has continued through the thirty-five years since then, as Gloria has become the inventor and director of a huge Latin American on-line graduate program in women’s studies, aimed at officials in business and government, both male and female. Two years ago, she came to visit me in New York with a new agenda: Approaching 70, how can she change her life, she asked? She is finding it more difficult to work her twelve to fifteen hours a day, often seven days a week. She feels tired. She would like to have a different life. What should she do?
What to tell her? For me, I told her, retirement has not been a solution. For some people like me, retirement may need a different approach. I learned this slowly, over the past fourteen years. In 2000, fourteen years ago, when I was 71, I decided it was time to retire. I had been with the Feminist Press for 30 years as its vision-maker and its administrator. The job had become too large for one person, I thought. Not only was I tired; I was also aware that the world of publishing was changing rapidly, and I knew that I didn’t want to be the person to move the Press into the digital world.
Instead, I proposed that I would retire to work full-time on the grant-funded Women Writing Africa, a multi-volume research and publishing project I had helped begin in the middle of the 1990s that was to produce four huge published volumes, none of which was yet ready. And so my proposal was accepted. By 2001, for example, I was traveling for the project to Senegal in January; Uganda and Morocco in April; and then to Bellagio, Italy, in September to meet with the West Africans, who had completed their volume’s collection phase and needed to work on translation, headnotes, and Introduction.
In addition, that year I seemed to have endless energy for travel. I spent three weeks in China beginning work on another book project. I also traveled for pleasure and also to see friends who were ill or failing, all the while editing the final texts for the Southern African volume. Today, I am amazed to note that that life of travel and editing continued for the next four years, and of course, as I think about it now, I was never really “retired.” I had simply arranged for myself another kind of work, very difficult work, but very rewarding. I must mention at least the chief ingredients of this work: collegial relationships, interesting texts, and a shared sense of making history with these volumes.
The work was interrupted just as we had begun on the Northern volume, when the Board of Feminist Press asked me to return as Interim Director, which I did for a year. Then, when I assumed I would “retire” again, the new director asked me to stay on as Publisher, since she knew that the Feminist Press needed two people at the helm. I stayed for two years, continuing my work on Women Writing Africa, perhaps somewhat more slowly than I would have liked. But yes, you see the point I am about to make: I was still not really “retired.”
In 2008, Gloria Jacobs, the Feminist Press’s director, gave a party for me in June, officially designated as my “retirement” party. I was then 79, three of the four African volumes had been published, and the fourth one was in press. So what was I to do next? I began working full time on the memoir that had simmered on a back burner for at least a dozen years and before then in my imagination’s back burner. As I try to reimagine those two years, what comes to mind are the several long weekends I worked with Janet Zandy, whose intelligent criticism sustained my need for a work-relationship. Writing is lonely work, I learned, especially when it is full-time.
What have I discovered? For people like me, retirement is a problem to be overcome, not a solution at all. I didn’t solve the problem creatively because I didn’t recognize its parameters or anticipate the symptoms it might rouse. I didn’t think about it —or even recognize it as a problem—until recently.
This is what I told my friend before she went home:
1. Do not leave your job; redefine it.
2. Cut your hours, cut your pay, but keep a significant portion of control over the workplace or your work in it.
3. Take a vacation, even a month-long one, and return refreshed.
Perhaps this advice will be useful only for people who have founded start-ups, new programs, or who are in charge of work important enough to allow them to follow my suggestions. Perhaps this advice will matter to people who have been, like me workaholics, people who, as Marilyn French used to say, “never learned to play.” For her, she said, work meant you were alive.
I used to tell my students—who for more than a decade were women and who, in the sixties, didn’t think much about work—that they needed both love and work. Growing older does not reduce or eliminate those needs. They are simply more difficult to fulfill.
Even as I prepare this for my blog, I am awaiting the arrival of Gloria Bonder. More when I’ve talked with her about her future retirement plans.