In Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians (Haworth Press), anthropologist Cheryl Claassen presents an indepth look at the lives of 44 middle and upper class lesbians, aged 62 to 82. Born between the two world wars, the women share their memories and feelings about marriage, children, lesbian relationships, careers, retirement, old age and growing up during the Depression.
Dr. Claassen is professor of anthropology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. She is the author of numerous articles and several books, including Shells (Cambridge University Press) and Women in Archaeology (Scholarly Book Services).
AHB reached Dr. Claassen in Boone, North Carolina.
Ruth Dempsey: What was the inspiration for your study?
Cheryl Claassen: This study was prompted primarily by converging circumstances. I had just started to plan for my own retirement when I began to meet retired lesbians who had summer homes in my county. I was asking them how they funded their retirements and what they did to plan for it. They often ended up talking about their pre-retirement lives.
I’ve collected narratives for years and heard many fascinating stories from these women. Indeed, it was a great disappointment that I could not publish the stories in their entirety in the book. I still worry about what their lives and my own will be like in
heterosexual retirement, and in assisted living and nursing facilities. Those places are not set up for couples, primarily because 90 per cent move in as singles, after having lost a partner. They are definitely not set up for lesbian couples.
RD: The women have different views on retirement. "Kate" says, "On a scale of one to 10, my life is now a 12." But "Carolyn" still has "anxiety dreams" about retirement. Why did they retire and how are they faring?
CC: Lesbians retire for all the same reasons straight people do – to leave a wearisome or changing job, to spend time with spouse and grandchildren, to make sure they have a retirement and to do something else.
Most of the women in the project are fairing fine. Some suffered set backs in the stock market slump of 2000/2002. Health is, of course, the biggest unknown in planning for retirement, and poor health is the biggest source of disappointment. For some, poor health is thwarting travel plans, as well as mobility in general and even preventing reading (when on oxygen). Poor health is also killing our spouses, companions and friends.
RD: Many of the women were good planners and financially savvy. Can you share some of their secrets with me?
CC: Financially savvy is right! In the era when women weren’t supposed to even know how to pay the bills or be able to get a loan in their own names, most of these women were doing both and more. In almost all cases, the women in this project bought and sold real estate, which has allowed them to have comfortable retirements.
Many of them also had work-related retirement plans that required contributions and made matches. Plan managers often invested these monies in the stock market. Several women made efforts to educate themselves about mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and annuities and purchase them.
The 22 women, who were once married and have children, receive little or no assistance from children now. A few women are living on their dead ex-husbands’ social security or on alimony. The wealthiest women made their money in real estate. Several women do "odd-jobs" to earn extra cash in retirement.
RD: What kinds of activities do they enjoy?
CC: Commonly, the women participate in lesbian groups who play golf, board games, and poker. They also discuss books and volunteer at museums and theaters. As well, they enjoy reading, walking, Internet surfing, emailing, visiting children and hosting guests.
Moving twice a year (between summer and winter homes) also takes up lots of time.
Several of these women live in formal lesbian communities such as Carefree in Florida, Carefree Cove in North Carolina, or Apache Junction in Arizona, where activities are planned for them.
RD: The women appear to have forged strong bonds with partners?
CC: Yes. I found that the married women in this project were married an average of 12 years when the national average is seven years. And they have been in their current partnerships with women even longer on average. It seems to me that legalized marriage between women could do wonders to turn around divorce statistics in this country. Maybe lesbians try harder to keep relationships together.
RD: Many of the couples have made wills. All their paperwork is in order. This is something people tend to keep putting off . . .
CC: Most of the women in this project live in informal or formal communities of women in Florida. There are many lesbian financial planners, lawyers and accountants who have made presentations to groups in the Sarasota-Bradenton-Tampa area. These professionals have explained the importance of pre-planning as well as how to prepare documents for transferring property and giving legal rights to a partner or friend. But there are also national gay and lesbian organizations that can provide documents and the education necessary.
RD: In several situations, the women developed networks to care for a sick older member. Can you please elaborate?
CC: Someone will email the sick woman’s friends and coordinate the necessary activities such as bringing meals, providing rides to doctors’ appointments, caring for a pet, cleaning the house and doing yard work. As a woman is dying, a schedule is set up for sitters.
One group in Florida has set up a non-profit fund to assist sick women and to pay vet bills. Sometimes visitations or a cell phone may be necessary. This group helped one woman find a care facility, pack, downsize possessions, get legal aid and move into an institutional setting. They also coordinated friends to oversee her care in the assisted facility and helped her to maintain her social life.
RD: Was spirituality important in the women’s lives?
CC: Many of the women identified attendance at the Metropolitan Community Church as an important activity. Only two or three of the women sounded as if religion was of great importance to them. But many enjoyed the activities and socializing opportunities offered by the church. As well, several women who go to Metropolitan Community Church commented favorably on their politicizing by that group.
RD: How would you sum up their view of old age?
CC: Over and over again, I heard about the freedom that came with age and with retirement. With retirement and the deaths of parents, most lesbians have nothing left to fear losing. As far as being old, most of these women did not think of themselves as old. When a woman did think of herself as old, the comment was "it sucks."
RD: This is a remarkably vital and resilient group of women. Looking back over the four years of your study, what stands out for you?
CC: I was continually amazed at how apolitical all of these women had been around gay/homosexual rights. They nevertheless touched many lives and offered many women alternatives to heterosexual life. I heard lots of great one-liners and many fascinating stories.
I was also struck by the scars. Some women refused to be interviewed because of things that happened to them. Some were eager to be interviewed for the very same reason. Some cried as they spoke to me. And some expressed pain, sadness or anger at having to hide while being model workers and citizens in their communities or while dealing with child custody issues.