There were women in trees, women on tiptoe atop ledges, all trying to peer over the hundreds of thousands of heads in pink hats filling Washington’s National Mall for the Women’s March in January. In all of her 69 years, Judy Seguin never had been part of anything like this.
Seguin had driven from Nowthen with her daughter, teenage granddaughter and friends, saying yes with a newfound impulsiveness.
“It was a defining experience for me,” she said quietly. “The solidarity, the permission to be who you are.”
Across the dining room table, Susan Dergantz listened, nodding. She didn’t go to Washington, but she also finds herself stepping out of her comfort zone, calling congressional representatives, writing postcards, reading legislation.
“With all that’s going on this year, I decided it was time to become involved,” said Dergantz, 67, of Anoka. “I thought that making phone calls, trying to attend town hall meetings, would, I don’t know, make me feel less helpless.”
Seguin and Dergantz are afloat in a rather unexpected pool of activism. It’s a pool of older women who’ve raised kids, held jobs, gone to church, kept life going behind the scenes. Now, somewhat to their surprise, many feel energized by issues affecting women and social justice.
“We really are issues-oriented,” Seguin said. “It’s not necessarily about who’s in the White House. I see what may be coming, and I don’t like the plans from our Legislature or Congress or president. They aren’t listening. Government happens at the lowest level. I think people forget that.
“So we’re done. We’re done being quiet.”
Dergantz and Seguin are part of a grass-roots movement of activist older women. Maureen McHugh, a professor of psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who’s written extensively on women’s issues, said their visibility is a testament to how much women’s lives have changed in the past several decades.
“There is a larger group of educated, previously employed women — who might also have organizational skills around protest — than there ever has been in our whole history,” McHugh said.
“Some of issues they’re mobilizing about now really are the same old issues, which is discouraging. But at the same time, we understand them.”
Yet Seguin isn’t keen about being considered a rebel.
“I don’t really like that term ‘activist’ when I feel like a grandma,” she said. “I’m a grandma who is taking action.”
Getting her voice back
Seguin and Dergantz met 10 years ago at their church, the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Anoka, which Dergantz calls “a beautiful pocket of liberalism.” “It’s not that I’m especially religious,” she added, “but it gave me the permission to be the person I am inside, to be more, to do more.”
The two women clicked, partly given their backgrounds. As Dergantz said, “I feel like I’ve known Judy my whole life.”
Seguin worked for 31 years with Hennepin County as a human services supervisor in public assistance. Dergantz taught middle school students in St. Francis for 35 years, and still exudes a wry even-keeledness. She volunteers at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, an elementary school and a local homeless shelter.
They’re each attuned to needs of the young and the less fortunate.
Seguin once was young and less fortunate.
She married at 18 after graduating from Robbinsdale High School, but her husband abused her physically and emotionally. “My only sunshine in the eight years we were married were my two kids,” she said. She’s not sure how things would have ended. All she knows is that a woman — “and it’s always been women who’ve helped me” — told her that she saw what was going on, and that she was there for her.
That was incentive enough for Seguin to file for divorce. She returned to school, but needed public assistance until she could get a job.
“That’s how I could pay the rent, or get clothes for the kids,” she said. “I was lucky enough to have parents to help, but many do not.”
Eventually, she met Dean Seguin. They’ve been married for 39 years, “and my life has been pretty darn good.”
Then, last year, her ex-husband died and she realized how his influence had subconsciously lurked over the years, “how I’d always felt a little afraid.” His death, she said, “gave me my voice back.”
Dergantz touched her friend’s hand and exhaled. She’s heard this story. This time, though, she decided to share her own story.
“OK, I don’t know if you have ever heard this,” Dergantz began, and then told how she had been sexually assaulted during her first summer as a schoolteacher, how it’s taken her 40 years to come to terms with that violence, how she gained 100 pounds “trying to make myself undesirable as a piece of meat,” how she lost that weight and — like Seguin — found her voice.
“I’d been taking care of other people all my life and now am taking care of myself,” she said. “I think I’m just starting to give myself permission, period.”
Seguin touched her friend’s hand and exhaled.
Nevertheless, she persists
When Seguin says, “We’re done being quiet,” it sounds like an echo from several pasts:
From 1848, and the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.; among the topics was women’s right to vote. After 72 years of lawsuits and protests, the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
From 1963, when Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” told how women felt stifled by expectations to be homemakers.
From 1972, when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, but too few states ratified it by the deadline.
But — breaking news — the Nevada Legislature ratified the ERA last month, the first state in 40 years to do so. The action is symbolic, yet emblematic of a new phrase in the zeitgeist: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
McHugh said the growing presence of older women as social change agents is a result of veteran activists from the Gloria Steinem era joining forces with women for whom activism is as unfamiliar as their grandchild’s Snapchat account.
“There are those who have been continuously involved in the women’s movement, and it’s their energy and leadership and previous experience that is behind this,” McHugh said.
The urgency seen in the Women’s March is due, partly, to the fact that activists of the 1960s and ’70s “actually kind of relaxed” around issues such as pay equity, abortion access and child care, McHugh said. “They thought of these issues as past, and now they are very anxious to try and fix it.”
“Oftentimes we cut older women off and put them in a corner to crochet,” she added. “But it’s healthy as you age to be engaged.” There are many formal groups with names such as Conscious Elders Network, Older Women’s League, even the Raging Grannies (whose chapters are called “gaggles”).
That said, even McHugh was somewhat taken aback by the turnout for the Women’s March.
“I was totally stunned that it was a snap reaction for some of these women to go,” she said. “There’s a grass-roots generational feel to it. It’s not just that older women are inspired, but that women are united.”
Attention must be paid
Temperatures hovered near freezing on the night of Feb. 22, when citizens arrived in Sartell, Minn., for a town-hall meeting with Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. About 150 people packed into the 76-seat meeting room in City Hall, leaving hundreds more outside.
Instead of heading home, they stuck around, Dergantz and Seguin among them, “and there were many women significantly older then us,” Dergantz said. Overflow traffic ended up at the sports arena across a wooded area. A pickup truck aimed its lights so people could navigate the pitch-dark walking path.
The gathering was mostly civil. That Emmer scheduled a meeting was a plus; some representatives don’t. This was the first such meeting either woman had attended.
Seguin grew up in an Air Force family, spending part of her childhood in England and Pennsylvania before the family returned to Minnesota.
Dergantz grew up in a strong union household on the Iron Range, with her father working the mines around Keewatin. She remembers marveling at the racial diversity at college in Mankato. Living in Anoka, she said, is like returning to her hometown.
“I’ve never really been involved in politics,” she said. She’s made some campaign contributions, and worked a phone bank when the gay marriage amendment was on the ballot in 2012. But what she’s doing now is on a whole other level.
“Reading what I feel like I need to read to stay informed, it’s so overwhelming,” she said. “I can’t keep up with it. I was in tears last night, feeling myself slipping to depression at times.”
She shook her head, as if shaking away a thought.
“I’m a fiction reader,” she continued, smiling. “But these bills, they’re real and the language is difficult. I have to read and reread to understand it.”
She finds support on a Facebook page called Stand Up Minnesota. There, she has vented and pondered.
In a recent post, she wrote that she’s stayed aloof from politics “because I honestly don’t understand the hearts of people who don’t seem to care: about people, about safety, about health, about the environment, about science, about evidence. … I won’t give up or give in, but I’m hoping not to be broken in the process.”
“I’ve felt so lifted up and supported there,” she said. Indeed, the digital age seems to fuel connectedness.
Seeing women’s marches convene all over the world, “watching them all on TV was just so incredibly” — she cast about for a word, then smiled — “soothing. I thought, it really is a movement.”
In going to Washington, Seguin marched for Dergantz, but also for their regular Saturday coffee bunch of “sister friends.” On that morning, they texted a photo to Seguin of them clinking their mugs together in solidarity.
The task ahead
So, what’s next?
Barely three months into the Trump administration, networks of internet sites act as digital to-do lists suggesting various actions, such as calling a representative, firing off an e-mail, sending postcards or showing up at an action.
However engaged, Dergantz is selective.
“There are some texts asking you to send a message along the lines of, ‘I’m not happy about what happened.’ But I’m not going to putz around about things that have already happened. I want to talk about what’s ahead. We are for something.”
She took part in the March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, in St. Paul, part of another global action. But her arthritis and joint replacements take a toll.
“I believe — hope — I won’t need to be involved to the extent I am now, but I will make sure I’m more aware of what my elected officials are up to,” she said. “I rather like the quick phone calls, e-mails, postcards. I really don’t know how influential they may be, but I feel better thinking my voice might be heard.
“I’m hoping to actually get inside the doors of a town-hall meeting!”
Seguin says this life of greater activism feels as if it will persist. Her hair reflects a slight violet tint somewhat at odds with her Swedish reserve, but was inspired by “Warning,” a 1961 poem by British poet Jenny Joseph that begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”
“The issues close to my heart aren’t going away no matter who our elected officials are,” she said. “Now my activism is focused on prevention, trying not to go backwards.
“Fear got me involved. Love will keep me here. I found my voice and it’s permanent.”