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Excerpt: 'The Wisdom Trail: In the Footsteps of Remarkable Women'

The Wisdom Trail runs through the stories of the women who have lived along the fault line between two ways of defining the roles of women in the family and the wider world. Traditionally, women's principal role consisted of being a dutiful wife, the keeper of hearth and home, and the bearer and nurturer of children. Today their role includes an expectation that they will also have careers in occupations once open only to men. The women of the Wisdom Trail are now in their seventies and eighties. They first experienced the upheaval of women's roles in the twentieth century and made the transition into the new place available for women. Now, in the twenty-first, they look back and recount the events and influences, the choices and accidents that marked the paths that ultimately led to gratification and serenity.

The women we interviewed for this book are not the only ones to reach this fortunate stage. They are a sampling of the many women who have continued to have active, satisfying, useful lives far beyond the age we used to call old. They share a commitment to serving society, and they have succeeded in doing that by taking advantage of opportunities, persevering in the face of obstacles, and meeting challenges resolutely, while nurturing gratifying connections with family and friends. They are outspoken, gutsy, and undeterred by restrictive conventions. Their wisdom lies in the choices they made as the world around them changed, and in the attributes that led them to make those choices.

The women whose travels we follow have lived through extraordinary times, encompassing two different sets of expectations for women. The twists and turns of the twentieth century produced compromises and opportunities that coincided with the personal goals of the Wisdom Trail women. By seizing the possibilities inherent in prospects that appeared limited, they found growth. Their wisdom is the product of lifetimes spent embracing the challenges of their changing roles with enthusiasm.

They do not see themselves as exceptional. They were not conscious of charting a remarkable course as they did it. The Wisdom Trail is a road mapped in retrospect. The choices and characteristics that make their lives valuable as examples become apparent only when we listen to them reminisce. Like everyone in their generation, they have been shaped and buffeted by historical events, gone through the same life stages, and faced the same decisions. Yet the women of the Wisdom Trail chose to rise to the challenges, not just watch the world go by. Born and raised in a society with a definite idea of a woman's role, they were able to adapt to the changed social landscape as that role became unclear. They were ahead of the next wave, or primed to catch it as it came upon them. Most did not have a vision of what they would do, but they had an internal drive to move out of the old pattern. They seized or created opportunities to expand their lives while improving life for others. Ultimately, they left their communities, and often the wider world, a better place, and that has enriched their own lives.

For most of them, though, achievement came after their early years and the old conventions. Girls growing up during the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II were raised with a clear, if limited, set of expectations: They would grow up to be wives and mothers, then caretakers of aging parents. Perhaps they would work before marriage in an office or a shop; they might aspire to a college education and become a schoolteacher or a nurse. The main reason for sending a girl to college at that time, though, was to find a husband, and she didn't need more than two years to do that.

This was the life pattern for most American women. Throughout our history there were a few brave pioneers who defied the convention to become artists or writers or to enter medical or law school. There were the heroines of the women's suffrage movement, which finally bore fruit in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Our women's mothers lived through the Jazz Age, when some of society's rules relaxed, but things tightened up again during the Depression.

Then World War II turned life upside down. We all know the story: Women, single and married, were needed in the workplace, even in jobs that had always been done by men, because there weren't enough men at home. Some postponed having children because their husbands were at war; others postponed marrying. Succeeding in such jobs brought a new sense of independence. Then, in the great rush to get back to normal after the war, a woman's place was back in the house, raising children and presiding over a home for the sake of her husband's career. And that's what women did; for evidence, we need look no further than the seventy-seven million baby boomers born starting in 1946 and over the next two decades. But the genie of independence had been let out of the bottle.

The women of the Wisdom Trail were born in the 1920s and 1930s, and had been nurtured on the old assumptions. Most of them married and had baby boom children. But as their children went off to school, they began to break the mold. A few of them had started careers before that; more often, the first major move outside their role as homemaker was into volunteer work. When they found they could get things done and liked what they were accomplishing, they branched out. From running a music education program as a volunteer, they might get a job on the symphony staff; from working on political campaigns, they might decide to run for office themselves.

Then the sixties blew in, and the stirring of change grew into a wind. Already ahead of their time, our women took hold of new opportunities and raised their daughters to believe that they could do and be whatever they wanted. Many of the women of the Wisdom Trail — perhaps another aspect of their wisdom — married men who supported their aspirations and encouraged their daughters as well. The women seldom had a plan, but they were opportunists who seized openings as they appeared.

Because our women hadn't been raised with the idea that there was life beyond homemaking, few of them had even a sense that there was another goal for which they could plan. One of them described her life pattern as "zigzagging," and the description fits most of our subjects. This style has come around again, as young women are moving back and forth between working at careers and being at-home moms. But for our trailblazers, it was not a deliberate or a well-worn path. Some would move from volunteering into teaching or nursing, careers deemed acceptable for women.

Some found their way into less conventional careers like journalism, politics, or the ministry. Others joined the military or developed their creative talents. Unlike the generations growing up on this side of the divide, few Wisdom Trail women had high expectations. They enjoyed being wives and mothers, but they got bored. They wanted wider horizons, they wanted to be out in the world, and they wanted to be useful.

Whatever the opportunities our women found, the common ingredient was that it served the community. They discovered plenty of openings for that kind of work. Yet the divide persisted as they faced conflicting demands between their "regular jobs" — service at home — and what they chose to do outside. This was the same conflict their daughters and granddaughters face today, except that in those early days there were few models or societal norms for how to balance work inside and outside the home.

The Wisdom Trail consists not only in having lived through the long, challenging path from the twentieth to the twenty-first century. It lies in the way these women lived and the characteristics that enabled them to achieve and to continue to enjoy active and rewarding lives at an age that most didn't expect to see. Although the circumstances of their lives changed, in some ways dramatically, the attributes that allowed them to prosper when times restricted women have not diminished in value, and are as applicable today as they were fifty years ago.

Specific circumstances do create differences. Thoroughly coached to see a future that consisted of marriage-children-homemaking, these women didn't set out to break down barriers, nor did they have a specific alternative to the normal pattern in mind. Today we expect young women and men to be goal-oriented. While still in high school, they are pushed to make decisions about their future and to stay on the obligatory track toward that future. Our women's stories will hearten young people who have a hard time deciding the future shape of their lives. The stories of those who followed the Wisdom Trail support the modern model that promotes entrepreneurial skills and includes the likelihood of having several different careers.

One theme of our women's lives is that it's possible to do very well without a definite life plan. But while our women didn't have a plan, they got an education, which was essential. It might not have been in a subject they pursued later in life, but it was a necessary launching platform. Many of those on the Wisdom Trail enjoyed social and economic advantages not shared by all Americans, while others lived in poverty during the Depression. They all shared, though, in the broad benefits that came with the expansion of the middle class after World War II. Almost everyone of them graduated from college, which put them in the minority for their generation. But they all struggled to make their way against the tide of social convention. That was easier for some than for others, depending on where their journey began.

Wisdom Trail women exemplify the best of their generation. They thrived through each stage of the transformation of women's role in society. These women are not a statistically valid sample, nor do they represent the many spheres in which women are now active. In other ways they are typical of their generation. Like the great majority of their peers, most of them married and had children. Some are widows and divorcees; a few never married. Some of them knew poverty as they were growing up, and some would be considered middle class today. Many worked in education, from elementary school to university, as teachers, counselors, or administrators. Others made their marks in politics, health, or the arts. Since one of the authors is from the East Coast and one is from the West, most of our women are from the coasts, but the South and the Midwest are represented too. Those who are religious are Christian or Jewish. Most are Caucasian, but there are African Americans and Asian Americans here as well. Two are immigrants. The group ranges in age from seventy-three to ninety.

We, the authors, have walked the Wisdom Trail and are members of this group. Janet was born in 1921 and Julie in 1931. We wrote this book because very little has been written about the widespread and significant accomplishments of more or less average women of our generation. We looked at the women we knew or knew of and identified those we admired. As we've said, they shared a commitment to serving others. We sought women who had made a real difference, whose lives are ordinary and yet exemplary, and whose achievements have brought them contentment and wisdom. Their stories are recounted memories, many of them from times long past. The chronology may not always be accurate. The reminiscences may differ from others' memories of those times. Irregularities, inherent in the fabric of memory, matter little here, where the value lies in the meaning these women draw from the past as they reflect on it in the present.

Excerpted from The Wisdom Trail by Janet Lieberman and Julie Hungar. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright Janet Lieberman and Julie Hungar, 2009.

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Janet Lieberman and Julie Hungar