Most older American women today face poverty. Half of retired women in Minnesota have incomes of just under $18,000 a year, yet the cost of a basic living for a single older Minnesotan is $23,000.

How did this happen? Largely because today's older women made education and early career decisions when American society was still grounded in traditional gender roles, setting a career trajectory that adversely defines their economic status today.

I interviewed nine older women a few years ago about their education, career and support decisions. They ranged in age from 58 to mid-70s. These themes emerged:
• Women of this generation were told by society, their parents and their church that post-high school education for women was not important. At best, a college education would help a woman be an asset to her future husband. As Joan, 69, put it, her education goals were more in the "entertainment category."
• Education is the key to economic security.
• Divorce spelled economic disaster. Five of the six divorced women had no marketable skills when they divorced.
• Every woman sought well-paid employment to attain economic security. They were willing to work hard and to get training.
• Biology is destiny. Having children defines women's lives. It did back in the 1960s and the 1970s - and it does today.
• Only one of the nine women received any advice about the need to prepare to be economically independent. It was assumed they would get married and be supported by their husbands.
• Professions for women when these women were young were narrowed to nursing, teaching and secretarial work.
• A woman's future held marriage and children. Her role was to be supportive to her husband and to raise her children.
• Though society believed a man's role was to be the family breadwinner and the woman's role was to stay home and bear and raise children, that didn't turn out to be the case for many of the women interviewed. Connie remained married, but her alcoholic husband stopped working a few years after their marriage, and Connie was and still is - 51 years later - the sole family breadwinner. Dolores' hastily arranged marriage at age 16 to the 15-year-old father of her child did not result in financial support of her or her child. Joan consciously married someone she believed would support her financially, but that turned out not to be so. Sally's husbands did not support her - rather the opposite.

• Every one of these women remained strong and resilient. They worked hard, they got whatever education they could manage, they sacrificed for their children and they provided as best as they could for their own economic security.

So let's give a resounding cheer for today's older women. Let's also give women meaningful and decently paid employment, so their later years will be dignified and secure.
Barbara Battiste is the director of the Legislative Office on the Economic Status of

Barbara Battiste recommends these books that celebrate the strength, wisdom, humor and joys of being an older woman:
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Any of Louise Penny's Armand Gamache mysteries ... and enjoy the older villagers in Quebec's Three Pines setting
The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir

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