A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives
by Lisa Congdon

Chronicle Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-452-15620-0.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 02/28/2018

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Active Life; Nonfiction: Elders

Author, illustrator and fine artist Lisa Congdon has created a gorgeous book dedicated "to all the late bloomers." Her beautiful full-color illustrations accompany essays, profiles and interviews with women who have become bolder and happier as they age.

The variety of writing forms makes the reading a pleasure. The women featured are over 40 and include artists, writers, athletes, scientists, activists, thinkers, designers and feminists.

The title of the book, A Glorious Freedom, comes from Caroline Paul, who wrote a memoir about being a San Francisco firefighter (Fighting Fire) and decided she wanted to be good at surfing at age 49. Her essay is "The Swell," accompanied by one of Congdon's whimsical illustrations of a woman in the water with a surfboard.

In "True Roots," Ronnie Citron-Fink realizes she had colored her hair for more than twenty-five years. She had spent thousands of dollars and many hours attempting to have "natural-looking" hair. As an environmental writer she researched the chemicals in hair dyes. Approaching 60, she stopped coloring her hair and found the transition meant "facing a litany of truths and consequences—straddling the precipices of age, beauty, and health."

Profiles accompanied by drawings of the subjects include Louise Bourgeois, who didn't garner the world's attention for her drawings, painting and evocative sculptures until she was 70 years old, and Sensei Keiko Fukuda who became the highest-ranked female judo master in the world at the age of 98.

Sister Madonna Butler, at the age of 82, became the oldest person to complete an Ironman triathlon. She began running at age 48 with encouragement from a priest who saw the activity's benefits for mind, body and spirit.

Angela Morley was born Walter Stott in 1924 in England. In 1972. At the age of 48, she had sex reassignment surgery and changed her name to Angela Morley. She created "some of the most memorable musical scores of the late-twentieth century television and was the first openly transgender woman to win an Emmy Award." She passed away in 2009.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman is described as "a lifelong advocate for social change" and in 1954, was appointed to the New York City mayoral cabinet, becoming the first woman and also the first African American to hold the position. She died in 1990 in Harlem, New York.

Among the interviews in the book is one with Llona Royce Smithkin who was 99 years old at the time, an impressionist painter and art teacher who made the famous paperback portrait of Ayn Rand. "And I painted Tennessee Williams, did you know?" she says in her interview.

Designer Debbie Millman, in her interview, says she came out as a lesbian at age 50, at which time she "started to feel even more open to the possibilities of my life."

The final interview in the book is with Betty Reid Soskin who is the oldest national park ranger in the United States, at age 95. She is stationed at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Following a short film about Rosie the Riveter, Soskin continues the story "by adding a woman of color's history, which is my own." It's fascinating to read that Betty Reid Soskin is still having "first experiences" and wondering what she's going to be when she grows up.

The spirits of all these women come through in their words and the images Lisa Congdon created of and about them. The book is one to be appreciated by women of all ages. There is an abundance of encouragement to follow one's passion.

Lisa Congdon is the author of Whatever You Are be a Good One; Art, Inc., Fortune Favors the Brave; and The Joy of Swimming. She's also an illustrator and fine artist who illustrated Tender Buttons: Objects by Gertrude Stein. See a review here. Lisa Congdon lives in Portland, Oregon. You can see more of her work on her website.

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