Area’s older women honored for activism
KEVIN GUTTING Ruth Hooke of Amherst asks for donations of books in Russian during a question and answer segment of the program "Two Lives from Guantanamo: Yes, in My Backyard" held at Edwards Church in Northampton Thursday. The books are intended for Ravil Mingazov, a Guantanamo Bay prisoner who has has been mentioned for possible resettlement in the area following a vote of support by Amherst Town Meeting. The program, which featured two attorneys who work with Guantanamo prisoners, was presented by Pioneer Valley No More Guantanamos and Pioneer Valley Coalition Against Secrecy and Torture. At left, holding microphone, is Adin Thayer of PVNMG. Purchase photo reprints »
By the time they reach 85, most people are well into enjoying their retirement, basking in the glow of the golden years.
That is, unless you’re Ruth Hooke of Amherst. As a member of the Raging Grannies, an international activist group composed of older women, she spends her days promoting peace and justice, prisoner rights and raising support for various political causes.
Just last week, Hooke attended a party for the anti-nuclear group Shut It Down, where she sang songs to celebrate the repayment of the group’s court fines, which resulted from a protest they held against the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt.
For the past 70 years, Hooke has been active in confronting the issues that she feels strongly about, from domestic violence to educational opportunities to reproductive and civil rights.
On March 14, she and six other Hampshire County women will receive the first-ever Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts Standing on Her Shoulders Award for confronting those issues head-on. A total of 16 women from Hampshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Berkshire counties, will be honored by the Easthampton organization.
“This region is filled with some of the most interesting stories of women’s achievements that we don’t know about,” said Women’s Fund CEO Carla Oleska. “If we can get people to get elder women to tell their stories, we will be amazed. If we don’t recognize them, these stories will be lost.”
Each of the recipients was nominated by community members across western Massachusetts, and each has a unique and interesting background.
“I was surprised and pleased,” Hooke said of being nominated for the award. “It’s wonderful that they’re honoring older women and their contributions. A lot of people view them as just sitting in rocking chairs,” she said.
Among other causes, Hooke has advocated for a range of issues in the Massachusetts Legislature as a member of the group Fund Our Communities, Not War.
Another of the recipients, Amherst resident Susan Lowenstein Kitchell, 86, has been fighting for women’s reproductive rights since moving to the Valley in 1972 to teach and perform music at Smith College.
After attending a meeting of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts in 1988 and meeting founder Marlene Fried, a Hampshire College professor, she decided to become more active in the movement. She has been a supporter ever since.
Lowenstein went on to serve as the fund’s treasurer and sits on its board of directors. She also helped expand the fund’s area of coverage to include more of New England and form the National Network of Abortion Funds.
“I was quite surprised when I was chosen,” said Lowenstein. “I just put my head down and do what I do. I never expected any awards or prizes for it.”
Gail Kielson, 74, of West Chesterfield, will also receive the award for her work with the domestic violence movement.
Since the late 1970s, Kielson has sought to raise awareness of the issues surrounding domestic abuse, including assisting in the development of tools to help women identify abusive situations. She has also worked for the commutation of the prison terms of a group of women known as the “Framingham Eight,” who she said were imprisoned for killing their abusers.
“It’s amazing to be even just a part of the 14 or 15 other women,” Kielson said. “Their stories and the work they’ve done is amazing in terms of their courage and breaking of boundaries.”
Kielson is the president of the board for Safe Passage in Northampton, an organization that offers support, counseling and shelter to victims of domestic abuse.
Linda L. Slakey, 73, of Amherst, is being recognized for her contributions to educational reform and advancement in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
A biochemist and longtime department head, dean and academic leader at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Slakey went on to work with the National Science Foundation to reform undergraduate science education. She stressed the need for students to engage in hands-on experiences, not just traditional lectures.
The award will be presented at the Women’s Fund 15th Anniversary celebration dinner at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield. Tickets to the event are available at the Women’s Fund’s website.
The event will feature a photograph exhibit of the award recipients, musical performances and a speech by Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian immigrant and Smith College graduate who started a number of businesses that employ immigrants and refugees in her community.
According to Oleska, the awards are being given in conjunction with the Women’s Fund’s 15th anniversary and is not expected to be an annual event.