Mama's Minstrel | Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D.


Celebrating their Worth: Crone movement embraces the wisdom of older women

The Capital Times, Thursday, Jan. 13. 2000
Article by Debra Carr-Elsing

In the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, perhaps the worst thing a woman can do -- besides getting fat -- is getting old. Tinseltown has always put youth on a pedestal.

Remember the film "First Wives Club" in which older women were replaced by young, trophy wives? Consider, too, the names of daytime soap operas, such as "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."

In the last decade, however, the women's movement has encouraged more realistic values that look beyond outward beauty in our culture. And, more recently, the crone movement is taking that a step further, helping older women embrace the wisdom of their years.

After all, growing old doesn't mean the end of a woman's vitality, according to members of a board of directors that plans national crone counsels, which are annual gatherings that attract hundreds of women who proudly wear their graying tresses.

The movement even has a magazine, Crone Chronicles, which includes New Age mysticism with first-person accounts of what it means to get older. There's also a Web site at

"Some people are offended by the word 'crone' because it's been used -- along with withered, old hag -- to dismiss older women as less than their male counterparts," says Nancy Vedder-Shults of Madison, who formerly taught in the Women's Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin and now conducts women's spirituality workshops around the country.

If you look beyond the negative connotations of a patriarchal society, however, hag is actually an old word for "holy woman," Vedder-Shults says.

Besides that, an older definition of crone stems from ancient cultures, which associated one aspect of goddess worship with crones and profound power.

"A lot of women have decided to use 'crone' as a word of power to propel us forward," Vedder-Shults says. "Crones are women who speak their mind, but they're speaking from inner wisdom and experience."

According to early pioneers in the crone movement, an old definition of the word "crone" is actually linked to a verb, which meant to cull from the herd. That's perfect, they say, because what they want to do is step away from the herd mentality that makes growing older an almost shameful thing to do.

In short, the crone movement is encouraging a large segment of the population to recognize its own worth.

"Women nowadays have so much experience, and we're learning to be more comfortable with ourselves and the aging process," says Diane Weiner, a health psychologist with the department of obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospital.

The concepts behind the crone movement that embrace the wisdom of older women are wonderful, but they're not necessarily new ideas, Weiner says.

The notion of not letting society dictate how you feel about yourself, however, bears repeating -- loud and often.

"In the year 2000, it's a great time to stop comparing yourself to others and to make a conscious choice to appreciate who you really are and what's important to you," says Weiner, who also is associated with Woodlands Counseling Centre in Madison.

Within the crone movement, ceremonies often are held when women feel worthy of being a crone. The croning ceremony -- which can be anything from a mystical experience with a circle of women in a meadow to simply a big party with both men and women invited -- is not unlike a debutante's coming-out party.

An older woman simply is announcing to friends and family that she's proud of her years of accomplishment and still has something to offer.

Nancy Maynard of Whitefish Bay, for example, was 56 when she did her croning ceremony seven years ago.

"Women do croning at different times in their lives -- whenever it seems meaningful to them. Often it's after menopause or retirement," says Maynard, now 63.

As part of her croning ceremony, Maynard had close friends give her items that were symbolic of something meaningful to them, and, in that way, there was a sharing of wisdom and life experiences.

"I wanted to celebrate the fact that I was getting older," Maynard says. "It's wonderful to embrace the wisdom that comes from simply living."

The croning ritual ties in with the ancient belief in a tripartite goddess who has the chronological stages of maiden, mother and crone.

"Croning ceremonies are an affirmation of coming into our own as wise, old sages," says Vedder-Shults. "It's a rite of passage that doesn't usually get celebrated in our culture."

In some ceremonies, there's an archway of some kind to represent passage from one stage of a woman's life into another.

In a spiritual context, the crone goddess is seen as a guide through times of darkness, death and transformation. She is the teacher and seer, "and of course she has gray hair, so it's a wonderful affirmation to those of us who are graying," says Vedder-Shults.

Characteristics associated with the crone include patience and seasoning.

"Paradoxically, there's also a fierceness," Vedder-Shults says. "Knowing that time is short makes one divest oneself of unnecessary things so there's an intenseness about life that comes with age."

The crone movement also can be a way to reclaim our ancestors, Vedder-Shults says. It allows us to embrace the wise, old women in our past.

That's how Madison artist Lynn Slattery Hellmuth approached an exhibit -- titled "Honoring the Crone" -- that she put together a couple of years ago. As part of the exhibit, she featured writings of 100 people who wrote in praise of older women who had been a positive influence in their lives.

The exhibit -- which traveled to several states in conjunction with women's conferences -- also featured 12 sculptures that Hellmuth created from old, wooden ironing boards, which she set upright to represent a circle of crones. One space was left open for the viewer to step up and be included in the art.

"I like to be inclusive because we're all equal and should be treated that way," Hellmuth says.

Besides that, "it's important to point out the value of older women in our society because, traditionally, they haven't been honored, at least publicly," Hellmuth says.

Another exhibit that Hellmuth compiled with other artists featured goddess sculptures and was titled "She of a Thousand Names."

"All over the world, people are rediscovering ancient artifacts that are feminine," Hellmuth says, "and there's renewed interest in these ancient cultures and their goddess worship."

In more recent history, some American Indian tribes used the wisdom of older women to select new leaders, Hellmuth says.

"And I feel like the special qualities and strengths of older women are things that could help our society now," Hellmuth says.

At 58, Hellmuth says she's old enough to qualify as a crone, "but I'm probably not wise enough," she quips. Still, Hellmuth says that she wouldn't mind being called a crone because it's a wonderful word.

"It's been hard for older women in our culture to come into who they are because they've always nurtured and taken care of everyone else," Hellmuth says.

"Women would have gotten more respect for their abilities if they had been encouraged through the ages to become all that they could be."

But women traditionally haven't been allowed to choose their own destinies, Hellmuth adds. Still, it seems as if older women become quite strong.

In her crone workshops, Vedder-Shults -- who also is a professional singer -- talks about how older women in our culture have begun to speak their own truths, to concentrate on their own wisdom and to spend time think ing about what's important to them rather than merely dwelling on what's important to family and friends.

"Older women are becoming more self-directed and less other-oriented," Vedder-Shults says. "They're beginning to do their own thing. Fortunately, a lot of us have been doing that for a while because of the women's movement, so we come well-prepared to our crone years."

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Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D.
Madison, WI | (608) 231-3362