Where have all the 1960s activists gone? Did the generation that hoped to change the world lose their idealism along with their youth? Not necessarily, as the story of Ruth Hague of Monroe Township, N.J., demonstrates.
At age 69, Hague is picking up where she left off in the '60s, but with a lifetime of experience and a more realistic view of what she can achieve.
An activist in college, Hague went on to a successful career in social work and at corporations. But now she's an activist once again, volunteering to make a difference in the lives of abused women.
(MORE: Profiles in Volunteering: Helping Whenever There’s a Need)
Her Early Days as an Activist
As a teenager in the 1950s, Hague protested segregation in her blue-collar town on the Jersey shore. Then, in her first week at Douglass College in 1960, she organized a picket line to protest the administration's policy of assigning roommates by race and religion, which led the school to change the practice.
Over the years, Hague marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. The now-famous 1964 murder of her friend Michael Schwerner during Freedom Summer — he and two other volunteers were killed while registering voters in Mississippi — cemented Hague’s commitment to social justice. After college, she worked for several child welfare agencies in New Jersey and got her master's degree in social work.
Putting the Causes Aside
Hague, however, gradually gave up active involvement in social causes in the 1970s. "Nixon was president," she recalls, "and I was disillusioned with the direction of the country." Home life kept her busy, too. Married for a second time, she had a new baby and was raising three teenagers from her husband's previous marriage.
"I didn’t lose my basic philosophy, but I became involved in other things: my job, the kids, marriage, moving up economically,” Hague says. "My attitude toward social change became ‘What can I, as one person, do?’ But my core beliefs in equality and peace never changed. They were just dormant."
In the 1980s Hague moved into the corporate world as director of employee counseling for the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., a job that offered more income and stability than the struggling child welfare agencies she had worked for in the past.
She and her second husband divorced in 1987. Her third husband died of cancer in 1998.
A First Try at Retirement
In 2005, at 62, Hague retired after 21 years at Johnson & Johnson and tried throwing herself into activities she'd missed while working and raising a family. "I took piano lessons and art lessons," she says. "I went to Rutgers to audit courses. I took up bridge again and joined book clubs."
That lasted about three months.
Hague felt something was lacking, something she’d found so easily in the '60s: a sense of purpose.
Meaningful volunteer work was hard to find. She had been serving on nonprofit boards, but felt frustrated that she was mostly there to raise money.
Finally, a Chance for Purposeful Volunteering
A sympathetic member of one board led Hague to an ideal opportunity: a volunteer post at the Middlesex Interfaith Partners for the Homeless. The transitional housing program for mothers on welfare allows the women to stay there with their kids for up to a year, study for their GEDs, get job training and prepare for independent lives.
Hague, a longtime feminist, led a twice-a-week support group that focused on trust issues. "I wanted them to see there's a lot to be gained by sisterhood, by sharing your feelings and problems with other women," she says. "These women didn't know how to trust — and why should they? They were on the streets, they came from really horrible backgrounds, they had been abused. They were cynical.”
Gradually the women began opening up. "They started to trust," Hague says. "They shared their problems and worked on their self-esteem. It was successful and other women wanted to join."
How Her View of Activism Has Changed
The group was dissolved because of a change in state welfare requirements, but Hague had found her purpose again — with one important distinction from her activism in the '60s.
"When I was young, I wanted to change the world," she says. "But now I realized that isn't how change occurs. It happens one person at a time. I can't stop wars, but I can help a woman in need."
What She's Doing to Help Women Now
Hague soon discovered Women Aware, a local nonprofit under the auspices of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women, which runs programs that provide shelter, counseling and other aid to mothers and children.
In 2008, she trained as a volunteer legal advocate to assist women seeking protection from their abusers. Five years later, she’s still doing the work. “I've never been in court when there are fewer than 10 or 15 people trying to get restraining orders," she says.
Hague believes the struggle for freedom from abuse is the new frontier in the fight for equality. "I feel that violence against women is where feminism should be today," she says. "Each time a woman gets a restraining order against her abuser it's another giant step for womankind."
Every Tuesday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Hague walks the halls of Family Court in New Brunswick, N.J., wearing her Women Aware ID. "I will go up to a woman and ask, 'Excuse me, are you here for a restraining order?'" she says. "I explain that I’m a trained volunteer willing to help prepare her case. I'm not a lawyer, but I know the system and what's involved in creating a case and how to present it most effectively."
Hague provides about 40 women a month with vital information on statewide resources, including housing and how to manage the mass of paperwork required by Social Services for financial aid, custody issues and mental health assistance.
Her clients come from every social class, but most can't afford a lawyer. Budget cuts in legal services means that the waiting list for an indigent person to get an attorney is endless. Hague believes that the women often don't need lawyers, though. "They have good, strong cases," she notes. "They just need to be prepped on how to present them."
Working With Fearful Immigrants
A number of her clients are immigrants who are terrified, Hague says, because "their husbands threaten them with deportation if they open their mouths about abuse." Hague explains to them that they can’t be deported if they’re victims of domestic violence. In fact, they can get political asylum.
One of her clients, an 18-year-old girl from an immigrant family, was a victim of incest by her brothers and physically abused by her parents. After she was in an auto accident and brought to a hospital, staffers saw scars on her back from beatings and called Women Aware. "We represented her and she won," Hague says. "She was free!"
(MORE: At the Front Lines of the Women’s Movement)
Energized Like Never Before
At 69, Hague says she has never felt so energized or inspired. "Instead of being depressed about what I see around me," she says, "I’m excited because I'm helping women realize they have options."
Hague is also involved in other Women Aware initiatives, like "Walk in Her Shoes" day, when clients assemble to tell their stories. She even does fundraising. "I'd rather give my money to something like this than to a big nonprofit organization where it goes to overhead," she says.
Her hope is that the seeds she has planted with her clients will have far-ranging effects over many generations.
Women in abusive relationships are often part of a cycle, raised by mothers who were themselves abused. "If one woman breaks the cycle, then the role model is going to be different forever," Hague says. "Her daughters and her sons are going to realize that it's not OK to be abusive.”
Wendy Schuman is a writer and editor specializing in family and social issues. A frequent writer for Next Avenue, she has worked at Parents, Mademoiselle and Beliefnet.