Breaking Boundaries

Nonagenarian educator Janet Kalven recently moved into a condo apartment, formerly the sixth grade classroom of a converted school building. Located in Northside, a neighborhood of Cincinnati known for its artists and community activism, it is a fitting location for this 94-year old feminist.

Her dining area and living room bookcases are filled to the gills, and hefty stacks of books and magazines overflow onto her couch and tables and at the feet of her favorite armchair. “Tidy I’m not,” she observes.

Kalven was a pioneer student in the “Great Books” program at the University of Chicago, the curriculum emphasizing cross-disciplinary learning through studying the classics of Western civilization. Her involvement with the Grail, an organization of Catholic lay women dedicated to restoring the Christian spirit to all aspects of life, led to her role in developing Grailville, an education and retreat center on 300 acres in Loveland, Ohio.

She is an enduring activist who at 90 marched in Washington, D.C. for women’s rights. The author of numerous books, she keeps on writing.

Janet’s present pace continues to be energy-packed, though she admits to tiring more easily than before. Since 1993 she has participated in Women Writing for (a) Change, an empowering circle of women and girls (and sometimes men) who strengthen their voices by sharing their writings. Janet writes everyday, calling it a “spiritual practice” for her.

As evidenced by the gargantuan number of books she owns, she is an insatiable reader, enjoying genres as diverse as mysteries, non-fiction, and fiction. She loves attending the Ensemble Theater and other live venues and is a movie aficionado.

Although her beloved brother died when he was 60, Janet keeps up with his family, four children who are dispersed over Chicago, Vermont, and Edmonton, Alberta.

Janet, always active, was a tennis player and a hearty walker in her youth and is still in excellent shape, despite several episodes of colon cancer. She keeps up a
regimen of warm water exercise and pays attention to her body. “It lets you know if there are problems,” she says. A healthy diet and good genes are what she attributes to living a long life.

Having had TIA’s (transient ischemic attacks), she has given up driving, but she still has her car and relies on friends to drive her.

Traveling is her joy (she is especially fond of cruises), and she has explored Greece, Crete, Canada, and Mexico, and Barbados, among other places.

Although she used to get glum and have a melancholy temperament, she says she has trained herself to avoid dwelling on the dark side. “I try now to balance being realistic with not getting depressed,” she explains. For instance, although she had to move from Grailville because it was too physically demanding for her, she has embraced her transition to Northside and has accentuated the positive by immersing herself in selecting her apartment space and working with the architect. And she hasn’t lost her sense of humor. “I got a 30-year mortgage!” the 94-year old points out.

Janet is pleased with the friendliness of people in her building. She has a lot of younger friends, and her condo-mates socialize the last Friday of every month at a potluck. The Northside community suits her well, with its charming restaurants and a library branch just around the corner.

Always a peacenik, a few years ago she protested in Washington D.C. as part of the March for Women’s Lives and proudly sported a “Catholics for Free Choice” button. “Nothing stops me,” she asserts.

A proponent of never quitting learning no matter the age, she has long been up to speed in using a computer and considers technology just a normal part of life, though she does prefer to write her journal in longhand.

Janet believes deeply in the strength of women, who ground her hope for the world. Fearing women continue to be too male-dependent, she cautions them to be more self-defining. “A woman without a man,” she quips, “is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Janet Kalven