Dr. Ruth Harriet Jacobs, 88; sociologist advocated for older women

Dr. Jacobs, who wrote nine books, often sported shirts and buttons that advertised her pride in her advanced age.
Dr. Jacobs, who wrote nine books, often sported shirts and buttons that advertised her pride in her advanced age.

Well into her 40s when she began building a career as a sociologist, gerontologist, author, and professor, Ruth Harriet Jacobs ended up devoting much of her work to advocating for older women.

“We live in a society that loves anything old — antiques, old wine, old cars, vintage clothes, vintage cheese — everything except old people,” she told the Globe in 1999. “It’s somehow a disgrace to have wrinkles or gray hair or a changed body shape.”

Often wearing T-shirts and buttons that advertised her pride in her advanced age, she told the Globe that she favored the color purple because it “is the color of royalty,” and added that “when we come into age, we have to be proud.”


Dr. Jacobs, who wrote nine books, formerly taught at Boston University, and led the sociology department at Clark University in Worcester, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 5 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. She was 88 and lived much of her adult life in Wellesley.

A researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College for 20 years, Dr. Jacobs ran workshops and gave lectures that drew large crowds, including many who were fans of books she wrote, such as “Be An Outrageous Older Woman,” which was published in 1991.

“I think aging is an achievement,” she told the Globe in 1992. “I think I will grow in wisdom.”

Then 67, Dr. Jacobs spoke of being inspired by workshop participants she met who were in their 70s and 80s, and she herself kept achieving as she aged. In addition to teaching at universities and colleges, she wrote and published poetry, served on the AARP’s task force on aging and mental health, held residencies at arts colonies, and continued studying in the field of aging, funded by grants from a range of foundations.


Colleagues say Dr. Jacobs was determined to do what she could to change society’s perception of older people.

“Ruth would tell people not to buy into the images of what a woman ought to be: young, thin, and blond,” said Sumru Erkut, associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. “She was always trying to build up resistance in both women and men to negative attitudes that society has toward older people. She’d say: ‘No, there is value in the years we’ve accumulated.’ ”

Ruth Harriet Miller was born in 1924. After her mother died when she was 10, her father was unable to take care of her and her brother, so she went to live with her maternal grandparents in Roxbury and Dorchester. She graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School, where she was frustrated by being placed in secretarial courses.

Although she ended up in academia, Dr. Jacobs began her working years in journalism. She was just 17 when the Boston Herald-Traveler hired her as a copy girl, a job that was available because men were leaving to serve in the military during World War II.

In interviews, she spoke about a couple of high school teachers who encouraged her to write, which led her to pursue the job at the Herald-Traveler.

Once there, Dr. Jacobs wrote obituaries of soldiers who died in the war and often interviewed their families, said her daughter, Edith of Belmont and Rockport.


Later, Dr. Jacobs interviewed returning veterans and wrote feature stories about subjects such as women adjusting to life when their husbands returned home. Family and friends said one of her favorite experiences was interviewing her personal hero, Eleanor Roosevelt. She spoke in an oral history, posted on YouTube, about being promoted to working as a reporter for the Herald-Traveler.

In 1948, she married Neal Jacobs, whom she had met at a Jewish Zionist meeting of young adults in Gloucester.

They divorced in 1976, and he died in 2012.

“Getting married was the beginning of the end of her career,” her daughter said. “That’s just the way it was back then.”

Dr. Jacobs and her husband settled in Needham, where he owned a shoe store. For the next decade or so, Dr. Jacobs helped out in her husband’s store and focused on her children.

When her children were in school, she began taking night classes in education and sociology at Boston University, receiving a bachelor’s degree at 40. Five years later, in 1969, she received a master’s and a doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University. For her dissertation, her daughter said, she wrote about a year she spent teaching high school in Newton.

Edith described her mother as “extremely driven” and “a tremendous giver,” and added that she “couldn’t not do things.”

Even when Dr. Jacobs was pursuing a doctorate, her daughter said, she remained an involved mother and took over Edith’s Girl Scouts troop when no other mothers stepped up to the task.


“She really didn’t know what she was doing, but she took it on,” her daughter said. “Otherwise it would have collapsed.”

Dr. Jacobs was a tenured professor at BU and Clark, and was a visiting professor at other schools. She retired from Clark in 1987, and kept teaching regularly at Regis College in Weston, the Springfield College School of Human Services in Boston, and in education programs for older students at Brandeis and Regis. She also taught courses to caregivers of older people.

Jill Rosen, director of the Lifelong Learning program at Regis, said Dr. Jacobs “really promoted learning for older people” and was the main impetus behind the program’s courses in fiction, poetry, and memoir writing.

“She did a fabulous job at inspiring people. She was very loved here,” Rosen said. “She gave students a lot of feedback, and was extremely supportive of everyone’s style of writing.”

A longtime activist for peace, Dr. Jacobs became a member of the Quaker community in Wellesley about 25 years ago, her daughter said.

In addition to her daughter, Dr. Jacobs leaves a son, Eli of Gloucester.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 5 in the Wellesley Friends Meeting house in Wellesley.

The author of books including “Life After Youth: Female, 40, What Next?” and “ABCs for Seniors: Successful Aging Wisdom from an Outrageous Gerontologist,” Dr. Jacobs also wrote articles and essays for a number of publications, and received numerous awards.

“Ruth was very oriented to social justice . . . a number-one champion of older women,” Erkut said. “She was compassionate, wise, committed, warm, and an activist to the core.”


Kathleen McKenna
can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.