All quotes come from Anita McLeod’s book, Elder Wisdom. You will find more information about the book at end of this post.
The Life of Anita McLeod
“I am devoted to the process of women’s sacred circles and the power of shared stories to create meaningful feminine medicine for the world.” (89)
Anita McLeod was a beloved feminist elder who connected intergenerational communities of women through programming and friendship. She explored the interconnected realms of feminism, elderhood, and nature, discovering and creating beauty along the way.
Anita Marion Swensen McLeod was born in 1939 as the eldest daughter of two Norwegian immigrants, Catherine and Arne Swensen. She was raised in Ridgefield, New Jersey, where she first developed her love of nature. Ten summers of her youth were spent “living in a small rustic cabin on the banks of the Delaware River in rural northeastern Pennsylvania,” where she found peace and solace. “As a young girl,” McLeod writes, “I felt most at home in the forest and along the river” (81). Her connection with the natural world continued to grow throughout her life, and she delighted in sharing experiences of nature with her friends and family.
Career & Family
McLeod moved from New Jersey to Durham, North Carolina to attend Duke University. She graduated from Duke with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and pursued a career as a nurse and health educator, intentionally taking an empathetic approach to her work. Through her career caring for patients, she met Mike McLeod, a gastroenterologist at Duke Hospital. Just three weeks after she graduated, Anita and Mike married. Their marriage lasted fifty-five years and included a plethora of formative adventures and shared experiences. Anita and Mike had four children: Chris, Scott, Greg, and Laura.
Anita and Mike McLeod remained with their children in the Durham area until the family took a sabbatical in 1974 which resulted in a year in Marin County, California. Afterward, they returned to North Carolina with renewed spirits. The trip was so meaningful and transformative that their children draw a distinction between the “‘BC’ (Before California) and ‘AC’ (After California)” family (133).
Throughout her life, McLeod nurtured her friendships and exemplified compassionate commitment to those she loved. She enjoyed outdoor activities that connected her with the Earth, such as camping, hiking, and sailing. McLeod understood her connectedness with nature as a force that connected her with other elements of her life as well, writing, “Being in nature can renew us and help us sustain our efforts to serve our communities” (64). Her appreciation for the Earth enriched the lives of her family and friends.
Anita McLeod was deeply involved in the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South for nearly twenty-five years. She began writing for RCWMS in 2003. She wrote for South of the Garden, the Resource Center’s monthly newsletter, exploring the questions that both enthralled and scared her with a courageous and authentic approach. Eventually, McLeod served as chair of the RCWMS Board of Trustees. Her deep investment in the community of the Resource Center created spaces in which difficult yet critical conversations between women flourished.
McLeod founded and shaped the Elder Women’s Spirituality Project through RCWMS (VIII). The Art of Conscious Aginggroup, one facet of the Elder Women’s Spirituality Project, continues to hold monthly meetings, offering companionship to women navigating what it means to be or to become an elder. “My goal,” McLeod wrote, “is to inspire elder women to be a force for peace and justice, especially in North Carolina” (19).
Despite her extensive written contributions to the Resource Center, Barbara Shaw Anderson describes McLeod in the foreword to Elder Wisdom as a “rather reluctant public writer [who] preferred to find knowledge and meaning in experience and in communal reflection” (VIII). McLeod committed herself to soaking in the wisdom of the stories around her rather than rooting herself solely in her own narratives. Community was an integral part of her approach to the questions she uncovered and explored.
Through RCWMS, McLeod developed and led a variety of workshops, events, and retreats. The content of these creative and thoughtful programs explored topics such as women’s spirituality, menopause, writing, nature, elderhood, and end of life. Her leadership was intergenerational and intentional. McLeod encouraged younger women to attend programs she was leading by extending personal invitations, offering scholarships, and developing meaningful friendships with women of all ages.
In late 2016, Anita McLeod was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She responded courageously by opting for an open craniotomy.
After the surgery, the cancer rapidly reoccurred and McLeod was paralyzed on her left side. She chose to end radiation in order to preserve her cognition and spend her final days in the places she loved with the people she loved. Family, friends, and nature surrounded her in her solarium. The people she loved and the Earth she adored accompanied her in her final days.
Anita McLeod died on January 9, 2017, less than eight weeks after her diagnosis. She was seventy-seven years old. A memorial service and celebration of Anita’s life was held at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina, on January 16, 2017. Jeanette Stokes, Debra Brazzel, Martha Abshire Simmons and Scott McLeod offered their remembrances at the service. Anita is survived by her husband, four children, and five grandchildren.
Anita McLeod’s book, Elder Wisdom: Searching for Truth in Circles of Women, was posthumously published by the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South in 2019. McLeod’s friend Barbara Shaw Anderson wrote the foreword, in which she described the book as “a collection of writings by and about Anita McLeod, published with the hope of savoring and sharing her wisdom and joy” (VII).
Elder Wisdom is divided into four sections: RCWMS Newsletter, Elder Women’s Spirituality Project, Other Writings, and Reflections on Anita. Sections I, II, and III were written by McLeod herself, and Section IV is a compilation of the writings of a few of her family members and friends. The appendixes offer her obituary and descriptions of the workshops, events, and retreats McLeod led.
You can learn more about Elder Wisdom and purchase a copy here.
McLeod, Anita. Elder Wisdom: Searching for Truth in Circles of Women. RCWMS Press, 2019.