Charlotte Ward Tillett

Your Second Season’s first monthly Magnificent Midlife Spotlight woman!

by Ann Bloomingdale & Kerry Ward

As women enter midlife, we face substantial challenges. There is, of course, the inevitable physical symptoms of menopause that frequently leaves one pondering their sanity. Less obvious, are the struggles with identity and purpose as our roles shift in midlife. So, while midlife is a struggle, it is also an opportunity to reinvent yourself.

For Charlotte, midlife started out comfortable. With her children all out of the house and her husband, Bayne, having just been elected sheriff of a small rural county, Charlotte was looking forward to this new chapter in her life. But as is the case for a lot of women, life had other plans. On October 1, 1983, nine months into his first term as Sheriff, Charlotte’s husband suffered a fatal heart attack. In that fateful moment Charlotte’s world was forever changed. After 31 years of marriage, the man she had been with since she was 18, was dead. At age 49, Charlotte found herself with little savings, no college degree, and alone. That comfortable transition into midlife turned into grief and uncertainty. It is, however, in these moments that we define ourselves. For Charlotte, this meant having to make a decision, during a period of turmoil and grief, that would change the course of her life.

With Bayne’s death, the county had to select a new sheriff. There were 16 people who expressed interest in the job and Charlotte put her support behind her husband’s chief deputy. As is always the case with these types of situations, politics were involved. The chief deputy was not of the same party as Bayne and of the party in charge of the decision. Instead of appointing the chief deputy, the county commissioners approached Charlotte to take over for her husband.

While Charlotte worked in the jail as a matron for the 8 months her husband was sheriff, her experience in law enforcement was limited. For most of her life, and not uncommon for a woman in this age group, she had worked in clerical jobs with her primary role being that of mother. Now Charlotte was being asked to become one of the most powerful political figures in the county.

Charlotte believed the stress of a pending lawsuit against the county by a disgruntled ex-deputy had contributed to her husband’s heart attack. Based on her desire to make sure the lawsuit was settled in Bayne’s favor and her desire to follow through with the goals her late husband had envisioned for the Sheriff’s Department, Charlotte decided to accept the offer. Eighteen days after the death of her husband, Charlotte was sworn in as the Sheriff of Pulaski County, becoming the only female Sheriff in the state of Indiana and only the second in the history of the state.

Thirty-six years later, Charlotte, now 85, reflects upon the request to fill such a demanding position during what, for most, would have been a time of intense confusion and uncertainty. “I never thought about being afraid,” she recalled.” I was determined, for one thing and I had nothing to lose,” she recalled.

It would be tempting for a woman serving in a male dominated field, to compete with the men on their playing field, using aggression and toughness to exert her authority. But Charlotte knew that to be accepted in a position of authority in a male dominated field, she would need to use the strengths she had and not try to compete against their strengths.

One specific example Charlotte recalls was the need to build a new county jail. The county commissioners had land available to them on the outskirts of town and wanted to build a new jail there. As the sheriff Charlotte realized moving the jail from its current convenient location carried costs the commissioners hadn’t considered. For example, the duty of the sheriff includes transporting prisoners from the jail to and from court. In the jail’s current location, prisoners were simply walked across the street to the courthouse. If they moved the jail, they would need transportation vans, additional equipment and additional personnel to get the prisoners to court.

As a women Charlotte understood the value of subtle persuasion over brute force. She explained, “Well, as you know the male ego is pretty big, so you don’t fight it; you just go along with it. If you have an idea, you present it, and kind of let them think it’s their idea,” she quipped. Instead of telling the commissioners it was a bad idea, she subtly noted the potential costs involved and mentioned there was a property for sale that adjoined the existing jail. This tact was quite successful. It wasn’t long before the county commissioners were running around extolling the brilliance of their idea to keep the jail in its current location and how they saved the voting public lots of money. Laughing as she recalled this predictable outcome, Charlotte was willing to let the men take the credit, content with the fact that the right decision had been made. Interestingly, Charlotte found her presence being requested when other counties were considering building new jails. Obviously, her opinion was both needed and valued.

As a female sheriff, Charlotte also faced substantial challenges dealing with the criminal element, and in particular, the inmates in the jail. Some women in her position might have felt the need to be twice as aggressive and tough, to make sure the inmates didn’t question her authority. Charlotte, however, felt no need to assert her position of power to gain such recognition. She knew she needed to use her own abilities and not run things the way the male sheriffs did. Instead she drew upon her own personal values and experience focusing on genuineness, integrity and most of all, commitment to carry through on consequences for a person’s behavior – a necessity she learned as a mother. “I treated them (prisoners) with respect and I got respect in return.”

Charlotte recalls one inmate who early on, challenged her. He threatened to kill her if she did not meet his demands. Charlotte knew his threats were mostly bravado and she did not overreact. Instead her approach was to be direct and let him know his behavior was not acceptable and there would be consequences for his actions if they continued. She warned him if he kept up with his threats, she would take away his visitation rights. Doubting any truth to these warnings, the inmate’s verbal assaults continued. Charlotte stood by her word. Apart from his lawyer, the man was cut off from all visitors. Unable to see his family and friends, and realizing she meant business, the inmate’s threats stopped. This sent a message to the other inmates as well. “They knew that I would do what I said I would do,” she remarked. Toughness doesn’t have to be physical force. When in a position of authority, it can be as simple as holding people accountable for their actions.

Most women would find making such a bold career transition at the age of 49, especially when dealing with grief, menopause and other midlife issues, to be quite daunting. Feelings of self-doubt, questioning one’s capabilities and the uncertainty which accompanies change, often can put a halt to taking that leap of faith. Charlotte, however, maintains “I had no qualms.” Being the oldest of seven children, she was no stranger to dealing with life’s unpredictability, adding, “When you wake up in the morning everything might be ok; by evening, it might be a catastrophe. You just have to cope.”

She attributes adopting this philosophy and attitude of confidence in the face of uncertainty to her mother. Charlotte’s mother, after raising seven children, went back to school, earning her teaching license and going on to teach for the next twenty years. Much like her mother’s willingness in midlife to embark on a new venture, Charlotte’s motivation was similar. With the children now raised and out of the house Charlotte recognized “It was time for me to do something else.” Any feelings of ambivalence about the future were met with an admirable and empowering perspective. “You take each day as it comes and take advantage of that day,” she commented.

Multiple stressors occurring simultaneously is a hallmark of midlife for women and Charlotte was no exception. After the death of her husband, living in a smaller community, she found many friends reaching out to her offering support in her time of grief. “I don’t think I was ever alone,” remembers Charlotte. In addition to adapting to her new role as Sheriff and grieving the loss of her husband, Charlotte also faced the symptoms of menopause. Hot flashes and a feeling of disassociation from her surroundings led to her consulting a doctor, who prescribed hormone pills. Medically addressing the physical symptoms of menopause, helped. Her new identity and purpose as sheriff, kept her intellectually and physically active – and kept her mind off the physical symptoms of menopause. Focusing on a new role and identity also helped in warding off the depression many women experience during their midlife transition. For women experiencing menopause, dealing with midlife stress and simply feeling lost, Charlotte offers multiple solutions that require being proactive. “Go to your doctor, first; go to your church and get involved; go to the hospital and volunteer and get a job if you haven’t got a job. Getting that first paycheck feels pretty good; whether you need it or not, it shows that you’ve accomplished something.”

The support of Charlotte’s community and her willingness to take charge of her health helped to solidify a feeling of security in her goals and ambitions. After serving out her term in office, Charlotte decided to campaign for the position she was appointed to and was elected County Sheriff by her community for an additional 4-year term.
Charlotte was and remains today a role model for women in their midlife, just as her mother had been to her. On finding one’s purpose or life direction, her stance is clear. “Find something that you believe in,” she advised. Charlotte also stressed the importance of being proactive in finding one’s niche. “Go looking for things; don’t wait for something to find you.” Charlotte’s firm belief in herself and what she is capable of is evident and an attitude she encourages women to adapt. “Just always be yourself; don’t try to pretend to be something you’re not.” Positive self-talk helped keep any anxiety about her new duties as Sheriff at bay. She contends that reminding yourself “You can find it deep within yourself to come out and do what you need to do,” helps to conquer fear and self-doubt. When asked what advice she would give to a woman experiencing all the challenges of midlife and considering embarking on a new adventure, Charlotte stated: “Go for it, and don’t look back!”

The lessons to take away from Charlotte’s midlife story are many. First, seek community for support. While we can’t all live in a small town, we can find community in other ways. Your Second Season is a perfect example where you can find support and information from others experiencing the same life challenges. Second, we all have self-doubt. Find ways to overcome them. For Charlotte is was self-talk and a don’t look back attitude that helped her overcome her inner voices. Third, don’t be afraid to seek treatment for your physical symptoms. Find a doctor in your community that specializes in menopause. Your Second Season can help you find qualified doctors you can consult. Finally, transitioning to a new purpose and identity helps mitigates loss and physical symptoms of midlife. Don’t be afraid to take on new roles. Use your unique skills to fulfill the roles and don’t try to be something you are not.
Not every woman will face the same challenges and hopefully few will deal with challenges on the level of Charlotte. But every woman does have a choice to make in midlife: to actively embrace change and move forward as a better you or to passively be victimized by a sense of loss and physical decline.
The choice is yours!

The choice is always yours!