The occasion, speakers noted more than once, was bittersweet.
On one hand, nearly 200 members from six regional Southern California chapters of the Older Women's League had gathered at the Saturday luncheon to honor one another and celebrate the fifth anniversary of OWL--a national, grass-roots organization to resolve the social and financial problems facing mid-life and older women. They were joined at Irvine's Registry Hotel by friends, husbands, children and politicians.
But on the other hand the women also shared a recent sorrow. OWL's inspirational co-founder and president, Tish Sommers, had died eight days earlier after a six-year battle with cancer. And the luncheon, which had been planned to honor members from each chapter, turned from time to time into an impromptu memorial, mingling pride, laughter and tears.
The 15,000-member organization was well prepared for Sommers' death, observed Fran Leonard, OWL's legal adviser who had flown down from Oakland for the luncheon. Sommers' longtime friend and OWL co-founder Laurie Shields has become president, she said.
Sommers, Leonard said, knew she had inoperable cancer six months before OWL was founded in 1980. But, she said, Sommers was an exemplary "opportunist" and, along with her fellow activist Shields, pushed forward and founded the Older Women's League following the 1980 White House Miniconference on Older Women in Des Moines.
Under the slogan "Don't Agonize, Organize," the league developed an agenda for helping older women, many of whom were cut adrift financially after divorce or their husbands' deaths. League members have lobbied for more Social Security coverage and better access to private pensions and health insurance for older women. OWL also works for services to provide relief to those who provide full-time care to bedridden spouses, to fight sex and age discrimination in the work place and budget cuts that affect elderly women.
In addition, OWL has sponsored support groups and workshops on health, housing, financial planning and leadership.
During the last weeks of her life Sommers was mostly bedridden and cared for by Shields, Leonard told the gathering. Though weak, Sommers was still crossing off items on a to-do list until two days before she died, Leonard said. Ever the opportunist, Sommers also decided to write about being cared for in the last days of life. Her essay will become an epilogue to "Women Who Care," a book on care-givers written by Sommers and Shields, Leonard said.
In addition, Leonard read a message of hope that Sommers had written specifically for the Southern California celebrants. It said, in part: "Hope is never out of season, even when personal burdens seem too great to bear. Together we can turn our sorrows into grist for the mill of social justice. Never give up hope because we are the pioneers of the future. We are building that new road to aging so our daughters will look into the mirror with less fear."
Memorial to Co-Founder
At the luncheon, a table had been set up with obituaries and memorials to Sommers, scrapbooks of chapter accomplishments, clippings titled "What We Like" and "What We Don't Like." Old fashioned irons were displayed along with a gingham and lace sampler with a quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton: "I shall not grow conservative with age."
The women, some of whom have returned to the work force, some of whom have always worked outside the home, varied in age as well as formality. Some wore hats with veils, some wore ethnic cotton dresses. Some came in clogs and tennis shoes.
The anniversary gathering was "very exciting," said OWL member Barbara Hammerman, a trustee with the North Orange County Community College District. Hammerman, whose aunt Martha Gresham was also instrumental in creating OWL, said she hopes to integrate OWL's Wingspan Program into the community colleges systemwide. Wingspan is a series of lectures and seminars that describe for middle-aged women the need to plan for old age.
Pauline Robinson of Newport Beach, a recently retired professor of gerontology at the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, said she has decided to spend her new-found time working for OWL instead of other organizations. "Older women are getting short shrift right now," said Robinson, 53. Citing reports that older people are receiving benefits at the expense of younger people, Robinson said there is now a "tremendous backlash" against the elderly, who, she said, have few champions.
If she finds enough interest, Robinson, who was elected this month to OWL's national board of directors, said she will start an OWL chapter in the Irvine, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa area. Her telephone number is (714) 675-4255.
Orange County has had two OWL chapters. The south county chapter has disbanded and the north county chapter has been inactive locally.