A party was in progress--or so it seemed: valet parking outside the grounds of Brooke Knapp's home in Bel-Air, caterer busy in the kitchen, bartender pouring wine, a crowd of about 50 circling the buffet table or standing in clusters. All women.
Singer and songwriter Helen Reddy, entrepreneur Sharon Timmer, Mount St. Mary's College President Sister Magdalen Coughlin and International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrance sat in animated conversation in the living room, leaning intently toward one another. ("We were talking about whether I should wear a habit or not," Coughlin said later with a laugh. "We never did reach consensus.")
Later in the evening, they would listen to Willie Campbell describe the work of the group she heads, Overseas Education Fund International, which funds development projects for Third World women. And, as they started to disperse, Frieda Caplan of Frieda's Finest/Produce Specialties Inc. would remind them to take home a supply of the miniature pumpkins she had brought from her market.
Just pop them in the microwave, she called out. Sweet and delicious.
So this is The Trusteeship, the high-powered but publicity-shy group of prominent women in business, academia, the professions, the arts and government? This is the group that, in less than a decade, has drawn to its ranks almost 100 of the most influential women in Southern California?
Founded as an Alternative
Did Knapp perhaps have a smoke-filled back room where the group's real wheeling and dealing was taking place?
It was indeed the regularly monthly gathering of The Trusteeship, but even though the group was founded partly as an alternative to the old-boys clubs that many are convinced run the country, it hardly resembles them.
Formed in 1980 as an informal, loosely structured but exclusive selection of women of achievement, its members have generally kept it quiet. Until recently, the group pretty much avoided publicity. Members would often feign ignorance of its existence, deny membership or simply clam up.
"It's never been a secret organization," said President Judy Miller, vice president for marketing at Braun & Co., a public relations company. "But it was agreed from the beginning that there was no reason to seek a high profile. We weren't taking positions; we weren't endorsing candidates. . . .
"We're doing things on a more public level now. But before, there was nothing to say."
If today the group has more to say, it is perhaps because its members tend to be so prominent in the public eye.
Impressive Roster of Names
Among those also present at Knapp's house were Appeals Court Judge Joan Dempsey Klein, Motown Productions President Suzanne de Passe, Democratic Party pillar Liz Snyder, Cal State Fullerton President Jewell Plummer Cobb, Orange County Supervisor Harriett Wieder, assistant dean of the UC Irvine graduate school of management Judy Rosener, television executive Yolanda Nava, and former City Hall powers Pat Russell and Maureen Kindel.
Knapp herself is a record-setting aviator and president of the Knapp Group, an investment firm. And among the other members in good standing are former First Lady Betty Ford, consultant to the Republican National Committee and First Daughter Maureen Reagan, philanthropist and editor Wallis Annenberg, Councilwoman Joy Picus, movie executive Sherry Lansing, philanthropist Joan Palevsky, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, and writer Judith Krantz.
It is, in one sense, the ultimate women's networking group. But to Miller, "We've gone beyond that. There was a rash of them in the 1970s, outgrowths of women entering the business and professional fields. Networks were created to help women break through barriers.
"Women are still doing that. But (Trusteeship members) are not mid-level people trying to make it. They don't need the organization to be a success in their own field."
"The women's movement has evolved in different kinds of ways," said Cobb. "Networking has been one of the most important parts of that. I see The Trusteeship as the result of a 15-year evolution of women leaders rising to the top and contributing to society."
It all started in 1979 with a chance encounter between advertising executive Adrienne Hall and attorney Cynthia Maduro Ryan at a function of a women's organization. As much as they liked the group and enjoyed the members, they both recalled recently, something was missing.
"There was a feeling maybe there could be something beyond that--an organization that could never be preempted--in terms of the achievement of the women, their recognition and their spheres of influence," said Hall, who is vice chairwoman of the Eisaman, Johns & Laws advertising agency.