You could forgive the staff at the Red Lion Inn in Costa Mesa for thinking they would be serving tea and dainty cakes to silver-haired matriarchs in moth-eaten minks and long white gloves.
After all, the hotel is currently hosting the state conference of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, the staunchly conservative patriotic women's organization whose name is often used as a metaphor for bluestocking decorum.
Today's DAR members--900 strong in Orange County--politely dismiss that old caricature and paint themselves as active, energetic, involved and, above all, always up for a laugh.
"We got the image of being old rich ladies because the DAR needed such women in the beginning in order to establish credibility," says Jane Hemphill, the society's national director for public relations. "They may be little old ladies in tennis shoes, but today those tennis shoes are Reeboks and they move pretty fast."
With more than 204,000 members, the DAR, which celebrates its centennial this year, is the largest women's organization in the country. As in the past, they espouse passionate support of "God, Home and Country" in their rigid membership requirements. A would-be daughter of the revolution must be able to prove just that, that she is a direct descendant of a patriot of the Revolutionary War.
Sentiments haven't changed much within the organization that blasted UNICEF Christmas cards as a communist plot in 1959.
Glasnost is now considered a "clever public relations campaign," and the influx of Latin American aliens is filling the country with "terrorists and subversives," according to DAR printed statements.
Through its National Defense Committee, the DAR makes known its members' sentiments on flag burning and any other issue of the day, from AIDS testing to the government's policies on South Africa.
Although primarily geared to advocating a strong military defense ("to ensure the survival of our national sovereignty"), the committee also keeps members aware of the many non-defense resolutions passed by the DAR, such as child care (they are for it) and the Equal Rights Amendment (they are against it).
Because the DAR's charter prohibits it from political activity, these resolutions are worded carefully to avoid jeopardizing the society's nonprofit status yet are clear enough to get their message across when the resolutions are inscribed in the Congressional Record.
Although the nation's 3,300 chapters are required to address a national defense issue at each monthly meeting, luncheon chatter at the local level is more likely to run to the latest genealogical workshop than the latest political brouhaha in Washington.
Most women join the DAR not out of any firmly held political beliefs but simply to honor their country and the patriots who created it. Orange County's 11 chapters count from 70 to 120 members each, and like their sister chapters around the country, each has its own character and agenda.
The Mission Viejo chapter is devoted to veterans' causes. Says member Janet Franks, who lost a son in Vietnam: "We sponsored the first-ever Memorial day service at the El Toro Cemetery in 1985. They have over 400 veterans buried there, including one Civil War veteran."
For 20 years, the Tustin chapter has collected canned foods at Thanksgiving and children's toys at Christmas to distribute to Orange County's American Indians through the Southern California Indian Center in Garden Grove. The Tustin chapter is officially named Katuktu, a Shoshone word for red hill.
While most East Coast DAR members are signed up by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers, Orange County's members have often come to the DAR through their passion for genealogy. Many of the local members were directed to the society by the Orange County Genealogical Society.
Dorthie Kirkpatrick, Orange County's district director, calls chasing down long-lost ancestors an incurable disease. Kirkpatrick, 76, a retired trust officer with the Bank of America, wears six "ancestor bars," small gold badges that signify her documented descent from six different revolutionary patriots, not all of whom necessarily "fought" in the war. "I discovered one of my ancestors gave the patriots 7,000 pounds of hay," she says. "That was a lot of hay in those days."
Kirkpatrick is president of the Daughters of the War of 1812, and belongs to half a dozen other groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dames of the Magna Carta, which was signed in 1215. Each ancestor must be verified by the National Membership Committee, often a yearlong process of painstaking documentation.
"I have at least 15 proven patriotic ancestors that I can tie into, but I'm having too much fun to get 15 applications in," says Maureen Rischard, a Katuktu regent.