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Great Dames of California

These seven women define grace with purpose. Each, in their own extraordinary way, continually helps shape our state.

May 14, 2000|MIMI AVINS

Great dames must be seen through the prism of history. In a more recent era, they might have been CEOs of major corporations, university presidents or generals. They came of age at a time of limited expectations for women, when many paths to opportunity were blocked. So they made do. Great dames are nothing if not resourceful. If direct access to power was denied them, they found a way to acquire it anyway.

Author Marie Brenner began spending time with women who lived big, messy, energetic lives shortly after her mother died 10 years ago, interviewing them to glean wisdom from their experience. Her book, "Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women," (Crown Books, 2000), is in some ways the female component of a nostalgic trend that began with Tom Brokaw's bestseller, "The Greatest Generation"(Random House, 1998).

Well into adulthood, the persistently self-centered and self-congratulatory baby boomers had ignored the struggles and triumphs of their parents. If the virtues of the men Brokaw honored could be acknowledged, then perhaps the women of "Great Dames," and their less-famous sisters, can finally be properly appreciated by their daughters as well.

In their own way, the great dames are heroines who possessed persistence, curiosity, intelligence, style and adaptability. If they knew loneliness, depression and vulnerability, they made sure to keep up a brave front. Their feelings, as well as tremendous ambition, were hidden behind masks of serenity.

Descriptions of their perseverance come from endurance sports--they kept their blades on the ice, went the distance. Achievement and involvement were their addictions and their salvation. Whatever their moments of private despair, they didn't complain.

Brenner's mother taught her many great dame lessons, but, as a young woman, she was too busy rebelling to listen.

"Be more like Mrs. Kennedy," Thelma Brenner would tell her daughter. "Talk less and listen more."

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis obviously understood the potential of mystery. For the women of her generation, discretion was as much self-protection as technique.

"They kept their own counsel, because they knew that careless intimacy could be used against them in their march upward," Brenner said.

Then along came an army of young people so secure in their fascination with their own inner workings that they coined the phrase "let it all hang out." They behaved as if emotional exhibitionism were an attractive, if not a necessary, element of authenticity. The chasm between the generations, in this realm alone, was wide.

The image they presented required its own uniform. A ladylike appearance served many purposes. Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights attorney who fought to end segregation in this country, was as deliberately stylish as she was tough. She believed that if she looked beautiful, her chic would rebuke racial hatred.

Interest in the great dame style has resurfaced recently, but, in many cases, the young women who affect it embrace only the surface aspects of great damehood, which shows they don't understand the complex makeup of these warrior women any more than the baby boomers did. When the media try to create personalities now, the enterprise too often seems tinged with commerce, as if the purpose of a woman's being well-known is so her female admirers can envy, then imitate, her shoes, hairstyle or handbag.

"A great dame is a combination of style and substance," Brenner said.

Many great dames blossomed in widowhood or perhaps were emboldened by the gains their daughters have enjoyed. Rosa Broadous earned a junior college degree after her husband died. Iris Cantor expanded the foundation she and her late husband founded.

The great dame's love of beauty is evident in Joan Irvine Smith's and marine biologist Sylvia Earle's efforts to preserve the environment for future generations. Nell Soto and March Fong Eu moved in political circles, Andrea Van De Kamp in artistic and business arenas to improve their communities.

Lay the accomplishments of great dames end to end and you have a formidable daisy chain that could stretch from coast to coast. Every age has its great dames and a new group of dames in training. Mother's Day seems a fitting occasion to honor some of California's extraordinary women--some are mothers, all have doubtless learned from their own. They continually shape our state, never forgetting that grace can accompany purpose.

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