Moving beyond the age of rules

Lifestyles: The ladies in the red hats and purple dresses want you to know that they're finally having fun.

January 14, 2001|By Lori Basheda | Lori Basheda,Knight Ridder / Tribune

The poem grabbed her: "Warning," it begins. "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple. With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me ..."

It is a poem about finding freedom in reaching the age when you don't care anymore what other people think about you.

Sue Ellen Cooper had just turned 54, and for the first time she found herself not needing to please people or live up to their expectations. To celebrate, she went out and bought a funky old red hat. She wore it the next time she went out with her friends.

And word of her boldness spread.

It spread to the cornfields of Indiana. And the Pineapple Tea Room in Virginia. It spread to a beauty parlor in Leaky, Texas. It made its way to Barb, who runs a fishing resort in northern Wisconsin, and to Florence Slatterly's village in Australia and to Nancy Stover in Beaver, Pa.

Two years later, Cooper's red hat had grown into the Red Hat Society, membership a couple of thousand. From her Fullerton, Calif., home, and quite by accident, Sue Ellen Cooper has become something of a national icon to many women.

There are at this moment 175 Red Hat Society chapters in Canada, Australia and 34 states. Orange County, Calif., is home to 10 of them.

Red magnetism

Red Hat members say several things drew them.

One: The rules are, there are no rules. That's because this is a generation of women who lived by the rules. And frankly, they're tired of them.

Two: The Red Hat Society has no official purpose, no responsibilities. "We've all raised families or volunteered until we're blue in the face," Cooper said.

And many members still have careers. The Red Hat ranks include bankers, nurses, artists, librarians and professors. There is a horse trainer, an animal rescuer, a fishing resort owner and an economist.

Cooper's resume: soccer mom, taxi driver to piano, ice skating and gymnastics lessons, Cub Scout den mother, Sunday school helper and child guidance center volunteer, in addition to jobs as muralist, greeting card artist and illustrator.

Not every woman has the experience. But many do. One morning they wake up to find that there's no Halloween costume to sew for their kids, no lunch to pack for their husband, no cookies to bake for the PTA. No one expects their house to be dusted. They're free.

Cooper doesn't want to spoil that. So she asks nothing of members, only that they wear purple dresses and red hats when they meet in public to celebrate this new stage of life.

"Some women write to me and they say, 'But then what do we do?' " Cooper said. "I tell them, 'Just go someplace and if you still don't get it, call me.' No one has ever called me. I don't know what it is about a group of women going out together in purple dresses and red hats, but they laugh till they're just sick."

Most chapters meet for tea or lunch. But it's really about bonding.

"In your '20s, your boyfriends mean the world to you. Then you become involved in raising children or focusing on your career. At our age, female friendships become important. The sharing of trials and tribulations," said Maureen Burton, 51, a member of one of two Fullerton chapters.

Burton is an economics professor at Cal Poly Pomona and the mother of two grown children.

"One hundred fifty years ago, they used to send wagons around to pick up women who had gone insane from the change of life," she said. The Red Hat Society celebrates the change.

"It's an age where you begin to accept yourself and your looks," Burton said. "You're not going to be the beauty queen and that's OK."

Invisible people?

The newfound freedom comes at a price, though, some say.

"Aging is a double-edged sword," said Renae Bredin, an assistant professor of women's studies at California State University, Fullerton. "You do have much more freedom to do what you want -- because no one is watching. Older women are invisible in our culture. They're not heard."

Carolyn Heilbrun, a retired Columbia University professor who wrote a book dealing with the subject, jokes that she could burglarize any flat in New York City without getting caught. "If you aren't young and sexy, nobody sees you. You do become invisible. It's annoying at first. But it also gives you great freedom."

That's not to say older women don't want to be noticed at all. That's why walking into a restaurant with 20 women wearing purple dresses and red hats can be such a scream.

"Imagine a crowd of old women being visible," Bredin said. "How scary is that for someone who wants old women to be kept in the background? For these women to come out and say here we are and we're proud of it. ... How cool."

So what does Jenny Joseph think about her poem mobilizing thousands of women?

"I envy them the fun," she said from her home in Gloucester, England. She said she is delighted but not surprised. BBC listeners once voted "Warning" the United Kingdom's favorite poem. "People read it at weddings and funerals and all sorts of inappropriate places," she said.

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