Red Hatters: the new women’s movement
Rules and bylaws are out;
camaraderie is in
BY GLORIA STRAVELLI
Halos wouldn’t do, neither would crowns, but bold red hats in sundry shapes and styles are the symbol adopted by a growing woman’s movement that aims to change the image of women who are aging.
"This growing organization of women is uniting under the umbrella of a Red Hat to have fun and bond in sisterhood as they travel through the aging process together," is the message espoused by The Red Hat Society with chapters in Red Bank, across the United States and in 20 foreign countries.
The society eschews rules and organization and has only one dictum — members must wear red hats. Full regalia includes clashing purple clothing, in keeping with the society’s inspiration, a poem about growing older that celebrates liberation from "the sobriety of youth."
Begun as a "nurturing network" of friends over age 50, The Red Hat Society initially focused on adding an element of fun to the aging process to counter the dread contemporary women often feel about growing older.
"We believe that aging should be something anticipated with excitement, not something to dread," explains the society Web site, www.redhatsociety.org.
Along the way, the woman’s network has become an international phenomenon and has found a larger mission.
"We have also discovered a mission of sorts: to gain higher visibility for women in our age group and to reshape the way we are viewed by today’s culture" is the message broadcast from society "hatquarters" in southern California.
The Red Hat Society began simply as a friends’ birthday celebration in 1997. Founder Sue Ellen Cooper gave a close friend a copy of the poem "Warning" by British author Jenny Joseph, along with a bright red vintage hat to celebrate her 55th birthday,
The celebrated poem has a signature line: "When I am an old woman I shall wear a red hat with purple which won’t suit me …" — a promise that aging can be filled with frivolous and liberating moments.
Word quickly spread through magazine and newspaper articles, and the society currently has more than 500,000 members and 19,000 chapters across the United States and 20 foreign countries; some 350 new chapters are registered each week.
Chapters are encouraged to avoid having rules and bylaws and focus on the things that really matter as women age — having fun and enjoying the camaraderie of other women on the same journey.
One of the newest Red Hat chapters began over morning coffee shared by Red Bank residents Bobbie Daughtry, Pat Heyer and Pinky.
Daughtry and Heyer met at another chapter’s meeting, decided Red Bank needed its own chapter, and enlisted Pinky, who is Heyer’s next-door neighbor.
"I was new to the area," explained Daughtry. "I had seen a news story about the Red Hat Society and thought it would be a way to meet people. I spent one year in isolation. At our age, it’s hard to connect."
The trio began planning the new chapter in January and came up with a tongue-in-cheek name — The Crone Jewels of Red Bank.
"Crone means wise, older woman. We did it deliberately," explained Daughtry. "We’re sort of out-of-the-box thinkers, as Pinky would say. This word applauds women who are also out-of-the-box."
The founding crones aim to keep the group inclusive.
"We are not a clique," insisted Daughtry.
"That’s the beauty of it," added Heyer. "Sometimes if you join an existing group, there are alliances already formed, and it can be difficult. We made a vow to be very open."
"We wanted to expand the ages. Some chapters aren’t fond of "pink hatters" [women under age 50]," noted Daughtry. "We wanted a wide range of ages. It’s more fun."
At its second gathering in Red Bank recently, the chapter had already attracted about a dozen area women eager to don red hats and remain committed to forming new friendships.
Besides acquiring a network of like-minded women, the three founders each have their own take on the benefits of membership in The Red Hat Society.
For Daughtry, who moved around the country as her husband was transferred from city to city before arriving in Red Bank, it was about making connections, she said.
"I was always a stranger," said Daughtry. "I was trying to connect and decided to take pottery classes, and I asked one of the women if she’d like to go to lunch. She looked at me and said, ‘I already have enough friends.’
"Some women’s lives are so full already they don’t need anybody else, but some of us are looking for a way to connect."
For retired schoolteacher Heyer, the Red Hat Society chapter offers a social milieu without strings.
"I’m not involved in any kind of organization anymore. I don’t necessarily want to be because I don’t want to have to do anything," Heyer said. "I’ve done all my volunteering. I don’t have to go out and bang on somebody’s door and ask for money."
"Most people our age have ‘been there, done that,’ " added Linda Poling, of Shrewsbury. "This group doesn’t have to be concerned with always asking for money, with going to a lot of luncheons, dinners."
For artist Pinky, being a Red Hatter is a hedge against odds that she will outlive her companion.
"Statistically, women will outlive their men," she observed. "I have to start cultivating my women friends, so I can live the rest of my life with fellowship. I’m looking for a family of women to grow old with."
In keeping with the society’s emphasis on "disorganization," the Crone Jewels don’t gather (there are no formal "meetings") regularly yet.
The group is typical of Red Hat chapters, which are generally comprised of women from all walks of life. The group includes artists, authors, small-business owners, retirees, women with and without children, single, married, divorced and widowed.
Whether The Red Hat Society will earn a place in women’s history remains to be seen, but it is sure to change women’s perception of getting older.
"It’s so unstructured," remarked Daughtry. "It feels like a movement."
"It’s a coming-of-age," observed Heyer.
"This is the first time I’m feeling comfortable about my age," admitted Rae. "I can’t tell you how long I’ve lied about my age."
"It’s about celebrating where you’re at," noted Daughtry. "We’re not out to show anybody anything. Just to find each other and have fun."