Twenty years ago this month, more than 400 women from around the country gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, for an unusual event: a White House Mini-Conference on Older Women. Their purpose was twofold: to explore ways to improve the quality of life for midlife and older women, and to launch a national membership organization, the Older Women's League.
To underscore the need for such a group, the opening session featured a "Speak Out," allowing participants to walk to a microphone and pour out their specific concerns. In voices tinged with sadness and regret, they spoke about everything from a lack of money to inadequate health care and unequal treatment at work.
They also lamented their invisibility in the eyes of the world. Gray-haired men, they explained, are considered distinguished, while older women tend to be regarded as simply old.
For those of us who were covering the event as reporters, too young to identify personally with the women's needs, the session was poignant and enlightening. Surely, we thought, by the time we reach midlife and beyond, these issues will be resolved.
Not necessarily. Today, two decades later, Deborah Briceland-Betts, executive director of the Older Women's League (OWL), sees both good news and continuing challenges.
Midlife and older women, she says, have made considerable progress in terms of being seen both as consumers and as participants in the political arena. But, she adds, "We still have a way to go in terms of the issues we started with - pensions, pay equity, and access to good-quality healthcare regardless of a woman's income."
For most of the years of OWL's existence, Ms. Briceland-Betts explains, these issues were on the back burner of the national agenda. "Now they're front and center. With women's new political power, we have every opportunity to make the necessary changes."
Media images are also changing for the better. In the past, she says, no magazines were specifically marketed to this particular group. Now she lists several publications for the over-40 set, among them More, Ageless, and New Choices. Equally important, she says, these magazines use photographs of women without airbrushing lines out of their faces. Some models also have gray hair.
"Perhaps we're not where ultimately we want to be, but we are making advances," she says. "We're seeing older women's faces in places that were unheard of before."
In the workplace, too, she sees progress. Many women are staying in the workforce longer, and some are starting second careers.
Yet companies still need reforms to help women of all ages. Heading Briceland-Betts's list is the need to equalize men's and women's salaries. This would give women "a chance at parity for retirement income."
She also wants employers to do a better job of integrating the demands of work and family. Whoever chooses to stay home for caregiving, whether for children or parents, should not be punished by the pension system or the Social Security system.
Finally, Briceland-Betts says, older women must have affordable healthcare.
Numbers confirm the need to give this group a voice. Some 58 million American women are 40 and over. Those 85 and older make up the fastest-growing segment of the population. Three-quarters of those in the oldest group are women. Many live alone.
As OWL begins its third decade with 73 chapters and 15,000 members, Briceland-Betts hopes to draw in more midlife and older women. Their faces may no longer be young. But never underestimate their spirit, individually and collectively, and the contribution they still long to make on many fronts.
Above all, don't color them invisible.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society