White House conference builds a case against 'ageism'

"If something really flies in Des Moines, it's not going to have any trouble in Berkeley," explained one of the leaders of the White House Mini-Conference on Older Women held here recently -- about 991 miles from the White House.

It was not the only flight motif running through the two-day meeting. As 421 delegates gathered in the sedate Grand Ballroom of the Savery Hotel to discuss issues relevant to middle-aged and older women, high-flying slogans kept making their trial ascensions.

"Organize, don't agonize," admonished Tish Sommers, president of the Older Women's League Educational Fund (OWLEF).

Buttons optimistically proclaimed: "Senior Power." And: "Older is better."

Even delegates' conference jewelry, a ubiquitous OWLEF pendant, depicted an owl in flight -- "to show we're not just sitting around hooting."

A few observers worried privately that participants were doing just that. "Discouraged people with sad tales to tell," one critic grumbled. She had a point. In open meetings and 15 workshops, displaced homemakers, jobless minority women, and widows with "no wills and no skills" recited harsh complaints about the injustices of their lives.

Many grievances were economic. "After 40 years of raising a family of five children with a disabled husband, I'm now getting $148.50 a month from social security," one woman revealed. "I never worked so hard in my life as I did raising my children. I should get more money."

Another delegate decried the lack of economic protection in no-fault divorce laws: "Old men judges look at older women and say, 'OK, you want equality, go out and get a job.' They don't look at the realities of the job market."

Or perhaps they aren't looking at the statistics on older women -- a group Gray Panthers leader Maggie Kuhn calls "the new demographic frontier." Government figures illustrated her point persuasively:

* Women in the 65-and-older age group -- now numbering almost 15 million -- are the fastest-growing segment of the population. They represent nearly 60 percent of the over-65 population.

* Older women are also becoming the single poorest group of people in the United States. In 1977 their median income was $3,087.

* Even if older women can find a job, 80 percent of women of all ages must take employment in "sex-segregated, low-paying, low-benefit, low-status jobs."

* About 85 percent of surviving American spouses are female, though only two percent of widows get their husband's pension benefits.

Jamil Zainaldin, a legislative aide to Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (Ohio), concluded: "To be old, female, and single in America is too often to be poor."

Yet not all of the women's money problems could be blamed on statistics or somebody else. The need for self-help and mutual help became a recurring theme. Encouraging delegates to take greater interest in family finances, one participant told a mid-life planning workshop, "We must get rid of the notion that financial things are his end, kitchen things are mine."

Edith Fierst, representing the Interdepartmental Task Force on Women in Washington, concurred. "Very few women have any idea about their retirement income," she told the handful of delegates who showed up for a pension workshop.

Underlying all the economic grievances, however, was a moral grievance -- the conviction that older women are misperceived, if they are perceived at all. The words "our invisibility" became a buzz phrase.

Younger people, delegates argued, see the older woman only as someone expected "to play and take a nap," like a superannuated child.

Makers of television commercials, they continued, see the older woman only as someone who either pours coffee or rubs her forehead and pops a pill.

Even older women, they admitted, too often are persuaded to see themselves as a stereotype.

Faire Edwards of Waterbury, Vt., summed up the problem: "The question is, What do we turn into after 45 -- pumpkins, maybe?" Mrs. Edwards herself hopes to turn into a lawmaker Nov. 4; she is a candidate for the state legislature.

By the time the litany was completed, much of what Maggie Kuhn called "the largest stumbling block -- a sense of hopelessness" had been tempered. Increasingly "I" became "we" as autobiographies defined shared concerns. Possible solutions and specific recommendations emerged, to be forwarded to the 1981 White House Conference on Aging. Among them:

* Recognition of the value of a homemaker's contribution, reflected in updated social security and pension laws.

* Changes in marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws to give women equality.

* Advocacy campaigns to improve images of older women in commercials.

* Public support at federal, state, and local levels for mid-life career counseling and training programs.

* Programs to alert women to the dangers of "scams" and confidence games. "Education is the way to take away the claws of the con artist," Miss Sommers said.

* Help from the Small Business Administration to improve self-employment opportunities for women.

* More consumer control in health care.

As the list of recommendations grew in the closing session, the conference theme finally registered with at least one skeptic. Looking at a huge "Growing Numbers: Growing Force" banner on the stage in front of her, a small Southern woman half- whispered a confession. "Yesterday I didn't believe the 'force' part," she said. "Now I think, 'Maybe so.'"

One of the issue papers ended with a quotation from English novelist Doris Lessing: "Any human anywhere will blossom into a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so."

A single last sentence was appended, like a note in the margin: "Can we add, 'at any age'?"

The conference arrived at the question. Delegates now hope legislators, employers, educators, families, friends -- and the 1981 White House Conference on Aging -- will help them arrive at the answer.

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