Overcoming inequities for older women

''You don't feel over the hill when you're on the Hill, telling Congress about these issues and tackling inequities,'' says Tish Sommers, a Californian who coined the label ''Displaced Homemaker'' in the 1970s and started the Older Women's League (OWL) two years ago to further address their problems.

''After working a while with the Displaced Homemakers Alliance (started with Laurie Shields in 1975),'' says Ms. Sommers, ''we discovered that there are more issues confronting these women than simply getting back into the job market. OWL was set up to address those issues.''

Most of these issues stem from economic inequities - hidden, she says, for years in data that sorted out issues according to gender or age, not both. The data they provide are staggering: 2.7 million women 65 or over living in poverty in 1981 compared with just over 1 million men; an average income of $4,757 for all women over 65 compared with $8,173 for men; and only 48 percent of women in this age group married compared with 81 percent of men.

The organization Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields direct has ''struck something of a chord,'' says Ms. Sommers, who reports 100 new members streaming in each week, and 60 chapters already founded. Together, national and local offices work to overcome inequities in social security, health insurance, caregiver support services, budget cuts, job training, and pension rights.

''Only 18 percent of all women have access to any sort of pension, whether it's theirs or their husband's,'' explains Shirley Sandage, executive director of OWL, in her Washington office, a spare assortment of secondhand furnishings presided over by a macrame owl. ''And even those women who pay into a pension plan usually don't get anything back, because you have to contribute for at least 10 years to most of those plans before you qualify. If you drop out of the job market for a few years to raise the children, or if your husband moves around a lot, chances are you are not signed up.''

Women miss out on pension plans in other ways, she says, and should question their employers and husbands ''before retirement. Most men are offered a complicated package and are told they will have a higher monthly income if they waive their rights to survivor's benefits. There is no law on the books requiring employers to make sure the spouse is informed on this decision,'' she says.

Those who are married to civil servants should watch out for a special clause in their retirement plan, Ms. Sandage warns, which disallows survivor's benefits if the worker passes away within two years of retirement. ''Most people don't know about this one,'' she says, ''so a lot of what we do is to try and educate our members and the public.''

Retirement income is usually based on a combination of pensions, social security, and savings, Ms. Sandage continues, ''and women miss out on all three. Even with these new IRAs (individual retirement accounts), if you're a housewife and you don't work, you can only contribute $250 to an account. It's very important for women to have their own accounts in their own names, and we think it should be equal to their spouse's account, with the upper limit set the same - at $2,000.''

Much of OWL's current effort is aimed at Capitol Hill, where, said an aide with the office of Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D) of New York, members have ''clout with the Aging Committee, and clout with us. They don't whine - that's one of the things that's great about them. They're very professional and have reliable data.''

Local chapters are introducing model legislation on the state level that would enable women who are ''suddenly alone'' to stay on their spouse's health insurance plan.

They also have a model bill that would provide some relief under medicare to those who must regularly care for the elderly and the handicapped, ''so they can go to church, or do their grocery shopping. We think this would help to keep some folks out of nursing homes,'' says Ms. Sandage.

Recently, several chapters passed out slices of apple pie in front of their local social-security office to bring home to the public that ''equality in social-security benefits is a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue,'' says Ms. Sandage.

Unlike retirement plans or insurance, the director believes, social security is designed to underwrite the basic values of society - values that, she believes, should include the work of the homemaker, whose job at present is excluded from the social-security package.

''Homemakers are workers like anyone else and deserve the same things other workers get,'' says Ms. Sommers. She points out that, whereas it was always the role of women in our society to raise the children and care for the elderly, now they are expected to bring in an income as well. ''Society should value all of women's work. The role of homemaker is a valuable role and needs some protection ,'' she says firmly.

''These women have made an important contribution and still have a contribution to make,'' says Ms. Sandage. ''Most of us continue to feel young all of our lives and feel that we do have something to say.''

''Appearance certainly shouldn't be the criterion for judging someone's worth ,'' says Ms. Sandage, who wishes to eliminate the media image of older women as ''pushing vitamins or squeezing Charmin. When Dan Rather gets on TV with his gray hairs, he looks distinguished. It should be the same for older women,'' she says simply.

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