Candy is dandy, but come Mother's Day Tish Sommers would like to see America honor its matriarchs with something a bit more substantial--say pension plans, health insurance and a stronger, more equitable, Social Security system.

In the midst of all the sentiment and commercialism surrounding the May 8 celebration of mothers, Sommers offers this bleak reminder: "The years a woman spends at home in the socially sanctioned role of mother earn her a big fat zero at retirement time."

Result: "Older women are the fastest-growing poverty group in America."

As founder and president of the Older Women's League (OWL)--a rapidly growing advocacy organization for midlife and older women--Sommers led a series of "motherhood and apple-pie actions" directed at Social Security officials in 20 cities last month to dramatize women's place at the bottom of the barrel.

The "apple actions" marked a milestone for OWL, which moved its national office from Sommers' neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., to the District of Columbia.

"When we first organized in 1980," says Sommers, "we knew we'd have to move to Washington if we were going to have an impact on public policy. Now we're ready."

A nationwide advertising blitz about OWL and the plight of older women is slated for Mother's Day. OWL staffers are lobbying Congress for Social Security, pension and health-care reform; members in more than 70 chapters around the country have begun organizing older women in their communities.

Their goals: "To change two things," says Sommers. "National policy and our image.

"Consider the stereotype. Generally when you see an older women in an ad, she's talking about illness." While older men may be portrayed as distinguished and wise, "older women are either comic relief or pitiable.

"We want to convey the message that older women have value, beauty and significance. The last half of our lives can be the most active, vigorous and vital. Older women--and everyone else--need to know that you're not over the hill when you're on The Hill telling your congressman what to do."

Dynamic, vibrant and politically astute, Sommers, a 68-year-old grandmother, is her own best advertisement for "the exciting potential for growth in the last half of life."

Until her divorce at age 57 she had followed the traditional path sanctioned for women of her generation: volunteer work, mothering and homemaking. She earned a master's degree in her husband's field of Hispanic studies so she could "be a better helpmate."

Her post-divorce loss of health-insurance benefits was the catalyst for Sommers' transformation from homemaker to policy maker. "I had had a mastectomy," she says matter-of-factly, "and I'd been on my husband's health-insurance policy. After the divorce they wouldn't insure me because I was at high risk.

"I also learned that I wouldn't become eligible for Social Security when I was age 65 because I happened to be older than my ex-husband. At that time, a dependent divorced wife could not draw Social Security if her husband was still working. A new law, effective January 1985, allows women who have been divorced at least two years to draw their allotted funds.

"I considered entering the job market, but my degrees psychology and Hispanic studies weren't much good in that regard. I figured if I were having these problems, other women probably were, too."

Sommers' volunteer work on issues such as school taxes and civil rights had convinced her that "when people organize they can make a difference. I decided that older women needed an advocacy group because we had specific problems that neither the aging groups nor the women's groups were addressing."

Part of her strong belief that "what happens to one segment of our society affects us all," came from spending pre-WWII years (1933 to 1936) in the home of a Jewish family in Dresden.

"I wanted to be a dancer and went to Germany at age 18 to study. It changed my life. I thought the arts and politics were totally separate. But I learned everything was linked. I came out of that experience with a strong social conscience. When there is injustice, the bell tolls for us all."

So in 1973, Sommers launched a Jobs for Older Women Action Project in her community.

"I threw myself a 59th birthday party, and had it announced on a local radio station. I invited interested women to come and celebrate. The idea was to bring women together to help each other break into the job market. About 65 people attended."

Although some of the women got jobs, "We weren't getting too far," says Sommers. "We were invisible. We needed a name to be recognized in legislation and in the public eye."

She decided on "Displaced Homemaker" to describe women like herself who--through divorce or widowhood--"were forcibly exiled from our jobs of homemakers." The women wrote a state Displaced Homemakers' Bill, which languished in legislative limbo until Sommers tapped former marketing executive Laurie Shields, a widow involved in older women's rights, to lobby for passage. The bill's passage in 1975 resulted in the country's first Displaced Homemaker Center offering skills and support.

"By 1978," says Sommers, "Displaced Homemakers had been recognized as a disadvantaged group in federal legislation," which enabled them to be included in government training and support programs. "The time was ripe for a national association."

In 1980, Sommers and Shields invited the 412 participants at the Carter administration's White House Mini-Conference on Older Women in Des Moines to stay an extra day to form OWL. More than 300 did.

At OWL's first national convention last November, officials targeted these areas for action:

* Social Security. Structured to recognize marriage as an economic partnership.

* Pensions. Like some other nations (Canada, France, Germany, England, Sweden), the United States should recognize homemaking in the distribution of public old-age income benefits. Pension plans should eliminate sex-based actuarial tables that are discriminating toward women.

* Health Insurance. Convertible without penalty to the wife.

* Elimination of age/sex discrimination in employment.

* Relief for caregivers. "Many older women find themselves serving as unpaid caregivers to disabled spouses or parents. We've developed a model state bill to give her a few hours respite care--so she can physically and emotionally continue in the role without a breakdown."

From the flood of letters--OWL gets about 150 from older women daily--"we know we've tapped a need," says Sommers.

"Local chapters have already started to make a difference in member's lives. We plan to start OWL walking clubs, both for health and social benefits. There's a great deal of self-help older women can give each other."

About 7,000 women have already paid their $5 annual dues. In addition to that "terrific response," Sommers is also driven by a recent recurrence of her cancer. "I'm coping with it," she says with a determined smile. "But it does give me a feeling of greater urgency to get the national organization working and pass the baton."

For information about membership in national and local OWL chapters call 783-6686, or write OWL, 1325 G St. NW, Lower Level B., Washington, D.C. 20005.