I am gazing at a pile of typewritten speeches and snapshots and political notes and trying to think how to explain the life and death of Tish Sommers, who died of cancer here yesterday and left women across the country working to believe they would finally have to let her go.
She was 71, as graceful a woman as I have ever known, tall and slender and given to the controlled movements of a dancer. She had danced in her youth, as part of modern troupes that performed internationally, but that was not how Tish emerged in the lives of all these women, women who were old enough and young enough to be one another's grandchildren and great-aunts. She was an organizer, an agitator, a woman of such passionate purpose and drive that in her last weeks, as she lay in her upstairs bedroom and felt her systems failing one by one, she talked seriously about the need for improved national organization within the hospice movement.
The term "displaced homemakers," an initially unsettling concept that swiftly became popular currency among politicians discovering new constituencies, was invented by Tish Sommers; it was her imagination, her political instincts and her precisely channeled outrage that gave national voice to a vast assortment of American women who found themselves aging in a society that appeared to have almost wholly lost interest in them.
When corps of older women besieged Capitol Hill last Mother's Day, bearing cards invoking the congressmen's own mothers along with reminders about legislative matters like Social Security cost-of-living adjustments and low-cost senior housing, that was Tish. When Displaced Homemaker bills were approved in 23 states, each vote following an onslaught of publicity about the emotional and financial distress of the homemaker set aflounder by widowhood or divorce, that was Tish.
It was Tish who would appear on television programs, smiling pleasantly at the host and holding always to her thoughtful low voice, and lay out the kind of plain information that made women sit down at their kitchen tables and write long angry letters about what had happened to them. She would talk about pensions, and job discrimination, and the statistics she had culled that week. Four million women between age 45 and 65 have no insurance at all, Tish would say. White women are twice as likely as white men to be living in old-age poverty, she would say; the figure doubles for black women. Less than 20 percent of women are eligible for non-Social Security pensions, and there is no Social Security for a homemaker's work, making most mid-life widowhood or divorce a sudden thrust into a job market that will not be bothered with 52-year-old women who lack "experience."
A Displaced Homemaker Network grew from the groundwork Tish laid, so that 500 programs around the country now offer counseling and job training to the women she wanted to reach. She had founded a group called OWL, Older Women's League -- Tish always liked the venerable image of owls -- and by the time she died, OWL had grown in five years to a 13,000-member organization with 90 chapters across the country. There are OWL chapters in places like Jeffersonville, Ind., and Eatontown, N.J., and there is a national headquarters in Washington, and there are senators and congressmen and Social Security critics who keep hearing from OWL members, and there are women who write still to Oakland or to Washington to lay out afresh the stories Tish had heard so many times before.
Economy, Ind.: "I need to get out in the world again. After 33 years we're getting a divorce. I need to know how to get a job and meet people." Saratoga, Calif.: "I found myself, at age 53, working for an employment agency. At the end of three months, I left feeling old, inadequate and worthless."
Those letters were sustenance for Tish; she worked them into speeches, invoked them in public hearings, sat friends down at her kitchen table to argue out the next plans for setting those women into motion. Helplessness drove her wild. There is a transcription here of a conversation at Tish's bedside a month before she died; she is explaining, probably by way of slightly sheepish apology to the friends asking her to please slow down and pay attention to herself for a minute, why even her own cancer was driving her to organize among the dying and those who cared for them.
"I can't help it," Tish is saying. "It's part of my nature, that since I'm going through this experience to turn it into energy for positive change. Of course that energizes me. I have the feeling in terms of pain control. I go on daytime on adrenalin and at night on sleeping pills. Now I find it's hard to meditate -- when I relax and go blank, I'm so aware of physical discomfort. It doesn't work for me. Action does."
I met Tish 12 years ago, when I was a Berkeley undergraduate and she was stirring up trouble in a local advocacy group she had named Jobs for Older Women. I was dazzled from the beginning; she was so lovely, so driven, so removed from the sickly passiveness I had once thought America forces on its elderly, that she gave me a new vision of what it might be like to celebrate my 70th birthday. We flew to Washington together before I graduated, each of us at work on questions of Social Security for homemakers.
Tish told me a little about her early days: the years in Germany as a visiting American dancer, the gathering rage about what Hitler was doing to the Jewish family that had taken her in, the middle years as a professor's wife and civil rights organizer in Alabama, the early feminist work. When she divorced, she was a 57-year-old woman with no pension and no Social Security entitlement of her own. She was denied credit, turned down as a PhD candidate, rejected for health insurance because of her earlier cancer.
"I wrote a book," Tish said last spring, when some oral historians asked her to talk about her life, "called 'The Not So Helpless Female.' " (I can see her smiling as she says this; she was usually charmed by her own pithy titles, and particularly liked the business cards she designed, in which a jovial witch rides across the logo. "Free-lance agitator," the cards read.)
"Kind of how to make things happen," Tish said, remembering her book. "To shake things up. Sort of a wave-making manual. After all, I had quite a bit of experience at making waves."
She had cancer for six years. It was massive, pervasive cancer, spread through her bones, and she carried it the way she had carried her divorce and her earlier mastectomy and everything else that another kind of person might have imagined the most private of personal hurdles. She wrote position papers on health care, flew East for hearings and board meetings, made outlines for a book about women as caregivers. Once a year, with friends from around the country in tow, she and her organizing partner Laurie Shields arranged rafting trips, and then Tish would lie back in places like Idaho or Jackson Hole, Wyo., and dangle her ankles in the water, and talk about how the cancer was changing her tactics. When she got back, she worked white-water rafting images into her speeches.
It was almost as though Tish had no private self, as though introspection and fear seemed to her the most self-indulgent of luxuries. You never talked to Tish about restaurants or couch upholstery or whatever it is friends talk about when they're feeling evasive and silly. She wanted the central questions raised immediately, and then she wanted to figure out how to make things better.
We were all afraid of her cancer, especially the younger women around her. It was awful to imagine illness destroying Tish, and she would look us in the eye and talk about that, just as she had grinned at us 10 years ago and said that when America began thinking right, the cosmetics industry would begin marketing pour-on wrinkles and age spots for women eager to display their own maturity.
And she never did let the cancer destroy her, at least not so we could see it. She slowed for it, and eased her traveling, and spent more time in the upstairs room with the sun pouring in, gritting her way through the worst parts and refusing until the last week the painkillers that kept her from thinking clearly and making plans.
When she knew she would die before the year ended, she told us, one by one.
She was lying in bed when I saw her two weeks ago, her thin arms folded up behind her head, and she let me know almost imme diately that she was saying goodbye. I asked her if she was frightened, and she said she was not, that an awful lot of people had begun trying to convert her to their particular God, but that she didn't feel the need. Her work was going to survive her, and that would do.
Then Tish smiled at me, and God bless her, she gave me my assignment for her memorial. She had typed it out. The OWL convention was being planned; she thought a memorial might help fire people up. There would be some singing, and some reminiscences, and a brief summary of her life, with slides. I was to write the narration. Maybe Ronnie Gilbert, the big-voiced folk singer from the Weavers, could read it. "NOT MAUDLIN," the paper said, right near the top.