THEY ARE OUR MOTHERS: women who fell in love years ago, wore white at the altar because they were entitled to and when the pastor asked them if they would love, cherish and obey till death them do part, they said "I do" and meant it, because although the sweet bliss at the altar could sour over the years into a bitter match, this was marriage. So they kissed, linked arms and walked down the aisle into a trap.
Some worked as secretares before the first child was born; others never went to work. They saw home and motherhood as honorable pursuits and, besides, this is what women did. Their husband got jobs, they stayed home and raised the family and the kids grew up and went to college and, suddenly one day, their husbands said they wanted out. They said "divorce" to women raised ina time when the word was hardly used in polite company.
And so, when their husbands said it to them, they were ashamed. They stayed inside their houses and didn't tell anyone what was going on. They hoped the men would change their minds and come home, but they didn't, and the wounded women became depressed and frightened. They were on their own. There was no one to take care of them, for the first time since their youth. But they weren't so young any more.
Well, the women are picking themselves up and getting back on their feet. They've changed their name from housewife to displaced homemaker; they've gotten a new image, a new cause, and they are organizing. Older, divorced women have made common cause with windows on fixed incomes and they are lobbying state legislatures for centers and training programs that will help them over the hurdle of age discrimination and into the labor force.
More than 450 women from across the country gathered last weekend in Baltimore, where one of the largest and most successful centers for displaced homemakers is located, for the first national training conference on displaced homemakers programs. Many of the women there were displaced homemakers on the mend, women who were helping others in their states and who were there to exchange information about what idea work and what ideas don't.
The conference, backed financially by the federal government, was a turning point toward organization for a movement that began three years ago in Oakland, Calif., when two women - Laurie Shields, a widow, and Tish Sommers, a divorcee - got together and realized that older homemakers who lose their husbands, for whatever reason, have much in common. They don't think they have marketable skills and maybe they don't; they face age discrimination in a high-speed culture that deifies youth; they don't know how or where to look for work, and they go out looking for it bolstered by the unshakable certainty that no one will hire them.
Soon after Sommers got together with Shields - May 8, 1975 - the movement was moving. It was called the Alliance for Displaced Homemakers. Its goal was to get legislation passed in California that would set up centers for displaced homemakrs to counsel them, train them, get them jobs. The centers would be staffed in part by salaried displaced homemakers - women who understood.
Shields and Sommers, career homemakers, turned into political lobbyists like you've never seen: they and other women volunteers got the bill passed in California and the center opened within one year. They began crisscrossing the country, staying in private homes, supporting themselves with donations and meager honorariums, speaking to women's groups, church groups, political groups, drumming up support for similar legislation nationally and on the state level. Within two years, displaced homemaker bills had been introduced in 28 states, passed in 16 of them, and Congress just approved legislation allowing the Labor Department to spend up to $15 million to help displaced homemakers. The Labor Department estimates there are anywhere from 3 million to 12 million or more such people.
Their cause transcends political party differences and links generations. Republican and Democratic legislators work for it, vote for it. Older housewives volunteer their time and lobby for it. They look around and see their friends. younger women lobby for it. "They recognize their own mothers." said Shields.
"The issue is age," said Sheilds. But the issue is also aging in a changing society that stigmatizes the older, divorced woman but no longer stigmatizes divorce. It is the disappearance of the extended family that might in other times have cared for the widow, and the issue is also inflation that hits widows and divorcees on fixed or no incomes and forces them to work to survive. "When you run into age discrimination in the job market, you realize you're a displace homemaker," said Shields, who has been there,"
"This is the swan song for us on this issue," said Shields of the conference. "Advocacy and organizing is very important, but it's equally important to know when to pass that leadership on to others."
They are passing it on to the women who met in Baltimore last weekend, who agreed to set up a national network, with a newsletter and an advisory board and an office in Washington. The issue for these women is jobs and they made it clear at the conference that they want women like themselves to run the centers and the training programs, and to do the counseling.
"They want a voice," said Cynthia Marano, a displaced homemaker who run the conference. This is not going to be a network of service providers."
"This is a group of women in transition now, who probably won't exist ever again," said Shields. "Younger women are far more conscious of the need to keep up to date, keep up with their skills." Younger women are also working permanently, taking time off at intervals to have children, but they also have careers. They know there is inflation and, unlike their mothers, they know there is divorce and that the odds are 1 in 3 it will happen to them.
The displaced homemakers may be women trapped in the crosscurrents of history but they are reaching into their pasts to discover something that will rescue them. And it's working.
The women who spent years of their lives volunteering for cancer and heart and scouts and no end of political candidates have found a new cause: they are volunteering to help themselves.