She was not as well known as, say, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem or Bella Abzug, but within the women's movement Tish Sommers had a very special place: she, along with longtime associate Laurie Shields, put the problems of older women -- women who were often left helpless and destitute by widowhood and divorce -- into the conscience of a nation.
It was Sommers who coined the term "displaced homemaker," and drove the point home to state legislators and finally to members of Congress that the women she spoke for could very well be the lawmakers' own mothers. Recognition of the plight of older women was one of the women's movement success stories in the '70s. California, Sommers' home state, was the first to pass legislation to provide job training for these women. Within two years 23 other states had passed similar legislation, setting up more than 400 training programs and counseling centers across the country. In 1975, Sommers founded the Alliance for Displaced Homemakers, which was instrumental in securing federal funding for such programs in 1979.
Sommers, 71, who died last week after a long battle with cancer, had the remarkable discipline to be able to translate personal adversity into effective political organizing. When her marriage of more than 20 years ended in divorce in 1971, she experienced firsthand many of the problems that confront a divorced or widowed homemaker. She lost her health insurance and could not get a new carrier because she had a history of cancer, for example.
"I was 57," she told Ms. magazine in a 1982 interview, "and I had already had my first feminist 'clicks,' but despite the fact that I thought my consciousness was raised, I was totally naive about what happens to a divorced woman without health care or Social Security benefits.
"I didn't set out to create a movement, but I'm not surprised it became one. We knew from the first time I went on national television that we had touched a nerve. Thousands of letters came in saying, 'I thought I was alone.' "
One of those who came to an early organizing meeting for displaced homemakers was Laurie Shields, then 55 and a widow after 15 years of marriage. She became the executive director of the alliance. In 1980, shortly after a conference in Des Moines to prepare for the 1981 White House Conference on Aging, the two women founded the Older Women's League (OWL). As a result of their efforts, the 1981 conference was the first one ever to single out problems peculiar to older women on its agenda.
"She's one of my heroines," said Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), a member of the Select Committee on Aging who knew and worked with Sommers for many years. "She did more than anyone I know of to call attention to the plight of elderly women who had been somewhat ignored in the whole feminist concept." Two-thirds of the elderly in the United States are women, and the country's poorest are women over 65, Oakar said.
She recalled Sommers coming into her office several years ago and meeting with her and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), cochair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. "She was the one who first embraced as an issue . . . the inequities towards women in the Social Security plan. OWL now has as its number one priority correcting the inequities. She just came in and said, 'By heaven, I want to know more about this because I don't understand it.' As soon as I explained it, she said, 'That makes sense, we're going to do something about this.' Now, when I go around and talk about it, people know about it. She's raised the consciousness about older women's issues nationally and certainly in the Congress."
Oakar recalled the lobbying campaign OWL conducted last Mother's Day, when older women brought cards to members of Congress who were considering taking away Social Security cost of living adjustments. "It did not hurt . . . . At that time people weren't as frightened about what Reagan would do as they should have been. There was a momentum here to take away the cost-of-living adjustment even though the trust fund was burgeoning. They were the ones who gave us the figure that 400,000 more people would be below the poverty level.
"She came across as nonconfrontational but firm and very warm so that you didn't feel threatened when she talked to you. She had a very keen mind and she was a marvelous person at hearings. When I want to push some of my legislation I can say the OWL endorses it and I will not get any negative reaction. It's like motherhood, apple pie and fatherhood.
"She was a national treasure. She will be sorely missed."
Indeed she will be. But what a legacy she left.