For 21 years, Betty June Bongiovanni lived what seemed to her perfect existence.
"Like Ethel Kennedy," she says, she married a man who seemed too good to be true and she built her life with him: three sons, Boy Scouts all, the Baptist church, ice cream on Sundays, and a modest brick rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore.
At 42, Fred Bongiovanni died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He left his wife with a meager insurance policy and even smaller pension from his automotive electrician's job.
"We had done everything together. When you marry you do become one. I felt like more than half my life was gone. I have to make a whole new life over again and I don't want to."
Betty June's life, at 40, virtually stopped. For four years she stayed at home, had her sons do her grocery shopping and drive her to the few places she could bear to visit. Relatives were not called on. Waking up in the morning was almost as difficult as falling asleep. She gained 50 pounds.
Now one of those seemingly insignificant laws passed each year in the Maryland General Assembly and funded through a complicated new tax has made a tremendous difference in her life.
In 1976 Del. Helen Koss (D-Montgomery) sponsored the law to set up a Center for Displaced Homemakers, to prepare women like Betty June for the world and the job market that has changed irreversibly since they left it some 20 or 30 years ago to become houswives. The funding was design by Del. Benjamin L. Cardin who raised the necessary $100,000 by, taxing unearned corporate income, like dividends from stocks.
Every year millions of middle-aged women are widowed or lose their husbands in divorce proceedings. While the widow's anguish may reach its pinnacle at the burial of her husband, or the divorcee's ultimate disillusionment occurs at the final decree, the greater trials lay ahead when they must solve the emotional and financial problems of surviving alone.
Since they are not considered a problem in society, few programs are set up to help them, and they often fall between the cracks because they are neither welfare mothers nor senior citizens, only someone trying to cope alone.
Maryland's center in Baltimore is one of only two in the country. Three other states are designing centers and there is a national bill before Congress to support 50 throughout the country.
This year Betty June found the Center For Displaced Homemakers, a brick rowhouse in the industrial end of downtown. With only a high school diploma and two years' work experience from the 50s, she had sought a job and only found temporary office positions.
I don't like the word "displaced homemaker," it sounds embarrassing, like I couldn't do something, like I failed. It's humbling to think that for months I kept saying, 'You can get a job Betty June, you can get a job.' But I couldn't. So I needed the center."
The "embarassing" term "displaced homemaker" is almost a political slogan, the naming of one of the last groups of Americans to organize themselves. They are generally, if not always, women, between 35 and 64 years old - outside the reach of social security and youth employment acts. They have lost their spouses, who were the main providers, do not have jobs, can't find them, and do not receive public assistance for their children.
They are middle-America's women who, after 10 or 20 years spent at home, are thrown unprepared out of their nests and into the job market.
"It was like going through future shock, five times in one life, when we separated. My greatest fear was being totally alone, to have no one to live for," said Marie Parr who came to the center for help and found a job as a counselor there.
Parr is 48 years old and separated from her husband of 23 years, a Montgomery County professor. Like the other 1,000 women who have gone through the center's workshops and counseling sessions to prepare for findings jobs. Parr had never planned for a career.
"The general public believes that divorced women could choose and that their marriages broke up because they wanted to be liberated or something. I had a carreer of raising my three children and working part-time. I did not want to go off by myself. It was a loss, the most painful in my life" she said.
Parr has a college degree and her husband earns over $15,000 a year - as a couple they were not unlike their neighbors in Silver Spring. Now he remains in their home of 13 years raising their three teen-age sons while she commutes to Baltimore from an Annapolis apartment she shares with an 80-year old woman.
"Never, never, never had I thought I could be away from my children, but that was the only way. I see my children every weekend, but it's so final," she said.
Even though Parr's comfortable middle-class background is so different from Bongiovanni's working class past, both women have had excruciating difficulties finding jobs, especially, they say, since they have "panicked" while looking for a position that will be the mainstay of their futures.
"During last summer's job search I understood what it meant to be down to $1.50 and have to borrow money for carfare to get a job interview," Parr said.
After a short-lived typist job "the funds ran out for me" - Parr found the center, and the center not only gave her what she calls emotional support but also a position as counselor to help set up job training programs for women.
All 15 staff members at the center are or have been displaced homemakers. It is a rule set down by Cynthia Marano, the director who devised the programs with help from the women who started the displaced homemakers movement in Oakland, Calif.
"Loneliness is the very big issue and there is no desire to build a new life. What we do is get women ready for a job, show them they do have something to offer, and then find training if they need it," Marano said.
The program includes self-evaluation sessions, workshops on stress, assertiveness, everything from opening a bank account to using public transportation, counseling, and then training through interships, on the job training and schooling.
The methods are sometimes unique. Women are asked to draw pictures representing their fantasies, their fears, and themselves.
"The pictures are remarkably similar. When they draw themselves they are in a chaotic room, rooms filled with furniture, many rooms but without people.
Their fantasies are not out of the ordinary; pictures of couples surrounded by children and women working in a office, always behind a desk.
"They draw empty rooms and graveyards for their fears. Some have drawn mental hospitals," said Marano.
If a profile were to be made of the average displaced homemakers at the center she would be 45 years old, a widow with a high school diploma, two children after 10 years or more of marriage, and she could be either black or white. Her husband's income was $7,000 or less, and the women would have had no full time job experience since she had worked as a community and school volunteer during her marriage.
To find these women jobs, the staff guides them first through the workshops and sessions until they know what they want. Then the search begins for the firm that will agree to on-the-job training - the center will pay the hourly wage - with the promise of a full-time position. Or the woman is enrolled in a school, with the center against picking up the tab if necessary. The women are warned against "deadend" like nurse's aides - one's without prospects for advancement jobs.
Betty June Bongiovanni is receiving on-the-job training as a legal secretary at Baltimore's Waxter Center for the elderly. The Center for Displaced Homemakers' staff sought the spot. Bongiovanni was accepted, and this June she begins full-time, replacing the women who trained her.
"My first job was right after high school (1948) when I came here as a little girl from the country - West Virginia - to the big city of Baltimore. It was easy then. I had a ball," Bogiovannie remembers.
Now, she says, it has been frustrating after watching her children go through college to discover that she needs a degree just as badly as her sons to build a career.
"I'm nervous, I'm not too confident. I ask too many question, like what size envelope should I use to mail out wills, as if it mattered. But I'm learning people are patient."