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Older ladies just want to have fun ...

The days of elderly women doing nothing but cooking huge meals on holidays and knitting themselves slowly into senility are gone.
Sue Ellen Cooper, founder of the Red Hat Society, sports a red hat Feb. 14 at the Red Hat Society Imperium store in Fullerton, Calif.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: Reuters

The days of elderly women doing nothing but cooking huge meals on holidays and knitting themselves slowly into senility are gone.

Enter the Red Hat Society — a group dedicated to the radical notion that old ladies should have fun.

“My grandmothers didn’t do anything but keep house and serve everybody. They were programmed to do that,” said Emily Cornette, founder of a chapter of the 7-year-old Red Hat Society and one of the society’s nearly 1 million members who are mostly women over 50. The group has chapters in all 50 states and 25 countries.

'There aren't any rules'
While men have long spent their retirements fishing and playing golf, women have sometimes seemed to become invisible as they age. But the generation now turning 50 is the baby boomers, and the same people who rejected their parents’ way of being young are now forging a new way of growing old.

Throw feminism, a bit of disposable income and better health for most elderly into the mix, and the Red Hat Society starts to look almost inevitable.

On a recent Saturday, Cornette, 75, presided over a raucous, teasing gathering of 13 women in red hats and two in pink hats. In the Red Hat Society, women over 50 wear red hats and purple clothes, while the women under 50 must wear pink hats and lavender clothing.

“This is something just for me,” Cornette said. She kept an eagle eye out for guests with empty cups or plates that needed refilling. “There aren’t any rules, really. We don’t do anything. All we do is have fun.”

The organization was inspired by a poem by Jenny Joseph that begins: “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple/ With a red hat which doesn’t go,” said Sue Ellen Cooper, who founded the Red Hat Society in 1998 with the first chapter in Fullerton, Calif.

Cooper gave a friend a copy of the poem, along with a red hat, about seven years ago. Soon other friends wanted red hats, and they attracted lot of attention when they wore them.

“The point of this is that we need recess from always doing something for someone else,” Cooper said in a telephone interview. “Women feel so guilty when they do something for themselves.”

This is why chapters are discouraged from raising money or doing anything useful and from using the word “meeting,” since it sounds too serious. “We’re a ladies play group. It couldn’t be more simple,” said Cooper.

A seriously good time
And the Belles of Cross Creek took the call to play seriously, well, kind of seriously on a recent Saturday as they had lunch in Cornette’s home in suburban Maryland.

The conversation ranged from raising cattle and hogs to adult daughters who have purple carpeting, sneezing fits and the number of calories in grapes.

Men were discussed only in the context of being sick and still being called on to care for the kids. “Makes more of a man out of him,” one mother joked, flexing her biceps as fake feathers from one of the ladies’ boa flew through the air.

And this chapter of the Red Hat Society did seem to attract a fair number of humorous, adventurous ladies.

Katie Cook, 50, who teaches 6th grade, took a break from telling jokes to tell about plans to go to Thailand, Vietnam and also try skydiving. “I have a good life insurance policy. She’s going to be rich,” laughed Cook, pointing at a teen-age daughter pressed into helping with lunch.

At one event, the ladies hired a slim, elegant belly dancer to give them all lessons. “That was good!” chuckled Beatrice Daniels, 88, a retired government secretary and the oldest member of the Belles of Cross Creek. “I used to love dancing.”

Daniels added, “It seems that everything is geared for the young. This lets young people know that getting old isn’t so bad.”