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Women at the Barricades: Voices of Midlife and Older Women

by Betty Soldz

To a degree not yet recognized in public policy, the major problems of aging in America are women's issues, the legacy of a lifetime of dependency and inequity.  Midlife and older women must take the initiative to bring their concerns out of the  shadows.  We will select specific issues, develop an effective strategy, and concentrate  the heat until the job is done.  We will combat the combined impact of ageism and  sexism, and in the process become more effective citizen advocates ourselves."  Tish Sommers, Co-founder of OWL

Several months ago, Naomi Cavalier shared with you how OWL, The Voice of Midlife and Older Women, was founded.  In honor of Older American's month, I would like to share some of the activities and accomplishments of this organization.

        OWL began as The Older Women's League on October 11, l980 at the White House Mini-Conference on Aging, in Des Moines, Iowa.  Three hundred multi-ethnic and multi-racial women became  charter members. The first three issues selected to comprise the National Agenda were: 

  • Access to Health Care 
  • Social Security and 
  • Pensions
This laid the groundwork for OWL'S activism.  Hereafter, OWL would work for recognition of women's economic plight in their later years and the inequity in public policy. 
        Since 1980, OWL has created a powerful and effective grassroots network of women dedicated to winning economic, political and social equality for mid-life and older women. It is the only national grassroots membership organization that focuses exclusively on the critical issues facing women at this time of life.
       OWL was headquartered in Oakland, California at the home of Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields where a group of dedicated women worked to build the organization.  There were now 19 chapters and a national newsletter, the OWL Observer.  In 1982 OWL held its first national convention in Louisville, Kentucky home of the first local chapter.  Three new issues were added to the national agenda; 
  • Support for Caregivers and Independent Living
  • Job Training and Employment Discrimination,  and the Effects of Federal Budget Cuts on Older Women.
      By 1983 OWL was ready to spread its wings and opened a National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. At the same time it began a national advertising campaign to publicize its efforts to reduce the inequities faced by women midlife and beyond. OWL and women's issues were now  in the national spotlight. The Washington Headquarters put the organization where the 'action' was and where policy is made.  OWL testified at ten congressional hearings that year.  Local chapters continued  grassroots advocacy.

       OWL's second national convention took place in Washington D.C. in 1984.  That same year Louisiana became the first state to pass a bill using OWL's model legislation, "The Health Insurance Rights Act".  Owl continued to grow and 20 new chapters were chartered.

      The following year OWL published a paper on "Women and Pensions" as part of Women's Pension Literacy Campaign.  A Congressional Forum on Living Wills was held.  Proceedings of the forum were published in book form.  For the first time Congress was educated on issues of advance directives for health care at the end of life.  That year,  OWLs were saddened by the death of its first President and Co-founder, Tish Sommers.

      In 1986 the third National Convention was held in Oakland, California.  A seventh issue was added to the agenda: "Staying in Control Until the End of Life". Cobra, the OWL initiated federal health insurance continuation legislation became law,  and a public information campaign was launched to educate women on their rights.  OWL won passage of the National Caregivers Week resolution and two years later the organization played a key role in the first of a series of hearings on the status of older women held by the House Select Committee on Aging.

      In 1988 the first statewide chapter was chartered in California,  and Illinois quickly followed California's lead.  While continuing to work on national issues, OWL/CA and OWL/IL work to educate state legislators on women's' issues and the need for more protective state legislation. The first regional board members were elected to the National Board of Directors to take office in 1989.

      OWL continued to be a respected presence in Washington D.C.  Local chapters continued their advocacy.  OWL raised the caregiving issue at all levels of the community and published a Report on Mother's Day.  Later, Newsweek published a cover story, The Daughter Track, inspired by this report.  OWL was cited as being " the only consistent organization to focus on the issue of Caregiving." Owls were again saddened with the loss of co-founder Laurie Shields

       In 1990 the 4th national convention was held in Chicago and Housing was added to the Action Agenda. Through the 90's OWL has continued to testify before congress, and investigate and publish reports on issues such as Age Discrimination in Employee Benefits, Single Payer Health Insurance,  Retirement Income, Medicare and Social Security.  It spearheaded the Campaign For Women's Health and joined with two other groups in creating a Women's Pension Policy Consortium. In 1998 the national convention was held in Washington, D.C. and members re- energized themselves to continue their activism .

      OWL's grassroots efforts have made a real difference in the lives of women. It is a strong, highly respected organization.  It's education campaigns, publications and Congressional testimony throughout the past 20 years have helped put vital issues of women in the spotlight. OWL's agenda today includes but is not limited to: 

  • Economic Security 
  • Availability of Long- term Care
  • the need to protect Social Security and Medicare (Pharmaceuticals as part of Medicare) 
  • Assistance with Caregiving 
  • Staying in Control till the end of life 
  • Ending Violence Against Women and the Elderly. 
OWL will continue to work for a Universal Health System and be a leader in working for a better life for all women.

If you would like to know more about OWL or to join their work for midlife and older women, please visit the OWL web site, or contact me at



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