My first assignment was to attend a meeting of the Brooklyn, New York chapter. In my own defense I would like to state here and now that I was raised in Hawaii, worked with the Girl Scouts in Honolulu, a brief stint with the League of Women Voters in DC and educated in the Mid West, none of which prepared me in any way to work with the Brooklyn Chapter of the Older Women’s League.
I had been on the job one week when I arrived at the door of the meeting room. I had dressed very carefully that morning in a standard outfit that I had worn at the League of Women Voters: a blue plaid skirt, white blouse with a high collar, blue wool blazer and pumps. The conversation in the room came to a complete halt with my appearance in the doorway. They looked me over with an expression we would have called “stink eye” in Hawaii.
The national board member from that area came forward and greeted me. She steered me to a seat around a large table and advised me to observe for a while before joining in. Good advice, as it turned out. The chapter had a tumultuous history with the national office. They had at one time refused to pay their dues, another time they had sent a representative from the national office home in tears, etc.
They were wearing sweat pants and sweaters and each seemed to have a very large black purse not unlike Mary Poppin’s carpet bag, that held everything anyone would need for an overnight campout. At precisely 11 am they started digging down in these immense bags for snacks. Out came toast wrapped in a paper napkin, packages of crackers, and cookies. I came to find out that this was not a Brooklyn custom alone; it was universal across the nation at meetings of older women. No matter what had been served to eat up to that point, purse rummaging and snacks appeared at 11 am.
The meeting was to say the least, lively. She who shouted the loudest got the floor briefly before being interrupted by the next loudest person. They were rude to one another, “shut up, I’m talking here!” One said to the woman next to here. At one point everyone was talking at the same time and one woman with a cane, slammed it down on the table to get everyone’s attention. Got mine for sure!
By the end of the day, I am thinking to myself that I am going to quit this job the minute I get back to DC. But then as I was going out the door, the woman who had slammed the cane down came up to me, grabbed me by the lapels and said about 3 inches from my face….”Didn’t we have fun today!” She was serious. I blinked, took a breath, and realized that this was sport, not just a meeting. I got it! This was recreation.
These women, mostly Jewish, had been advocates for something their entire lives. They were thick in the labor movement, the socialist movement, civil rights, women’s rights, local neighborhood issues. The Jews of New York City have a long tradition of advocacy and indeed as I traveled the country to do my work I ran into New York Jews everywhere I went.
I returned in a month for the next meeting. I wore pants and a funny sweatshirt. I elbowed in to melay around the table shouting to be heard. They were unhappy about some policy issued from the national office and I did not defend it. I told them they had a point and they needed to write to the board and make themselves heard. I encouraged them to run their affairs they way they saw fit as long as they did not take a position in conflict with the national policies. They loved it, declared me the best thing that had ever come from the national office. I was now one of them, somehow.
A few months later they held a speak-out on Social Security. The first speaker was Lou Glasse, the President of OWL, a WASP from Poughkeepsie, NY. The ladies of the chapter folded their arms over their purses in their laps and glared at her. She gave a good speech but they barely applauded her. She was the enemy in their eyes, wealthy, protestant, and even worse…from upstate NY. The next speaker was Joan Kuriansky, the Executive Director of OWL. The ladies of the chapter beamed! Joan was Jewish, the same age as their daughters, she was a lawyer, raised in Stamford, Connecticut and the E.D. of their beloved OWL. Joan rattled her papers in preparation to speak, they applauded, she cleared her throat, they applauded. She finished her speech to thunderous appreciation. They gathered around her, touching her arm, smiling at her, telling her how proud they were of her. Lou on the other hand sat with me on the side. Not one person from the chapter paying attention to her.
They were to become my favorite chapter to work with. They were always up to something, totally engaged and marching in the streets, so to speak. It was a great East Coast cultural education for a kid from Hawaii.