A Sorority of Sisters 50 and Over

American Artisans, People
on April 23, 2006

Mary Carper, 74, and Lisa Vesnaver, 54, blend into a sea of red hats as they boogie down on the dance floor to the sounds of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman." The two spry women have traveled a long way—Carper from Baltimore and Vesnaver from Adelaide, Australia—to join hundreds of other Red Hat Society members gathered at Disneyland's Festival Arena in Anaheim, Calif., for a fun-filled convention of laughing, dancing and friendship.

Although Carper and Vesnaver met only moments earlier, the two women gleefully sing along to the song's rowdy lyrics, looking like best friends—and in a way, they are. That's the magic of the Red Hat Society.

"It's just so much fun getting together with everyone," says Carper of last November's convention. "It's just that sisterhood."

The Red Hat Society is an ever-growing sorority of women over 50 who want some playtime, says founder Sue Ellen Cooper, 61. Would-be Red Hatters need only locate a chapter to join, which is increasingly easy since the society has 1 million members in 42,000 chapters around the globe, from Algeria to Venezuela. Or if one isn't nearby, for a $35 annual fee any group of women can start and register a chapter with the organization's "Hatquarters" in Fullerton, Calif.

Then it only remains for the Red Hatters to don the proper uniform: a red hat and purple outfit. Women under 50 are welcome too, but their uniform is different: pink headgear and lavender garb. From there, anything goes: tea parties, pajama parties, luncheons and field trips to plays, steamboats and shopping destinations—wherever their fancy takes them.

"If you go (out) with half a dozen other women dressed as weird as you are, it's fun," says Reba Moorman, a Red Hatter from Fremont, Calif. "We're all little girls who like to dress up."

Poetic beginning

The society had a decidedly small-scale start. On Nov. 11, 1997, at a neighborhood restaurant in Fullerton, Cooper gave friend Linda Murphy a gift for her 55th birthday: a copy of Jenny Joseph's poem Warning, which starts, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me." She also gave Murphy a red hat.

"If we had thought it was going to be the start of something, we would have taken photos," quips Murphy, who now lives in Tarpon Springs, Fla. (pop. 22,554). "We had no idea anything was going to happen."

Some mutual friends liked the spirit of the poem and the vivacity of the hat, so they requested similar gifts for their birthdays. Then in 1998, Cooper and four friends donned purple outfits and red hats and went out on the town in Orange County, Calif., enjoying the curious stares they elicited.

Since then the Red Hat Society has grown into one of the largest social organizations in America. "A million members—I always feel like I'm lying when I say it," says Cooper, the organization's Exalted Queen Mother (there are no presidents in the society). "At any moment, this could have just stopped dead. No one was trying to make anything happen."

Murphy inspired the society's second chapter when, while visiting friends in Florida, she talked about going out with her Fullerton friends "in full regalia." The Floridians were enchanted with the idea, and an eight-person Florida chapter was born.

A feature in the July 2000 issue of Romantic Homes magazine on the "sister chapters" gave the society its first publicity. Then The Associated Press circulated a California newspaper story on the Red Hatters. Before they knew it, Cooper and company were inundated with requests for help in starting other chapters.

"I thought, 'I'm not done (with life), I'm not dead, and I'm tired of being perceived that way. I want to play,'" Cooper says. "I had no idea everyone else would say, 'Me, too.'"

A dis-organization

Even when she was younger, Cooper wrestled with ways to retain her individuality. She recalls that, as a stay-at-home mom with two young children, she once decided to give herself a gift—a bit of time to create art. With her kids in tow, she went to buy supplies, but suffered a meltdown in the store when her children clamored for art supplies, too. "Do I ever get any time for what I want to do?" she remembers crying.

So when Cooper heard about other women who needed some playtime for themselves, she understood the void and embraced the fun-loving mission. "This," she says, glancing around the Red Hat Society Hatquarters, "probably all came out of that."

In seeking free time for herself, however, Cooper has ironically created a business that takes every minute and ounce of her energy. Red Hat Society Inc. has grown to 60 employees—including Cooper's husband, Allen, daughter Andrea and son-in-law Matt—who maintain the website, create a magazine and weekly e-mail broadcast, organize conventions, work with members around the world and design Red Hat merchandise.

The stress is worth it, Cooper says, because her work gives the 1 million other Red Hatters the encouragement they need to let loose and have fun.

"We Red Hatters are the same all over the world. We deal with similar issues," says Lisa Vesnaver, the Queen of Australia's Queentessential Adelaide Red Hats. "The best part is meeting up with people who are all dressed in purple with red hats, with the same attitude of having fun."

The society has no bylaws and has banned meetings; conventions include "playshops," not workshops. Hatquarters won't tell chapters what to do or when to do it. "Purple and red is a very strong suggestion," says Cooper, and that about sums up the rules.

Red Hatters can belong to as many chapters as they choose. In fact, Peggy Donald is a member of three in York, S.C. (pop. 7,028).

"I guess the funniest thing we have done was we had a pajama party—pajamas, housecoats, hair in rollers—and we made reservations at McDonald's," says Donald, who has even decked out her Chrysler PT Cruiser in red and purple. "Then we went to the movies. The point for most of us is to have fun. We have the most fun just entertaining other people, so to speak. They turn and they smile."

"We have a 'red-hattitude,'" adds Pat Moeser, a Red Hatter in Johnson City, Tenn. (pop. 57,812). "We don't mind standing out, rolling with punches, laughing at ourselves and having fun. How much more could you do with a red hat and purple clothing?"

But seriously . . .

While the reason for Red Hat Society gatherings is fun, Red Hatters often end up developing serious friendships.

"The thing that has meant more to me in Red Hat is hearing other people's stories," says Nanette Ripberger, who started two of the society's chapters in Cheviot, Ohio (pop. 8,399). "It's just amazing listening to what these other women have to say. I didn't realize how good my life was."

According to Debra Granich, the society's director of operations, some doctors have prescribed membership in the society as a treatment for depression. Once at a society convention, she met a woman with agoraphobia (fear of open spaces and crowds) who credited the group with helping her overcome her anxiety about leaving the house. "I probably cry once a week with the stories (we hear)," Granich says.

Soft-spoken Cooper says she's "mystified" that a lighthearted gift to a friend has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, but others say the red and purple idea simply struck a responsive chord among older women still brimming with vitality.

"Sue Ellen Cooper has no idea what she has done for ladies of our age," Donald says. "We're going to grow old gracefully, and go down having fun."

Visit www.redhatsociety.com or call (714) 738-0001 for more information.