25 April: Blue Stockings and Red Hats (Part 2)

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.

From : ‘Warning’  by Jenny Joseph (b 1932)

It’s Red Hat Day today. In twenty-six countries of the world 70,000 women over the age of fifty will be out celebrating. They belong to an organisation with no object but to help them to have fun and to remind older women that not only is it OK to do so, but you don’t have to be young to do something frivolous.

This is what Sue Ellen Cooper, ‘Queen Mother’ and founder of the Red Hat Society says

"The Red Hat Society began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan. We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together. Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next."

When they are out having fun the members of the 20,000 branches of the Red Hat Society wear red hats and purple dresses as described in the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Every individual club or ‘chapter’ is different but they all have the same object, to remind themselves and the world, that you don’t stop doing things because you get old but that you get old because you stop doing things.

Here's Jenny Joseph reading the whole poem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cACbzanitg

Actually I’m not sure about all this – and this is not a criticism of the Red Hats at all but I think that if you are the sort of person who enjoys life you don’t just stop being like that when you are over 50. What the Red Hats do is to give you some like-minded friends too have fun with…

...and I don’t have much truck with the idea that women become invisible as they get older, I actually think they get more stroppy. I am much less tolerant of rudeness, bad service and plain stupidity than I used to be and I’m quite glad about that.  I don’t want to be a sweet gentle old lady, I want to be fierce but warm hearted - actually maybe I am fierce but warm hearted. 

This is Frank Reynold's wonderful portrait of David Copperfield's fierce but warm hearted Aunt Betsey:

But - but - but - I’ve been trying to think of other positive images of older women in literature and they are really few and far between. My first thought was Lady Bellaston in 'Tom Jones' but she does try and get rid of her rival Sophie in a rather horrid way so she’s no good.  There are some interesting older women in Dickens but apart from the eccentric Aunt Betsey they’re either really batty like Miss Flyte, nasty like Mrs Bumble or weak like Mrs Nickelby.  In Jane Austen there’s Mrs Bennett – the scary mother - and the horrid Aunt Norris who is my least favourite Austen character and in then Jane Eyre there’s Mrs Fairfax who I always think should have warned Jane and didn’t.  Give me some positive older women characters somebody…please…

So let’s hear it for the Red Hat Women and for Hester Thrale throwing a big bash for her eightieth birthday and Mrs Malaprop, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, Wodehouse's Aunt Agatha and Aunt Dahlia and all those older women who frighten their friends and relations but love them all the same… and are loved in return.

Red Hats 

225 g soft butter
225 caster sugar
3 medium eggs
150ml milk (not skimmed)
225g SR flour
1½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the tops
5 tablespoons sieved or seedless raspberry jam
75g desiccated coconut
Glace cherries

1 baking tin 30 x 23 x 4cm lined with baking parchment.
Oven 170c

You can make this in a food processor, I used my Kenwood mixer. Make the sponge in the usual way by creaming the butter and sugar, add the beaten egg and beat furiously, then add the milk and vanilla. Sieve in the flour and BP into the mixture and give it a quick whizz. Pour into the baking tin and bake for 30 minutes or until shrunk away at the edges and springy on top.

Leave to cool in the tin, then remove and turn the sponge over so you have a flat top. Trim off the sponge edges (and sneakily eat them), now warm the jam and spread over the sponge. Scatter the coconut thickly over the top and cut into squares. Top each square with a half cherry.

I hope the Red Hats have a lovely day - and you do too.

P.S. OK so I cheated a little, there isn’t an actual day for Blue Stockings as posted last week, but today is definitely the day for Red Hats.

P.P.S. Btw do NOT, what ever you do, google ‘older women having fun’…..

What a language it is, the laughter of women,

high-flying and subversive.

Long before law and scripture

we heard the laughter, we understood freedom.

From: ‘The Laughter of Women’ by Lisel Mueller (b 1924)


Helen said...

The Red Hat ladies actually admit younger women as well, at least in the US. A friend of mine in her 30s was asked to join a few years ago, but as a "Pinky" along with the requisite Pink Hat. Like you, I'm not sure how I feel about the whole thing. Or perhaps I'm just just disgruntled because I was never asked to be a Pinky.

Christine Natale said...

I must say that I discovered the poem years and years before the "Red Hat" phenomenon began. It is so beautiful. Women throughout history have been pushed into the background. There is a relationship between "blue stockings" and "red hats" - both attempts to stand up for the individuality and personhood of a woman. It is difficult within one or two generations of the "women's lib" movement to really understand how recent it all is to have the freedom to dress, work, act and live as an individual without conforming to massive amounts of societal expectations. To wear a Red Hat is a sign that a woman is not going to go down without a fight! Now, where are the tea and cakes??

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

I have mixed feelings about this too and when I do hit 50, I imagine I will feel exactly the way I always have. But perhaps this is a good way to drag friends along who are feeling marginalised and invisible.

As I get older, I am completely intolerent of rudeness, stupidity and people who chew gum. Oh and littering too :) It also irritates me the way media and advertising is totally focussed on the under 30s when it is some of us older people who have the inclination!

A Trifle Rushed said...

Goodness. What a superb post, as someone who is 50 I feel that this is specially for me.
Thanks Liz, and I love your new look blog, though miss your smiling face :-) Jude x