The nine gray-haired women gathered at the Windjammer Restaurant in South Burlington on a recent Saturday afternoon look harmless enough. A casual observer might mistake them for members of a bridge club, meeting for their weekly luncheon -- until they sit down and start talking politics.
These women, who range in age from their early sixties to mid-eighties, belong to the Green Mountain Chapter of the Older Women's League. They call themselves OWLs, though you'd have to be really cheeky to refer to them as wise old birds. They've lobbied and petitioned the Vermont Legislature on everything from campaign-finance reform to universal health-care coverage to medical marijuana -- in support of all three.
Not surprisingly, the women often focus on health care. Their April newsletter includes an article entitled "Healthcare Hardball -- Single Payer Slimed" (just above an article called "Keeping Track of the Ol' Influence Peddlers at the State House"). It describes a debate between Dr. Deb Richter of Vermont Healthcare for All and Dr. David Gratzer, a Canadian psychiatrist who points out flaws in his country's single-payer system.
"I've been thinking of him in my own mind as a heartless pipsqueak," quips OWL's co-president, 63-year-old Marjorie Power, during the meeting. "He's like a younger Dinesh D'Souza. If you Google him, you find that he's written for nearly every right-wing publication. He's been hired to sell their predetermined snake oil."
Power's colorful rant draws smiles, nods and a few appreciative chuckles, proof that these OWLs -- some of them born scant years after women won the right to vote, and well before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique -- are sharp, opinionated and not afraid to get political.
Despite its members' mostly anti-Republican bias, OWL is a 501c3 charitable nonprofit -- a nonpartisan group that unapologetically advocates for issues important to midlife and older women. The organization was founded in 1980, following a conference on older women in Des Moines, Iowa.
The women are active in health-care and economic policy debates. In 1983, for example, the national organization ran ads promoting equity in Social Security. "For men, they created retirement plans, medical benefits, profit sharing and gold watches," it read. "For women, they created Mother's Day!"
Although OWL maintains a national presence, it's really a chapter-based organization; according to their website, there are 58 groups in 28 states. Dues in Vermont are $30 a year. According to Powell, the Vermont chapter has about 70 members, though it's sometimes difficult to tell exactly how many there are. "We have attrition, being older," the Montpelier resident admits.
She adds that there's no minimum age requirement. "We ask women, 'Are you older today than you were yesterday?' If you said yes, then you can join."
Power says the OWLs frequently trek to the Statehouse to testify at public hearings. They garnered some attention during the medical-marijuana debate -- women using walkers and canes aren't exactly stereotypical potheads. Power explained that the group was motivated to work on the issue because one of their members died of leukemia and would have used marijuana had it been legal. Another got pot for her sick husband.
The bill's lead co-sponsor, Representative David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), says their testimony helped the bill become law. "Of course they're effective," he says. "Who doesn't listen to their grandmother?"
Of course, not everyone appreciates the OWLs' outspoken approach. While they're meeting at the Windjammer, another large group sits in the restaurant's back room. They look like a family party -- an older couple with their kids and grandkids. They give the OWLs more than a few dirty looks -- though it's hard to tell whether that's because of their politics or their volume.
The women invite a speaker to each of their meetings -- Zucker-man has addressed them in the past, as has Terry Rowe, former superintendent of the Dale Correctional Facility for women. This Saturday's guest is newly elected State Representative Michele Kupersmith. The 52-year-old South Burlington Democrat beat conservative Republican incumbent Frank Mazur last fall.
Kupersmith speaks to the women about her circuitous path to public office; she worked as a lawyer, and for years chose jobs that gave her flexibility to raise her kids. "That's something you all know," she says. The women smile. Many of them, like the state rep, have juggled kids and careers.
In fact, two of them have something else in common with Kupersmith -- tenure in the Statehouse. Barbara Kehaya of Winooski served four terms in the legislature, and Sally Conrad of Burlington served four terms in the state senate.
Kehaya, an 83-year-old mother of six, grandmother of 15 and great-grandmother of five, was the first female legislator to represent Winooski. The native of Man-chester, Vermont, has a degree in education from Trinity College. A pro-choice Catholic Democrat, in 1992 she lost her bid for a fifth term to a Republican who promised to work for a parental-notification law. "I said, 'Over my dead body will you get that through,'" she remarks after the meeting.
Kehaya still pays close attention to politics -- she just finished reading Barack Obama's autobiography. When Kupersmith speaks about her efforts to fight outsourcing by funding local training for medical transcriptionists, Kehaya nods her approval. "Oh, wonderful," she mutters.
Kupersmith concludes her presentation with an update on the health-care debate. She says she's frustrated by the governor's promise to veto a bill being drafted by the legislature, and his continued talk of health savings accounts and increasing competition among private insurers.
Power is frustrated, too. "It reminds me of that jocular definition of insanity," she observes, "which is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That's the governor's health-care proposal." But the legislator seems optimistic that things will change during this session.
When Kupersmith finishes, OWL co-president Roberta Strauss, sporting a brightly colored, handmade owl pin over her white cardigan, rises to ask for a round of applause for the female freshman. Her audience obliges.
Then the OWLs launch into their regular agenda. Power suggests they change the meeting day. "There will be no treasurer's report and no secretary's report," she announces. "The secretary and other members have their veterans' meetings on the third Saturday" -- several OWLs were WACs during World War II -- "and the few that are in nursing homes have their meetings on the third Saturday."
Power also reminds the women that she has petitions to protest the President's Social Security privatization plan. Groups such as OWL have no doubt played a part in shifting public opinion against Bush's proposal for what he calls "personal retirement accounts." The OWLs then vote to join forces with the Vermont chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans, who are putting on a Save Social Security event May 3.
When the official meeting ends, the women eat lunch and talk. They share information on nursing-home care; Conrad, who took care of her elderly mother, advises another woman who is planning for her own move. Then they take turns bashing Bush and lamenting the current state of the world.
As she finishes her salad, Kupersmith describes the women as "feisty." "I really appreciate the voice they bring to the issues," she says. "They're not afraid to take very strong positions."
At the other end of the table, Conrad, Kehaya and others discuss proposed cuts to Medicare, and that sets off a round of disapproving headshakes and tongue-clucking. "I hope people raise a ruckus," Conrad says.