Queenly branding for Red Hat ladies

How to organize women without seeming strident? Go corporate.

Published October 13, 2006 12:20AM (EDT)

Today the New York Times reported that the Red Hat Society -- which already has a full line of memorabilia including "Chicken Soup for the Red Hat Society Soul," romance novels and credit cards -- is getting its own musical. Since 1998, when the loosely organized club of women "over 50 (or below)" was created by a group of friends in Fullerton, Calif., the society has become an international phenomenon, attracting some 2 million members, who literally don red hats and purple outfits to have fun with one another.

Avoiding both politics and religion, the club has been credited with bringing a lot of older women out of their shells, giving them license to be flamboyant and visible. That's no doubt a lovely thing. But the group has always made me a little queasy around the edges. For one thing, it explicitly defines itself in direct opposition to "the women's groups" that have come before. "We are all familiar with groups of the past, which stridently sought to achieve their agendas," states the Web site. "Well, we are decidedly UN-strident, but we hope to advance our agenda with good humor and laughter."

Um ... and that agenda would be? Oh yes, ladies dressing up and shopping. Despite Exalted Queen Mother Sue Ellen Cooper's stated concerns about commercialism, the group's for-profit structure, floppy-brimmed logo, travel packages and corporate partnerships all add up to a demographically targeted megabrand, and a powerful one at that.

"We feel like we have all been so dutiful and so 'busy' for so long that we deserve a break. The Red Hat Society calls itself a 'dis-organization,' and we are proud of our lack of rules and by-laws," explains the Web site." Fair enough -- do the tea parties, the cruises, the trips to the casinos and the Broadway shows. But I can't help seeing it as a squandered opportunity that this army of fun-lovin' gals -- many of whom are middle-class and free from the burdens of young children and full-time careers -- don't harness their collective power toward something. Some individual chapters do work together for charities, but the group "as a whole does not support charities." Or anything else beyond its products.

Of course, taking a stand for one cause or another might reveal differences within the group -- which is rarely attractive to corporate sponsors. Perhaps pro-choice Red Hatters would face off against Red Hatters-for-Life. It could get distinctly unfun. But it's strange that the Red Hat Society holds out the hope to members that they are contributing to what might be a meaningful movement -- the Web site claims that "we are working to build a dis-organization within which we can all connect and eventually take over the world!"

At the risk of sounding strident, tea parties don't have the revolutionary power they once did.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Love And Sex The New York Times