What’s red and purple and fun all over? The Red Hat Society!
Sue Ellen Cooper never intended to start a worldwide phenomenon in 1997, but she did.
“I have a friend, Linda Murphy, who is impossible to buy for. She was turning 55, and we were joking about ‘Oh, I guess we’re old now.’ So I found a hat and copied that poem [Jenny Joseph’s “Warning“]: “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” So I gave her a copy of the poem and a hat to hang on the wall. When our friends saw this, they said, “I want that too,” so I bought several over a year or so. And then one day, for no reason I can tell you, I just said, ‘Let’s wear these hats and let’s go someplace.’ And we did. Well, that day we had more fun than we had ever had together, so we decided we’d keep doing it. We went out every quarter for a year or so and then we got noticed…we were featured in the newspaper, it got on the wire services, and it just went like an explosion.”
Today there are Red Hatters in thousands of chapters in 26 countries. Says Sue Ellen, “We would like to see this keep going and grow and just help women have a better time with the whole process of getting older and the value of female friendship. And we don’t try to guide it completely either because we really would like to see what it becomes.”
Beyond requiring the purple dress and red hat (or lavender dress and pink hat for women under 50), the RHS does not have rules; the idea has always been to keep it simple and fun. Even so, the RHS has become a force for change. “We attract some very interesting people because most of them tend to be rather outgoing, very creative, up for change, and they come in and bring their own little spark.”
When Sue Ellen founded the RHS, she had no idea what she was in for. “I was an illustrator working out of my home, and when this started, I thought it didn’t really need any guidance. But that was wrong; it needed guidance. Women wanted permission, I guess, to play, and…for many years it was my entire life…. My husband completely gave up a 32-year career in pharmaceutical sales to help us get established….Then we had many wonderful people who came in and helped.”
Sue Ellen has been married for 42 years to her husband, Allen, and they have two children: Shane Cooper and Andrea Reekstin. Andrea and her husband, Matthew, have two daughters and live half a mile away, giving Sue Ellen plenty of opportunities to enjoy Hannah, 4, and Abby, 3. Sue Ellen says her granddaughters are “not clear at all” on what it means for their grandmother to be the “Exalted Queen Mother,” but they do love playing dress-up and beauty salon and going on nature walks and trips to the beach and children’s museum with her. “At grandma’s house nothing is off limits, and they use all my art supplies, so it’s probably my favorite thing to do together.”
To keep up with the grandkids and her RHS duties, Sue Ellen took her daughter’s advice and began going to the gym. Says Sue Ellen, “It’s finally paying off. I really did it because I wanted to be able to keep up with those little kids…. It’s never too late to start on your health.” At RHS, she says, “We’re all about fun, and having a wonderful time and being positive…. We talk a lot about eating dessert first and we still laugh and we still do it – but we still have to eat our vegetables.”
As for the future of the Red Hat Society, Sue Ellen says that the donation of the original red hat to the Smithsonian “has really brought to the forefront of our minds that we are creating a legacy for women, our children, our grandchildren. We want to reach out to women younger than 50 to encourage them not to give up their female friendships, not to get so busy that they forget to have fun and extinguish that little girl inside. So I hope that we have a legacy for women who are coming along and find us that will last for a long, long time.”
Click here to hear the GRAND interview!
Videos: RHS special events
RHS Fun facts
The “Red Hat Revolution”
Smithsonian accepts original Red Hat
Marge becomes a Cheery Red Tomato on The Simpsons
Redhatsociety.com: Sue Ellen says, “It answers every question you could ask!”
• The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship after Fifty
• The Red Hat Society’s Laugh Lines: Stories of Inspiration and Hattitude
• Designer Scrapbooks the Red Hat Society Way: A Guide to Chronicling Ridiculous Fun
• The Red Hat Society Night Before Christmas
Pat Burns, a regional editor for GRAND and a grandmother of three, is the author of Grandparents Rock: The Grandparenting Guide for the Rock-n-Roll Generation.