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Copyright 2009-2010 by
Mary Brotherton
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Inside my Brain

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

They seem to be everywhere. Women over 50, dressed in royal purple, wearing brilliantly bright red hats, are growing in number. Some add sparkles, sequins, feathers, and glitter to make their already obviously gaudy outfits stand out even more among the pinstriped and buttoned down crowds in restaurants, theatres, and bars - yes, the little old Red Hat ladies go to bars.

Queen Mother Sandra Kukenbecker, from Barefoot Bay’s Les Chi Chi Rouge chapter said, “It was raining the day our chapter went to Earl’s Hideaway, but another group went when the weather was nice and there were a lot of bikers there! The other Queen and her husband ride motorcycles, and when the other bikers found out, they gave the members rides, all decked out with their Red Hats! It’s too bad it rained the day we went.”

Kukenbecker calls herself Barefoot Bay’s Queen’s Queen Mother, because she is the self-appointed Grand Dame of the area’s Queens, hosting monthly meetings in her home for all Queen Mums of the area’s thirty-four chapters. When she organized her own chapter four years ago, with four neighbors, she had no clue what was expected or required of her. Within two weeks, her chapter had grown to twenty members, and she knew she needed help. She called each of the Queen Mums in other Barefoot Bay chapters and told them, “Come on over to my house and tell me how this works.”

The women bring snacks, wine, flavored coffees, and a fun, helpful attitude every month. Kukenbecker feels that they are free to do more things in her home than they could in a public place, and if they want to become rowdy, no one asks them to leave.

“This month, I had to borrow two chairs to have enough,” said Kukenbecker. “I believe the idea of Red Hats has grown in Barefoot Bay, because it’s organized and because I am good at persuading people to become Queen Mothers.”

A Queen Mother is also known as a Queen Mum, Mum, QM, or other endearing terms, and is usually self-appointed, when she decides to start a new chapter. Some women don’t want that responsibility, but Kukenbecker and other Queen Mums find it a labor of love and a great deal of fun. Kukenbecker said that she has a list of “Ladies in Waiting;” women who want to be members of chapters, but have no interest in being Queens.

“I can usually convince one of them to take over and establish a new chapter,” she said, “and since they are tired of waiting for an opening in one of our closed groups, they’ll do it. They are usually glad they did, afterward.”

“Can you imagine how hard it is to get more than two dozen Red Hatters in the same area of a restaurant, let alone at the same table?” asked Joann Wawro, of the Brook Hollow Red Hat Babes.

With twenty-three “Babes”, her group no longer accepts new members, “But our Queen can’t say ‘No’. I can,” said, Wawro, Co-Queen to Mitzi Hansrote.

Brevard County has over 225 Red Hat Chapters, but only 70 are currently accepting new members. Both women admitted that with open ended memberships, the roster is nearly impossible to keep updated, and it is easier to keep a smaller group active and together when they go on outings. Yet, they both also admitted to “picking up babes in the mall” when the group first began.

Wawro‘s daughter is also a member of The Brook Hollow Red Hat Babes, but since she is under 50, she is only allowed to wear lavender with a pink hat.

“We all hate her,” joked her mother. “She’s still young and slender.” The Brook Hollow Babes have two mother/daughter members. Some daughters join simply so they can enjoy a different kind of quality time with their aging mothers.

Hansrote moved to Brook Hollow from Oklahoma City, after her husband retired from the FAA and became an associate professor at Florida Tech. They had lived in South Florida for thirty years before his job took them West. She found that it was very difficult for older women to make new friends after moving back to Florida.

“Older women are lonely. Red Hats fills a niche,” she said.

Hansrote went to a Red Hat lunch in 2001, and found herself seated with other women who had not yet joined a chapter. When someone asked the name of their Queen, they decided on the spur of the moment that Mitzi would do just fine in that role. “We were made a group on the spot.”

Martha Carse moved to Florida when she was five years old and now belongs to two chapters: the Shady Ladies and the Brevard Scarlet Belles. “But I know some women who belong to three chapters,” she said, calmly. The Scarlet Belles is twice the size of the Shady Ladies, and has chosen a more active kind of fun.

Sue Ellen Cooper, the Exalted Queen Mother, and founder of the internationally famous Red Hat Society was inspired by a poem written by Jenny Joseph, titled, “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.

Many of the Brevard Red Hatters have decided that red and purple do go very well together, and the lifestyle of being a member indeed suits them to a tea. Each chapter adheres to certain guidelines that would be appropriate for any organized group that meets in public, and they all insist that members obey the “dress color code” especially regarding women over or under age 50. Otherwise, their only rule is to have as much fun as they can.

Believing that women are never too old to enjoy playing dress-up or a good tea party, the members of the Red Hat Society know that simply by joining like minded women, they are giving themselves permission to finally have fun. Many have raised their families. Some are caregivers; and many are still involved in lucrative careers as pilots, models, artists, hairdressers, teachers, designers, business owners, or mangers of website development.

Some have retired, but as Mitzi Hansrote said, “Retirement doesn’t mean we have to stop having fun. We all had a life before. I think some people forget that.”

Wawro said, “I like our group. We all have a sense of humor. Nobody is uppity, and no matter what we used to do, nobody feels she is better than anybody else.”

People tend to smile when they see the women walking together, colorfully dressed in purple, and accessorized with feather plumes, flowing marabou boas, sequined bags reflecting the sunlight, and a very red hat perched atop their heads. The women chatter on, excitedly, always ready for the next adventure.

Wawro remembered when she was with a group that was stopped by a young man whose mother lived elsewhere. “My mother is a Red Hat up North,” he told them. “Will you let me get a picture taken with you, so she will know I was thinking of her, today?”

“The Scarlet Belles saved my life,” said Carse, who had been severely depressed before joining her second group. “The sisterhood of women who understand - they gave me something to look forward to.”

She suggested that any woman interested in joining a chapter should visit a few times, attend some events, and then decide if that chapter fits her needs. Every chapter is different, and some are much more active than others. Every group defines fun differently.

“What little girl didn’t want to be a Queen or a Princess?” asked Carse, while already knowing the answer. The Red Hat Society gives older women the permission and opportunities to be silly and carefree, without any judgment, guilt, or feeling that they should be spending time in a more worthwhile way.

Some chapters call each member a Queen, with the Queen Mother, or Queen Mum being the equivalent of another club’s president. Some have Vice Queens while others have Co-Queens, and some have Queens of Vice. The choice of title is up to the person receiving it. Some groups hold official coronations for their queens with crowns, capes, and scepters, while others simply see the title as a sign of respect. There are chapters in Brevard who bestow many royal titles to the membership, from the Birthday Fairy Princess, to the Queen Mum Dowager, with everything in between, including Duchess, Baroness, Countess, and Lady.

Being a Queen can be a difficult task, so the Queens meet monthly or more often if necessary, to mentor new queens, to discuss the need for more frivolity, and to share ideas for the Queens to return refreshed and excited enough to influence their loyal subjects. In addition to the usual purple dress and red hat, the Queens sometimes hold daytime Pajama Parties in public places, such as when attending plays, musicals, concerts, bowling, or just having lunch in one of Brevard’s better restaurants

Any woman over the age of 50 may join the Red Hat Society and begin wearing purple dresses with red hats, attend teas, drink wine or martinis with lunch, and find new friends who also don’t mind drawing attention. The Red Hat Society knows that there is power and courage in numbers. One woman walking alone wearing an outrageous outfit, or singing aloud could be mistaken for either a clown or a woman in need of care. A half dozen women in her company are affectionately known as the Red Hat Ladies, and are warmly welcomed wherever they go.

For more information, please visit or call Senior Life at 321-693-1989