If we honor older women for their lifetime achievements, will anyone come?
That was the question we asked 10 years ago, when we started the Foremother awards. Our awards were definitely different from anyone else’s. First of all, you had to be a woman over 70, and the older the better! Not your typical award criteria, especially in Washington, DC, where honoring powerful people who can help your organization is often first and foremost. Second, the women had to have broken down barriers for other women, lived or worked locally, and contributed to health and well-being on a national scale.
And we wanted to include unsung heroes – the women who did amazing things in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, but were not currently in powerful positions and not household names. We wanted to hear their stories firsthand, rather than reading about them in an obituary and thinking, “Wow! What an amazing woman! I wish I had known all that about her, thanked her, and made a fuss while she was still around to enjoy it.”
Our first Foremothers luncheon wasfree, small, and informal, serving a buffet of sandwiches and salad at a beautiful DC restaurant. Of the 10 honorees, two forgot to show up. But those who were there were a very inspiring group: the “mother of Title IX”, the oldest woman staffer in Congress, and one of the early women scientists at NIH. And thanks to that group, a tradition of honoring Foremothers as the mothers of us all — on the Friday before Mother’s Day — was born.
We decided to make the event bigger and better, so we reached out to companies that sold products to women and nonprofits that cared about women. And we found out something depressing: honoring women over 70 is not good for raising money. In fact, even honoring once powerful women who are no longer powerful is not a good strategy for selling tickets or sponsorships. We were disappointed that L’Oreal wasn’t interested, for example, and even more upset when AARP told us that the women we were honoring were “too old” for them to want to sponsor our event.
When we asked a fundraising professional for advice, we were told this event makes no sense from a branding point of view. We’re a health organization, but many of our honorees never worked in the health field. They have made our lives better, though – that’s our excuse. But, to help our luncheon better reflect what our organization does, we’ve added a Health Policy Hero award to the event every year. That’s become a wonderfully inspiring addition to the program.
We’ve thought about changing the age criteria for our Foremothers, and we’ve thought about giving up our awards luncheon completely, but instead we’ve decided to keep doing this labor of love that makes almost no money (we use it to raise money for our cancer hotline) but brings smiles and tears to 150 or more women and men every year. Many have thanked us for the opportunity to be inspired by women whose lives were very different from ours – some icons, and some women they had never heard of. Some of the most inspiring women, such as Dorothy Height and former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, passed away within months of our award, so ours was a final tribute to women who truly enjoyed basking in the love and affection of our audience. Other honorees are barely 70 and still actively working in their fields, as journalists, authors, Members of Congress, or advocates. And some honorees join our celebration every year: we honored Ruth Nadel 10 years ago (she had started the first federal day care center) and she’s joined us every year. She just turned 100.
I hope you’ll join us on May 9