FROM IDEA TO REALITY
THE EVOLUTION OF SOROPTIMIST INTERNATIONAL OF PITTSBURG
At the beginning of the 1920s, women in North America had established themselves in the political arena through suffrage and in the professional world as a result of World War I. The time was right for women actively engaged in professions and careers to come together for mutual support and friendship, and to serve the communities to which they belonged. The time was right for Soroptimist.
In the spring of 1921, Stuart Morrow, an organizer of men's service clubs, visited Oakland, California. In search of a potential member for an Optimist* club, Morrow called on the Parker-Goddard Secretarial School, presuming it was run by men and found instead Miss Adelaide Goddard and Miss Mabel Parker owned the school. Explaining his mistake, Morrow excused himself. As Morrow left, Miss Goddard remarked she would be interested in joining such a club for women if he ever considered forming one.
Goddard's remark set the wheels in motion for Stuart Morrow. He contacted a number of business women in the community, and invited them to a preliminary meeting on May 21. Of the six women in attendance, only one showed real interest. This woman began recruiting her acquaintances and on June 21, a luncheon meeting with 10 women officially launched the club toward its goal of 80 members to receive a charter from Morrow.
This core group met once a week, and continued to gather the names of eligible women from Alameda County; they also chose the name Soroptimist for the organization, coining a word from two Latin words "soror"—woman and "optima"—the best.
On September 26, the charter was closed and officers were elected with Violet Richardson Ward serving as the president.
In the first constitution, the purpose of the organization was:
"To foster the spirit of service as the basis of all worthy enterprises and to increase the efficiency by its members in the pursuit of their occupations by broadening their interest in the social, business, and civic affairs of the community through an association of women representing different occupations."
The presentation of the charter and an installation ceremony took place on October 3, 1921, the day officially celebrated as Founders Day. The clubs which later developed in Alameda and Contra Costa County as well as the Pacific Islands areas are currently known as FOUNDERS REGION clubs.
That first club met weekly, debating service projects and hearing speakers on various worldwide issues that would broaden members' horizons. Their first project was to 'Save the Redwoods' - the great ancient trees which were being felled. They lobbied the legislature, took on powerful lumber companies, and won the support of the public. The result: a major portion of the forest was set aside as protected land and still exists today.
About the same time, a similar women's club is established in Britain. Their purpose was:
"To encourage high ethical standards in business and professions; to increase the efficiency of each member by the exchange of ideas and business methods; to stimulate the desire of each member to be of service to her fellows; and to quicken the interest of each member in the public welfare and to co-operate with others in civic, social, and industrial development."
Their first project was befriending motherless girls and supporting their local Children's Society to establish an open air hospital school. Despite their similarity, neither club knew of the other! Similar clubs began forming in other cities, all without the knowledge of the other clubs.
In 1924, Suzanne Nöel founded SI Paris, the first Soroptimist club in Europe. Dr. Noel used her worldwide lecturing series to disseminate the Soroptimist concept, prompting the establishment of clubs all over Europe. She later became the first President of the European Federation.
In 1927 Stuart Morrow agreed to sell all rights, title and interest in the name “Soroptimist” and all the rights in the corporation for $5,500. While eight clubs underwrote the purchase, all clubs, including those in Europe and Great Britain, contributed.
The American federation was formed at the Washington, DC, conference in 1928. (The federation was to be self-governed and self-supported, but was united with the European federation as the Soroptimist International Association.)
In 1934 Europe and Great Britain & Ireland form separate Federations.
During the 1930s, many service projects were undertaken including: vocational training for women and children, housing for the disadvantaged, assistance for the sick and disabled, concern for the local area, and caring for refugees. 1937 was the year of the first Soroptimist club in Sydney, Australia.
In 1939, at the start of WWII. A British Soroptimist wrote:
"Two things are clear to us in the midst of the bewilderment and distress of these present days. One is that, as a band of women whose aim is the furthering of international understanding, we must stick together and keep in active working order our Soroptimist organisation, the value of which is greater than ever before. The other is that when we emerge from this nightmare and the struggle is over we must be stronger than ever to see that all our influence is case on the side of a just and lasting peace."
Soroptimists embarked on rescuing members of the Vienna club and their families, who were threatened by the Nazi regime. American Soroptimists donated funds and clothing. Many clubs across Europe were forced meet clandestinely, making clothes, mending and preparing all manner of items needed. Service projects included opening Rest Rooms for women in the forces. A New Zealand club set up a refugee relief committee for people escaping from Europe.
1946: Soroptimists hold a reception for delegates to UN conferences, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
1948: Soroptimist International Association awarded Consultative status with UNESCO.
1950: SI awarded category C Consultative status with ECOSOC. (Economic & Social Council, United Nations.)
1952: Foundation of International governing body of Soroptimist International.
1966: UNICEF granted consultative status to Soroptimist International for service projects for children
1975: Soroptimists attend the First UN World Conference on Women held in Mexico City.
1978: The first Quadrennial Project in the Maldives, providing 14 medical boats to carry health workers, medical drugs, supplies and equipment to the people in the remote Maldives atoll islands in the Indian Ocean. Over 20 paramedics were also trained.
1978: Inauguration of SI South West Pacific Federation. The Founder President was Mary Whitehead.
1982: First President's December 10th Appeal: Catherine Salt chose a project on the island of Pulau Bidong, Malaysia, to help refugee women and children. Pulau Bidong was the first asylum centre run in co-operation with UNHCR and provided for housing, care and maintenance including medical and social services for refugees awaiting re-settlement.
1984: SI granted Category 1 Consultative status (now General Consultative Status) with ECOSOC.
Soroptimist continued to grow and thrive for decades, expanding into several countries and territories around the world. In 1985, the first mission statement of Soroptimist International of the Americas was adopted. The mission focus of improving the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world, was implemented in 2004.
Today, Soroptimist International has almost 95,000 members in about 120 countries and territories who contribute time and financial support to community-based and international projects that benefit women and girls.
* Original documentation in the Soroptimist Archives suggests Morrow was attempting to organize an Optimist club, but
additional evidence obtained by the archives shows that Morrow organized numerous Rotary clubs, and was most likely
forming a Rotary club when he stopped into the Parker-Goddard Secretarial School.
Information and History taken from materials on the websites:
Data obtained from The History of Soroptimist International (1995) by Janet Haywood