Soroptimist International celebrates a century of helping women and girls
— Created September 29, 2021 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
It is a major feat for any group to celebrate 100 years of service, and so it is with extreme pride in its mission that Soroptimist International clubs from all over the world come together this weekend to celebrate the organization’s 100th anniversary.
Members of Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor, which itself is celebrating 40 years, have a major role in helping plan this major celebration.
“I’m co-chair of the Soroptimist International Global Virtual Celebration that currently has 3,500 members registered from over 100 countries (we have been reaching out to all countries where we have a club to try to get at least one member registered),” said SIOH President Sue Riney. “We will be sharing a look back at many of our projects over the 100 years and provide updates on the impact we’ve had on women and communities. We will celebrate our bright past and share insights on what members and leaders believe is needed to help ensure a brilliant future for the organization.”
To tackle the future, it is necessary to understand the past. Soroptimist International, whose name basically means ‘the best for women,’ was founded rather unintentionally in 1921 by Irish immigrant Stuart Morrow.
“While attempting to form a male ‘Optimist Club’ in Oakland, Calif., he called upon the Parker-Goddard Secretarial School in search of a candidate for membership, presuming that the school was run by two men,” Riney shared. “On learning that it was operated by women, he sought to excuse himself, but one of the principals, Adelaide Goddard, commented, ‘When the men admit women as members of their service clubs, I would be interested.’
“This remark sparked an idea for Morrow.” Riney continued. “He called together several of the outstanding businesswomen in Oakland to pursue the idea of forming a club for women, and the Articles of Incorporation of that first Soroptimist Club, with Adelaide Goddard as one of its founding members, were filed by Morrow in 1921.”
What originally began as a luncheon and friendship club quickly shifted its focus.
“SERVICE was felt to be the key word for Soroptimists and has remained so ever since,” Riney said. “Indeed, Soroptimist International is now the largest women’s service organization in the world.”
With approximately 72,000 members in clubs spanning 121 countries, Soroptimist International continues its advocacy for human rights and gender equality, taking on projects that help women and girls achieve their potential, individually and collectively, ensuring they get an equal voice in communities around the world.
Riney said SI’s mission remains just as important today.
“Especially in light of what is being evidenced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis including, first, the universal rise of violence against women,” she said. “The global average increase in domestic violence is often given as 25 percent, but in some countries, it is more than 50 percent Early marriages and teenage pregnancies have also surged. Rape, harassment and various abuses were promoted by the lockdown and closure of schools.”
The organization’s international mission has proven to be an essential one to women and girls the world over. But clubs also exist to make a difference in the lives of women and girls close to home. That is a driving force for many of SIOH’s members.
“When asked to consider becoming a charter member of Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor (SIOH) in 1981, I had never belonged to a service organization,” recalled Lenora O’Connell-Balda. “As a business owner at the time and a woman with a belief that businesses, organizations and individuals should take pride in their communities and offer involvement, support and help where needed, Soroptimist of Oak Harbor felt like a great fit for me. I have witnessed the mission, ‘Improving the Lives of Women and Girls,’ open amazing, life-changing doors over the past 40 years!”
Nancy Fey said she had no interest in joining SIOH when it was being formed in 1981, but when her husband sent in her registration anyway, she agreed she would stick it out for a year.
“Obviously during that first year in SIOH, I changed my mind and have stayed a member for 40 years thus far and I don’t intend to cancel my membership until I feel like I am unable to contribute to the work of SIOH,” she said. “I have stayed a member for 40 years because I see how both locally and internationally, we have been an agent in helping women and girls improve their lives. These females then help improve the lives of their families and other females. It is wonderful to hear the stories of the changes made in their lives as the result of various Soroptimist programs.”
Charter member Jean Rogers said she joined SIOH 40 years ago to be part of an organization of businesswomen and has stayed because of the “friendship and keeping in touch with the national organization.” And, while there is still work to do, Rogers said “women are now recognized in the business world for [their] talents and worth.”
Ongoing projects for Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor’s members include the “Live Your Dream: Education and Training Award,” which recognizes women who provide the primary financial support for their families; the “Dream It, Be It: Career Support for Girls” program, which targets girls in secondary school who face obstacles to future success; assistance for women who cannot afford a mammogram – bills are sent to Friends of WhidbeyHealth and are paid through funds donated by SIOH; and the “Teddy Bear Project,” for which new and gently used stuffed animals are collected, cleaned and repaired, outfitted with a tag reading “Hugs from Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor” and then distributed to various organizations to give to children facing stressful situations.
Riney said she believes much of the success of Soroptimist International is because so much work continues to be done on a grassroots level.
“We believe education and access to education are key to helping women and girls around the world access their human rights, and education programs are at center of all we do,” she said. “Most of our work has always occurred at the grassroots/local level. But as the organization has grown and changed over the years, we’ve been able to identify the power our collective voice and actions have on global issues.”
Riney cites projects like the first Soroptimist Club’s effort to “Save the Redwoods,” which resulted in much of the forest being protected, to global projects like training paramedics in the Maldives and providing boats to carry health workers, drugs, supplies and equipment to remote islands, as evidence of the organization’s collective strength to accomplish goals around the world.
That is a mission Oak Harbor’s Stephanie Smith, president-elect of Soroptimist International of the Americas, intends to continue.
“From my early involvement in Soroptimist, I learned more about the disproportionate impact that poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction and lack of education had on women and girls,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is still true today. Serving on the international board as SIA president-elect, I see the impact of these issues in all of the countries we are a part of – from the United States, Canada, Central and South America, to the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
“Soroptimist members from these countries honor their diverse backgrounds and unite together to achieve our organization’s Big Goal of investing in the dreams of half a million women and girls through access to education,” Smith continued. “As SIA president-elect, I have the opportunity to experience the positive impact of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and the critical role it plays in shaping our next 100 years of dream programs that support women and girls.”
Anyone interested in participating in this weekend’s anniversary celebration is welcome to attend, according to Riney, and membership in Soroptimist is open to all those interested in projects focusing on the unique challenges facing women and girls.
“We have individuals join for a variety of reasons, but some of the benefits of volunteering with Soroptimist include working with others to make a difference for women and girls worldwide, connecting with like-minded individuals, building life-long friendships with others both locally and worldwide, taking advantage of networking opportunities, meeting and learning about women and girls from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, developing skills that can result in enhanced professional capabilities as well as leadership opportunities at all levels of the organization,” she said.
Meetings are currently being held virtually. Those interested in attending any SIOH meetings can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets for SIOH’s annual Power of the Purse fundraiser in February will be going on sale in the near future and organizers are hoping this will be an in-person event. For those interested in learning more about Soroptimist International, visit www.sioakharbor.org, www.soroptimist.org, or www.soroptimistinternational.org. They can also follow SIOH on Facebook. Other opportunities exist on Whidbey Island as well.
“There are three Soroptimist clubs on Whidbey Island – Oak Harbor, Coupeville and South Whidbey,” Riney said. “Individuals have the opportunity to be a part of our work wherever they live on Whidbey.”