The name Soroptimist was coined from the Latin soror meaning sister, and optima meaning best. Soroptimist is perhaps best interpreted as ‘the best for women’. From the founding of the first Soroptimist club in Oakland, California, in 1921, through to the present day where over 3000 clubs are flourishing throughout the world, Soroptimists have continued to strive to achieve ‘the best for women’ in every sphere of their lives.
1921: First Soroptimist club founded in Oakland, California. The Founder President was Violet Richardson Ward.
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.”
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.
A similar 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.
1922: Dr. 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.
1928: Foundation of American and European Federations. Soroptimist International Association created to provide link between the Federations.
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: First Soroptimist club in Sydney, Australia.
1939: 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.