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History of Soroptimist International

The first Soroptimist club was formed in 1921 in Oakland, California, by a group of women who were interested in volunteer service but who were prohibited from joining all-male service organizations. The name Soroptimist—a coined term interpreted as “best for women,” was chosen for the new club.
Violet Richardson Ward was the first president of the first Soroptimist club in Alameda County, CA. She was a health and physical education specialist in the Berkeley, CA school district.

As the founder-president of Soroptimist, she instilled in the organization some its early traditions: its international scope (she wouldn't join the club until she had the organizer's word of honor he would also organize clubs abroad), the use of first names among members during a more formal era, and the close associations with other “service” clubs. The term service clubs was never used in Oakland prior to Violet's term as Soroptimist president - clubs such as Soroptimist, Rotary, and Lions were originally referred to as luncheon clubs. The Soroptimists accentuated service, and as such, the term became the vogue.

Soroptimist clubs spread throughout North America in the years before World War II. Projects and programs often focused on providing assistance to other women in the community, especially in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The war years provided additional opportunities for Soroptimists to assist women. For instance, one project focused on providing assistance to the Lanchow Nursing School in China, while others assisted women in gaining employment.

In the aftermath of World War II, Soroptimist began extending membership into communities in Central and South America. The first club outside of North America was formed in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At this time, members also began contributing one penny for each year of Soroptimist’s existence to the Founders Week fund, which provided fellowships to women working in rare, distinctive and pioneering fields. In the 1950's Soroptimist sponsored the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania with a $25,000 fund and later sponsored research at the University of Toronto on the plight of the white-collar woman worker.

Following the expansion of membership to women in Japan, Korea, and the Phillipines in the 1960s, Soroptimist began to develop additional programs to assist women. In 1972, the Women’s Opportunity Awards were established to provide cash grants to increase the job skills for women who are the sole source of financial support for their families.

During the 1990s, and into the 21st century, Soroptimist consolidated its programming to focus solely on improving the lives of women and girls. The Women’s Opportunity Award continued to be the organization’s major service project. The Violet Richardson Award—named for the first president of the first Soroptimist club—was established to recognize outstanding volunteer efforts of young women ages 14-17.

The elimination of domestic violence against women was a major focus, and included compiling a legislative guide on domestic violence laws in all of the countries with members in Soroptimist International of the Americas. The Soroptimist organization also provided grants to clubs for innovative community programs that improve conditions for women and girls.

With almost 90 years providing projects and programming that benefit women in communities all over the world, Soroptimist continues to prove itself as the “best for women.”

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