Many young women do not know the advances that have been made in the last 40 years by some courageous Trailblazers! In one year, I had the opportunity to meet three women who helped change the course of our history in the United States and several international organizations around the globe.
Just a few years ago I was the director of membership for the Los Angeles Rotary Club and in 2009 they were celebrating 100 years as a club. They are also known as LA5, they were the fifth Rotary club in the world. From this one club in Los Angeles many Rotary clubs started across California. 2009 was a life changing year for me.
LA5 chose Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as their Person of the Century. For this spectacular event clubs from across California were invited and of course the special club to be invited was Durate Rotary Club, the club which challenged Rotary International by allowing three women to join their club.
At that time in the 1970’s Rotary was an all male organization, and the women had a separate organization that they could belong to, but it was like an auxiliary. Rotary International acted swiftly by telling the club they could not have women as members and they could not be part of Rotary International if they continued to have the three members. The entire history of the case can be found here: http://www.rotaryfirst100.org/women/issues-legal/duarte/index.htm
The club said they were going to keep the members and sued Rotary International to keep their members. They took the case all the way to the Supreme Court for a decision.
Now in a little Toastmasters club on a Navy base in San Diego, a young woman was joining Toastmasters, which was also a male only organization. She worked for the Navy and the men in the club wanted her to join. They first tried with initials, but Toastmasters sent it back and said they had to have a full name.
Helen Blanchard, became “Homer” and the application went in and Toastmasters International was none the wiser. She was the first woman member of Toastmasters in the mid-70’s and yet no one really knew.
Back to the Rotary Case, a Judicial precedent was set in 1987, when all nine Justices with one abstaining, the first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Conner, due to the fact that her husband was a Rotarian in Phoenix, sat on the sidelines on this case, decided against Rotary International and said they must admit women.
The doors of organizations were now open to women, all male clubs including Toastmasters International now had to admit women. Male private clubs, now had to allow women as members, and “Homer” Helen Blanchard quickly changed her name on her application and was the first Official Woman in Toastmasters International. Helen wrote her story and it can be found on her website: www.helenblanchard.com
Moving up to 2009, the LA5 100 year party for Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, we had worked for over a year for this special day, over 400 people from across Los Angeles elite and Southern California came to meet this famous woman. The first woman president of the Durate Rotary club, Sylvia Whitlock, came to meet Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. Madam Justice was a trail blazer as the first female Supreme Court Justice. She grew up on a ranch in Arizona and came from humble beginnings. When she told of the decision against Rotary that day, our room was filled with powerful women from throughout California, my only regret was that Helen Blanchard could not be there to meet one of the women who sat on the court that helped open the door for her and so many of us.
In November 2009, I had our District 52 Conference for Toastmasters International, which includes Los Angeles, and I invited Helen “Homer” Blanchard to be our featured speaker for the Conference. Helen had just published her book about her life and becoming the first woman in Toastmasters. She also became the first woman International President. That’s right she rose to the top of the international organization.
It is important to know the history of where we have come from, because we are losing Helen “Homer” Blanchard as I write this, her hours on this earth are short. Her impact however has been huge and I already miss one of my trail blazers who helped open the door to allow me to join Toastmasters and to the women who joined the Duarte Rotary Club who pushed to the Supreme Court to pave the way for more of us to join Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis and many more organizations that had been closed to women.
So long my friend, Helen, you brought us your charm, and your courage in adversity, you showed us that if you have a desire to go to the top, you can achieve. You battled the male chauvinism that existed in the organization when you joined and your strength and intelligence showed all of them that looking at skill and the growth of the organization is what counts. I will miss your jokes and your smile, but most of all I will miss your encouragement.