Soroptimism: after 90 years’ attention for the improvement of the social position of women is still needed

Do you know what Soroptimism means exactly? Probably not. Therefore, it is time to change this as Soroptimist International is the most important female service club in the world. At present, the reason of our existence is still relevant. Soroptimism would never have come into being without times of war and oppression. The days it flourished most were particularly in post war times, because Soroptimists took pity on the refugees and victims of violence. As we still do.


Approximately 90 years ago women in America and Europe felt the need to unite. In the years of war, women were substitutes for men, who served at the front. After the First World War, women did not accept a dependent position or a position at home anymore. In addition to this, they were needed at hospitals and schools. In the 1920s this led to the foundation of the first American Soroptimist club. Also after the Second World War Soroptimism grew increasingly in a short period of time. The same movement arose after the colonization processes in Asia and Africa. And the fall of the wall between East and West Germany in Europe later on, led to new initiatives. Many members of the Soroptimist movement hope that the recent developments in the Middle East will follow the same line, as Soroptimists focus their attention to the rights of women and girls. And with this target group they follow the global Millennium goals of the United Nations – goals which are still completely violated in the Middle East.


Sisters for the best

The Soroptimist logo was designed in 1928 by a member of the first club in California. The name Soroptimist is a short for Sorores ad Optimum: sisters for the best. The young woman is surrounded by a halo, framed by oak leaves – as a symbol of strength and perseverance – and by bay leaves for the pinnacle of the work. The colours arouse memories of the sun and the sea of California.

Motto founder Violet Richardson: ‘It is what you do that counts.’

Good causes

The clubs joining Soroptimist International, Federations and Unions, have local, national and international projects collecting money for good causes and dedicating themselves to the cause of improving the global positon of women and girls. In addition to this, there is a four-yearly global project. During 1999/2003 the project was ‘Limbs for Life’, raising 1.2 million dollars for the victims of land mines. The Dutch Union and its local clubs together raised a third of the amount. During the project they joined forces with the International Red Cross. In the period 2003/2007 Soroptimist International participated in the project ‘Independence: Women Survivors of War’, together with the organisation ‘Women for Women International’, helping women in (ex) war areas in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda to build a new life through training and granting microcredits. Mariet Verhoef-Cohen, to be President of Soroptimist International from 2017 and member of Club Zwolle, organized the SI/E Congress 2009 in Amsterdam. The theme was ‘Soroptimists go for Water’. The congress was visited by 500 people from 65 different Soroptimist countries who had been working on water projects, raising € 1.7 million. Mariet explains beautifully why it is special to be a Soroptimist.

Soroptimism in the course of time

  • 1921 Foundation of the first official service club for professional women in California, USA. Chairwoman is the 33-year-old Violet Richardson, Director of Physical Education. There was great interest: 79 women participated. Richardson believed in personal responsibility. Her motto was: ‘It is what you do that counts.’
  • 1923 In Europe Soroptimism starts at the same time in France and Great Britain. The urgent need for nurses and teachers offers new training opportunities for women and girls.
  • 1924 The French plastic surgeon Suzanne Noël founded the first club in Paris, starting with 91 members. She spreads the message of Soroptimism up to Peking (1935) and Kyoto (1936).
  • 1927 In our country Suzanne Noël is supported by journalist E. Welmoet Wijnaendts Francken-Dyserinck. Thanks to her, Suzanne Noël can inaugurate the first Dutch club in The Hague. Then Suzanne herself installs members of the second club in Amsterdam.
  • 1928 Together both clubs set up a National Council, the beginning of the present Dutch Union.
  • 1948 Soroptimists obtain a consultative NGO status with UNESCO, later followed by representations with e.g. UNHCR, FAO en WHO.

Honorary membership Queen Juliana

In January 1960 it was news even for the foreign press: the assumption of the honorary membership of the Dutch Union of Soroptimists by Queen Juliana. She took this membership very seriously and until well into the nineties she was a regular visitor of conventions or special events. Queen Juliana was a woman of wide interests. During her last visits international women affairs and projects were on the agenda, such as the UN Conference on Women in Nairobi (1985) and the SI Sight-Savers project in Bangladesh (1991-1995). On many occasions, she argued – sometimes in contradiction with the official government’s position – in favour of (world) peace. This was the case, for example, in her speech for the United States Congress in 1952. In 1982, she was the first person to be rewarded with the Four Freedoms Award for her dedication: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and life principles, freedom from need and want and freedom from anxiety and fear.

Peace Prize for Sylvia Borren

Every two years, the European Federation of Soroptimists (SI/E) awards a prize to women who have made a special effort for peace. In 2011, the Dutch Sylvia Borren got the prize. She was general manager of Oxfam Novib for years and is the present general manager of GreenPeace Netherlands. With the cash prize of € 20,000 Sylvia Borren supported the improvement of the social position of women in the Middle East.

Soroptimists worldwide

Soroptimism has famous members all over the world. A random short list:
Dr. Bertha Lutz, Rio de Janeiro – In 1946, as a member of the national delegation of the United Nations Conference on International Organization in Brazil, she wrote the texts about the equality of women in the United Nations Charter. In 1947 she was the founder of the Soroptimist club in Rio de Janeiro, the first club outside the United States.
Carla del Ponte, club Lugano Switzerland. In 1999 she was appointed public prosecutor at the Arusha Tribunal and Yugoslavia Tribunal by the Security Council for the trial of war crimes and genocides in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. In 2008 she was appointed ambassador of Switzerland in Argentina.
Virginie Korte – van Hemel, club Bussum. From 1982 to 1989 she was State Secretary of Justice. In 1986 she produced the memorandum on immigration policy: shorten political asylum procedures, keep out economic refugees and invite ‘true’ refugees to start a new life in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 84.

Beeld: adobestock_michaeljung

Engelse vertaling: Christel Koeleman

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