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The Chesterfield Soroptimists

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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The Soroptimists:

I got involved in a family argument recently about the Soroptimists, an organisation which I’d previously heard of but which remained something of an enigma; I suspect like most people, I wasn’t quite sure who they were or what they did.

`something to do with feet.....!'

My mother thought they were ` like a chiropodist, something to do with feet’, whilst my youngest sister asked, “aren’t they eye specialists or something?”

My eldest sister (the brains of the family) seemed to have the answer;

“Ah yes, the Soroptimists”, she mused, adopting her classical I know everything because I’m a teacher attitude, “a rather rare breed of human; a sort of hybrid, half mason, half rotarian - with a strong hint of W.I. and perhaps even a dash of Red Cross or some other VSO thrown in”.

VSO? ” - came the chorus from the rest of us.

“Voluntary Service Organisations, she explained, `you know, do-gooders, ….and paraphrasing a well known TV advert, continued……… “those who reach the parts of society that other agencies like the government, don’t reach”.

I supposed at the time that this was fair comment, for it was as much as I knew myself - although I knew that my mother was wrong – the only connection between Soroptimists and feet is that like the rest of us, they have one on the end of each leg! So I set out to find out about the Soroptimists, who they are, what they do, and why - and my subsequent enquiries have shown (I am happy to say!) that my sister’s answer was somewhat ambiguous, misleading, and relatively inaccurate!

Who better to dispel my ignorance than the President of the Chesterfield & District branch of the International Soroptimists, Mrs Jean Horton of Ashgate. Jean is in her second term of office and the second year of her current presidency, and she informed me that the Soroptimists were a worldwide women’s organisation with around 100,000 members in 122 different countries.

“We are women dedicated to maintaining high ethical standards in the spirit of service to others, who pledge ourselves to promoting international goodwill and understanding, to working for human rights, and to advancing the status of women”, she said.

I also learned that the word Soroptimist comes from the Latin, Soror or Soros, meaning `sister’, (not to be confused with the Greek word Soros, which means `heap’) and Optimus meaning `best’ – and that it has nothing to do with either eye-specialists or feet.

In fact the first Soroptimist Club was founded in America in 1921, the root derivation from the American term `Sorority’, which is described in my dictionary as an `American academic sisterhood’.

The first Soroptimist Club in the UK was Chartered in London in 1924, and the Chesterfield & District Soroptimists came into being in 1950, celebrating their Golden Jubilee during Millennium Year, and renewing links with sister clubs in Chesterfield’s Twin Town of Darmstadt, and the West Indian island of Anguilla.

Soroptimism has nothing to do with either politics or religion - as my hostess was eager to point out:

“Jam and Jerusalem don’t come into it, Soroptimists don’t wear uniforms and there’s not a blue rinse in sight”. She also pointed out that Soroptimists were “not to be confused with feminists” - neither were they `stodgy’, and in fact, the Chesterfield Soroptimists were “a far cry from your stereotypical women’s club and proud of it”.

I was interested to know what motivated Jean, a teacher by profession.

“I know that I am very fortunate in my life and priveleged to enjoy the benefits of my social position, and I simply want to put something back into society, to help those who are in need and less fortunate, to improve their quality of life - and the Soroptimists provide me with that opportunity”.

But when she mentioned that membership was restricted to `business and professional women of good standing within the community’, it occurred to me that in this politically correct age, some would consider this elitist.

In actual fact, according to the Soroptimist publication, `This is Soroptimism’ – the rules on membership state:-

“To be eligible for membership, a woman must be actively engaged in a management or professional capacity in the private or public sector, or in an occupation with comparable status or responsibilities”.

Furthermore, membership is not open to all, but is by invitation only and the brochure states “members are chosen for their individual qualities as well as their status in their chosen area of work” – which, many would argue suggests that Soroptimism is both sexist and elitist!

Surely such organisations were in the minority and struggling for both identity and survival? Even the WI had re-invented itself and raised it’s public profile (and around £5m from the film rights!) when several of it’s members stripped off and posed naked to earn worldwide fame as the famous WI Calendar Girls!

But Jean countered by assuring me that the Chesterfield Soroptimists were thriving as a lobby group for social justice and were working hard on a number of local projects, and she bridled at any suggestion of elitism. I also got the distinct impression that any mention of naked calendar girls would be deemed extremely bad taste…….But who cares?

Surely any organisation is only as good as it’s membership, and instead of being judged on what it is, it should be judged on what it does?

So what do Chesterfield Soroptimists do?

“We meet twice monthly at the Ringwood Hall Hotel, but those who assume membership is one long round of coffee mornings and garden parties, with the odd lunch or speaker thrown in, are a long way wide of the mark”, says Jean Horton.

On a global scale Soroptimist International has a voice on the United Nations and Category 1 status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and has official relations with the World Health Organisation.

Worldwide campaigns taken up and supported by member clubs – including Chesterfield – range from campaigns against sex trafficking, supporting landmine clearance, AIDS awareness and the rehabilitation of war victims.

“What stirs the hearts of our members is service, and we get involved in all sorts of projects as a group, and for many, that leads on to more community involvement”, says Jean, who admits that her 18 years service has been `a humbling experience, especially working with the National Children’s Homes and supporting the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline’.

Currently the Chesterfield Soroptimists are packing Aquaboxes for Unicef following the Asian Tsunami Appeal, and more locally they support North Derbyshire Women’s Aid and regularly supply `starter packs’ of dusters, buckets, bowls and other essential household equipment for victims of abuse.

They have supported the Ashgate Hospice for many years, raising £10,000 to build a conservatory between 1989/91 and last September a cheque was handed over after they had raised £13,000 in just two years to provide the Hospice with a children’s dependency room with two special beds, as part of the newly opened £3m extension.

Both Jean Horton and Press Officer and ex-President Sandra Bridge enthused about the latest project - to help raise over £5m for the Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice at nearby Dinnington, upon which work has already started and should be completed later this year.

In fact the list of charities and organisations helped by Chesterfield Soroptimists is almost endless, and the fact that they are a force for the social good is undeniable.

Family ignorance now dispelled, I took my leave safe in the knowledge that if at any time in the future my mother had in-growing toe-nails or suffered from corns, she wouldn’t be ringing a Soroptimist – and I took with me a burgeoning admiration for an organisation whose campaigning efforts on behalf of social justice deserve the recognition, respect – and support of us all. Jean Horton and the politically incorrect `sisters of optimism’ in the Chesterfield Soroptimists – I salute you!

*For further information about Chesterfield Soroptimists contact the Membership Secretary on 01246 – 566488 or Jean Horton 01246 -569871

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