west county soroptimists

Secretary Bobbie Larson, left, and President Elizabeth Smith, right, of Soroptimist International of West Sonoma County.

Elizabeth Smith and Bobbie Larson sat in the gazebo at Ragle Ranch Regional Park on a crisp October morning, poring over scrapbooks and scanning newspaper cutouts of the Sebastopol Soroptimist Club dating back to the early 1950s.

Smith and Larson, the president and the secretary of Soroptimist International of West Sonoma County, are up to their ears in archives ahead of a ribbon cutting event on Nov. 1 at 5:30 p.m. to celebrate the club’s local history and the revived gazebo memorializing past soroptimists in the area.

Visitors are invited to meet those honored with restored plaques and today’s soroptimists continuing their legacy, Larson said. The club spent the past year rehabilitating the gazebo to ultimately restore plaques for the women recognized on its walls and any more they can find — and they need your help.

Smith said the club may be able to pass the roughly six original plaques to the families of those women. The club has learned of about 10 names to add and more to confirm whether the women are still alive, according to the president. “There’s potentially hundreds of names we need to siphon through. We don’t know,” she said.

The club president skimmed a news clipping. “But the problem is — Mrs. John B. Costa. Well, who is that? What is her name?” Smith said. Newspapers telling of the club’s activities frequently referred to women by their husband’s names in decades past.

The fact that women’s names weren’t just forgotten, but often cut from the record is only one obstacle for Smith and Larson as they rummage through history to identify former soroptimists. This is why the club is encouraging the community to share any family history of soroptimists.

It’s been an endeavor for the two to search online for the obituaries of women they have found in the scrapbooks and small yearbooks tucked in them. It’s anyone’s guess what year they died if the club were to hit up the library, Smith said, and neither do they know which women in the photos were officially soroptimists or affiliated with other organizations.

“The obituaries get tricky because at a certain point there were no obituaries online, so how do we locate the ones that are from the forties?” Smith added.

She said the club made contact with Soroptimist International of the Americas to request a roster of the women in the Sebastopol Soroptimist Club, the banner the club ran with from its founding in 1949 to its disbanding in the 1990s.

The records are so old they’re on paper and might not be totally reliable, according to Smith.

Names gleaned from there are presumably of Sebastopol because the organization was previously exclusive to the area. When the club rechartered in 2019, its new name was approved to include the rest of west county, a fairly unusual allowance, Smith said.

Then there’s getting in touch with the past soroptimists’ families, Larson remarked. Names are one thing, but it's also the personal stories that bring the women to life and, as it turns out, the gazebo itself.

When the local news reported in 2019 that club was rechartering and welcoming new members, a man contacted Soroptimist International of West County to ask if they knew anything about his grandmother who just died for her obituary, Smith said. The club didn’t have those records then, but he explained his late grandmother was an original member and that his grandparents built the gazebo in Ragle Park long ago.

COVID-19 had its way with everything, Smith said, but the grandson reached out to the club again some weeks ago to say his grandfather’s health is declining and wishes to see his wife’s name put up in the gazebo with the rest of their family.

"And looking at some of these scrapbooks,” Smith said, “it looks like she was a very strong leader in this community. She was a past president of Soroptimist and got a lot of awards and things like that, so it's going to be great to honor her."

The end of the Sebastopol Soroptimist Club started at the beginning, with Violet Richardson Ward, first president of the nation’s first club: the Soroptimist Club of Alameda, founded in 1921 in the Oakland area, Smith said. Service clubs primarily allowed only men to join at that time.

The Los Angeles Times reported that it wasn’t until 1987 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that private groups with public and business-related pursuits can’t bar women under the constitution, according to California anti-discrimination law. Specifically, Rotary International could not legally dismiss chapters with women membership.

Service clubs began accepting more women in the 1990s and the story Smith heard from past local members is that the opportunity to join alongside men was, well, historic. Sebastopol Soroptimists went for it and older members retired. “So, that’s kind of what the buzz has been. it certainly wasn’t because the club wasn’t doing great work or because they didn’t get along,” Smith said. Larson noted, “It’s interesting that Sebastopol would have chosen to do that.”

Those days are over, but the mission to empower women and girls is not. “I feel like the mission is still the same, to empower and educate women and girls, but the needs of women and girls have changed. Now, our focus is more on sex trafficking and domestic violence and child abuse and economic empowerment, and these are conversations that weren’t really being discussed in the different generations,” Smith said.

Newspaper clippings indicate the original club supplied hospital equipment for “the needy patients,” held benefits for people who were ill and disabled, funded eye exams and camp enrollment for kids, shoes and clothes and more, like a telephone for the Luther Burbank Center, from what Larson and Smith found. The wording of some headlines and articles are clearly from 1969 and not always in a good way.

Something that’s different since then is that the club is more diverse now, the president said, while the scrapbooks show mostly if not only white faces in the photos decades ago. Men are free to join the west county club, though fewer do, she said.

“Soroptimists believes that by providing women and girls with access to education and training, they will become economically empowered,” Smith said. “So, when women are economically empowered, they have more freedom to leave abusive relationships, they have the ability to leave poverty, they have the ability to break toxic cycles of child abuse and neglect.”

The focus on women and girls is just as relevant today, Smith said, turning for the worse under the COVID-19 pandemic conditions. She shared compiled statistics from news and research that almost 60% of people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic are women, with women of color in particular experiencing up to 20% unemployment rates. 

Without those jobs, enrolling for education or just staying in class “becomes financially impossible,” Smith read from the list of statistics. The pandemic has interrupted the educations of more than 1.5 billion students, as women take on a disproportionate amount of essential work, she said. 

Extended school closures leave girls particularly at risk of “dropping out, teen pregnancy and sexual abuse,” she read. Remote learning can be especially challenging for girls who may be tasked with family care or who don’t have as much internet access, according to Smith. 

Currently, Soroptimist International of West Sonoma County is focused on the Live Your Dream Award project, to give scholarships to women “trying to get back on their feet and back to school,” as heads of households with dependents, Larson said.

Smith said, “We can find a piece of us or our sisters or our daughters in each of the programs that we offer or we just want to be part of something bigger than us. We want better experiences for women and girls.”

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