Eighty years since a Sunderland group formed to fight for women’s rights and the issue is still as relevant as ever.
Much has been achieved since Soroptimists International Sunderland started in 1938 and fought for women to be paid 1 shilling per hour for domestic work, but there’s still a long road to equality ahead for women around the world.
The Wearside branch is part of a global Soroptimists network of 75,000 members in 132 countries, which originally formed in the wake of women receiving the vote and from the legacy of WWI when women had proven their worth in the world of work as the men fought on the battlefields.
Speaking from the Sunderland group’s meeting place at The Grand Hotel in Seaburn, member Suzanne Brown explained: “The very first Soroptimists was formed in Oakland, California, and in 2021 Soroptimists International will celebrate 100 years. To begin with it was a group of single, professional women who wanted to do good work and it became a bit like the Masons in that it was very hush hush. Our work is more out in the open now.
“Many of the women had a good position in their towns and had their fingers on the pulse, so they knew what needed to be done.”
In Sunderland too women’s roles were changing. More and more were entering the world of work, especially during WWI and WWII when 700 women took on the back-breaking work of the shipyards while their husbands and sons went to war.
Emmeline Wright, who worked in the then Labour Exchange in the town, became the first president of the Sunderland Soroptimists which met in Athenaeum Street, with the aim of giving a voice to Wearside women.
Current president Megan Blacklock said: “One of the first things the Sunderland Soroptimists did was to fight for women’s pay and there is just as much to do in that area now as there was 80 years ago.”
Over the years the group’s efforts have reached far and wide, supporting women who are victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, health issues, homelessness and more.
Close to home, they’ve worked with Sunderland taxi firms to help drivers recognise women who may be in a vulnerable position after a night out and member Marge Wilkinson runs the Streetcare homeless kitchen at St Gabriel’s Church in Barnes.
Further afield, in Bangladesh, Sunderland member Carol Elliott helped establish the Wear Surma Clinic, providing invaluable medical help to locals. Internationally, the Soroptimists are passionate lobbyists for change too and their voice is even heard at the United Nations after they were given consultative status in 1984.
Across all of their wide and varied projects, the aim is the same: to educate, empower and enable women.
Suzanne explained: “We get involved in anything that will make life better for people and improve their quality of lives. Essentially it’s about women helping women and getting things done.”
Their finger has remained on the pulse for decades and they’ve helped raise awareness of issues before they hit headlines, such as the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s with the distribution of free condoms and needles as well as the issue of undetected landmines in the early ‘90s before Princess Diana made it well-known and, more recently, female genital mutilation.
In the group’s 80th year, it shows no sign of slowing down.
As part of their anniversary year members are campaigning about the overuse of plastics, raising money for Northumbria Blood Bikers who deliver essential blood and medical supplies, delivering supplies to schools to tackle period poverty and partnering with Sunderland Youth Council to raise awareness of mental health problems in the city, as well as helping cancer patients through charities including CRUK and Daft As A Brush.
Perhaps their most visible legacy will be the public art work they’re funding to honour Sunderland’s female shipyard workers and the difference they made to the war effort.
Inspired by the hugely-successful Shipyard Girls series of books by Sunderland author Nancy Revell, which have made the Sunday Times Bestseller list, the Soroptimists are in talks with developers and Sunderland City Council to create an art work on the former Vaux site which will overlook the River Wear.
Megan said: “The Keel Square tribute is about the men who worked on the shipyards but we wanted to create a lasting legacy for the women. We were formed just before WWII and it’s so important to honour what they did for the town.”
Eighty years ago the very first Soroptimists International Sunderland gathered at the then Palatine Hotel in Borough Road in their finery and white gloves for a dinner to mark the occasion.
This month, the current embers will meet for a Charter Celebration Lunch at The Grand Hotel and although the gloves may be off when it comes to the secrets of the Soroptimists, their values remain.
“What’s really important about the group is that it’s about friendships,” said Suzanne. “As well as the work we do, we all enjoy ourselves too.”
•To celebrate 80 years of the Sunderland Soroptimists, Sunderland Libraries will be playing a video about the history of the group on a loop today on International Women’s Day.
Soroptimists in short
Soroptimist International is the world’s largest international women’s service organisation.
The word Soroptimist is derived from the Latin ‘soror’ meaning sister and ‘optima’ meaning best of.
In North East England there are 14 clubs.
At the heart of each club is the project work it does to educate, enable and empower women and girls to achieve their full potential.
For more on the Sunderland club visit www.sigbi.org/sunderland