‘When we emerge from this nightmare and the struggle is over we must be stronger than ever to see that all our influence is on the side of a just and lasting peace’. (A British Soroptimist, 1939)
These are the words I imagine that inspired Mary to join the SI Sunderland club at the beginning of the second World War. After researching the Soroptimist Organisation, it shocked me that I have never heard the word before. With 75,000+ members across 133 countries, this organisation is dedicated to improving and empowering women’s lives through education. It has helped women rise up from poverty, abuse and prostitution, to lead the lives they want to live.
The Soroptimists had already been established 17 years prior to Mary joining in 1938. The first club was founded in Oakland, California in 1921 by Violet Richardson Ward, whose first concern was the felling of the ancient redwood trees. The efforts of their first project, ‘Save the Redwoods’ resulted in the preservation of the Redwood National and State Parks, which still exists today and is considered one of the most beautiful in North America.
A similar club was established in Britain soon after. Its first concerns were befriending motherless girls and supporting a local Children’s Society. Although both had the same concerns, neither club knew of the others existence and this went on for a number of years before a global network began to form, into what is now the four federations of the Soroptimist Organisation. These are the Soroptimist International of the Americas; Soroptimist International of Europe; Soroptimist International of Great Britain & Ireland; and Soroptimist International of the South West Pacific. They were recognised by various world organisations and by 1975, Soroptimists were invited to attend the First UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City.
Focusing more on the SI Sunderland Club, the first that Mary ever joined, Mary became its president in 1944 and the legacy has since passed down to her great-niece, Kathleen Tudenham, who was president 2014-2015, exactly 70 years after Mary. The SI Sunderland club is one of 14 Soroptmists clubs in Northern England. When I started researching all the clubs that Mary took part in, I was disheartened to see many of them inactive, yet when I looked on the website of SI Sunderland, I saw just how much they did for their community, things that many people overlook.
They support students with learning disabilities through preparing them for job interviews and they are actively working with University Sunderland students in giving them more job opportunities. They provide sleeping bags and starter packs for refugees and even work with the Northumbria Police in helping women who are victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Many of these projects are on-going and some brand-new.
Mary remained an active member for most of her life, and she did not stop when she went to Australia. Here she helped found the Bowral, Manly and Randwick Soroptimist clubs, with the likes of Pam Michael and Mrs. Rutter. It was very difficult tracking down more information on her activity with these clubs, as some are barely active today. Yet, I was supplied with evidence from Leslie Pearson, a descendent in Australia, of various newspaper clippings that acknowledged the founding of these clubs and some of the things they did.
The newspaper clipping above mentions Mrs. Rutter from the Central London Soroptimist Society, which coincided with the Mrs. Rutter that Mary talks about when she arrived in Perth. She mentions how fast and spontaneous it was by saying, ‘At Perth (W.A) the ship stayed one day and Mrs. Rutter of the Central London Club was forming a club there. She met me, took me to her hotel and we went through names and categories to form a club’ (3) The article above is not an unusual project, as many of the projects involve working with young teenagers or children, most commonly girls from poor or minority backgrounds, such as the aboriginal girls mentioned in the article.
There was also a tiny clipping announcing the formation of the Bowral club, Mary being of the ’20 professional and business women of the town all expressed their willingness to join’.
Mary mentioned that she was extremely proud of this club and all the social they did for the town. The Bowral club, later named the Berrima District Soroptimist Club, became well known, and in a tribute article to Mary for her 90th birthday, they mention how it ‘will be celebrating its Silver Jubilee this year and will look back with gratitude and appreciation to its founder – Mary Howitt – who convened that first meeting 25 years ago’ (Bowral Newspaper, 18, 1978).
‘Mary Howitt’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:355