In 1970—a time when Toastmasters International was still an all-male organization—a motivated woman named Helen Blanchard joined a club under the name “Homer” at the encouragement of her fellow members. Three years later, Toastmasters began officially admitting women, and Helen went on to become Toastmasters’ first female international president from 1985-1986.
To honor those first steps taken by Helen 50 years ago, more than 300 women and men from around the world came together on a single platform for a two-day virtual event. The celebration, which took place in June 2020, was widely appreciated for its diversity, ideas, and execution by members spanning six continents, 17 countries, in 21 Districts.
The Women in Toastmasters (WIT) event was the brainchild of Toastmasters Rakhi P. and Sandipa Maheswari, and originated in District 92 (Karnataka and Kerala, India). Rakhi, now in District 121, had the idea of commemorating the 50-year mark by bringing women together for inspiration and camaraderie. That idea, paired with Sandipa’s expertise in conducting global events, along with the WIT organizing committee formed from District 92, made it a well-organized occasion and successful partnership.
Over the two-day event, four guest speakers provided messages of inspiration, public speaking techniques, and tips on communication and negotiation. Past International President Pat Johnson, DTM, inspired everyone to expand and explore their possibilities with her speech, “You never know what you miss if you don’t stand up.”
“Helen was a powerful role model for so many, and definitely for us women who have held the International President office,” says Johnson. “She was always so supportive and would send me emails or notes occasionally, and she actually shared some photos that she had in her possession of my very first Toastmasters mentor.”
The first day started off with a live Toastmasters meeting, with the theme “Individually strong, together powerful.” The women who took on meeting roles came from different walks of life; namely authors, TEDx speakers, stand-up comedians, District champions of public speaking, two-time DTM’s, and more. A creative and fun-filled Table Topics session also took place with equal participation from the male audience, who were there to support their fellow female members.
Another speaker, Luisa Montalvo, who is the second-place winner of the 2019 World Championship of Public Speaking, shed light on public speaking techniques by sharing anecdotes from her life, and talked about honoring the sacrifices made by the women who came before her. “I feel it is my duty, in fact our duty, to all the women of the past, all of our ancestors, anybody who had to go forge a new path—they deserve our respect, and they deserve our commitment in trying to make this a much more level playing field for women and men, for everyone,” Montalvo said in her speech.
Accredited Speaker Sheryl Roush, DTM, enriched the audience with different communication styles and presented a poem dedicated to women in Toastmasters. And negotiation expert and Accredited Speaker Eldonna Lewis Fernandez equipped the audience with negotiation strategies, teaching them, “If you want to own your power, learn how to leverage the power of the pause.”
The most treasured part of the event, says Rakhi, was when the speakers shared cherished memories they had with Helen Blanchard. Johnson remembered the feeling of pride and sisterhood when she had her photo taken with Past International Presidents Blanchard, Pauline Shirley, and Jana Barnhill after she was inducted into office in Palm Desert, California, August 2010. “It was a huge honor to stand with these women and share our experiences,” says Johnson.
Helen Blanchard made the brave decision to attend Toastmasters meetings half a century ago when she knew women weren’t accepted; event chairs Rakhi and Sandipa want women in Toastmasters to know that they, too, can take the leap.
“We celebrate all of the women who are strong and daring enough to take that first step in their own lives, and to come out of their comfort zones and shine.”
Shannon Dewey is the digital content editor for Toastmaster magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.