This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States constitution, which granted women the right to vote.
In honor of that anniversary and the celebration of Women’s History Month in March, Ruth Helwig, president of the Zonta Club of Mt. Pleasant, talks about the key milestones for women over the last 100 years, the work of the local Zonta club, and what advancements she hopes the next 100 years will bring for women.
Q: This year will be the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. Since then, what are some of the biggest milestones that you see historically for women?
A: Obviously the right to vote is huge. I think another major advancement for women has been more independence. In the past, women couldn’t own property, get credit cards, or things like that with without a male to be the primary owner or contact person.
I think women still are not equal to men in the workplace, but we do now see women who are heads of businesses. We see women who are doctors, CEOs, and lawyers. I know Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s biography talks about how when she first graduated no one wanted to hire her because they didn’t want to take a job from a man. So, there’s less of that gender inequality, even if it’s not totally eradicated.
We’re seeing women in politics – senators, governors, mayors, higher positions in the political spectrum – which brings the woman’s perspective into the discussion.
Q: Right now, what are some of the top priorities or top-of-mind topics that are being discussed in Zonta to continue your mission of advancing the status of women worldwide?
A: Zonta does make it clear to the members what issues are the priority for the organization. They have an international conference every other year, and at the conference they set goals for the next two years. The ones right now are to end human trafficking, ending child marriage is another huge issue for Zonta, and ending violence against women and girls. They’re all intertwined in many ways.
They’re working on achieving gender equality and helping women and girls, especially in rural or underdeveloped areas. And they’re working very hard to provide education for girls around the world, especially in areas where education for women hasn’t been a priority so they can start to take a place in the political structure, in the country’s conversations about childcare, education, and poverty.
Q: The first couple of priorities that you mentioned were to end human trafficking, end child marriage, and end violence against women and girls. All three of those issues happen here in the United States, and some locally, correct?
A: Correct; human trafficking is prevalent in the United States. It’s not just a problem in other places; and, we know Michigan with its proximity to the waterways and Canada is very high up among the states that see human trafficking moving through its borders – even though it’s not one people often think of, they think of coastal states.
And efforts have been made by local legislators in the state senate to help Michigan better address human trafficking.
Q: What are some of the contributions of the local Zonta club to the greater Mt. Pleasant community over the years?
A: Over the years, Zonta has donated bulletin boards to the medical care facility and CPR equipment for people in the community to learn proper CPR techniques. They were also very involved in getting the senior center started. Additionally, they’ve given pretty consistently to what used to be Women’s Aid but is now Rise over the years. Zonta gave $7,000 in 1985 to implement a lifeline system in the community for seniors so they would be able to press a button and summon emergency help. In 1990, they donated money for a boat and equipment for the local Sheriff’s diving team; and, in 1991, Zonta gave $6,000 to the creation of the Mill Pond Park Pavilion.
We’re trying to create a scholarship fund, so a lot of our funds in the last two to three years have been going toward that in order to keep in line with Zonta’s efforts to provide more educational opportunities for women. However, we still give monthly to organizations such as the infant pantry, the foster closet, and the Care store - so agencies that provide food and items for families.
Q: What advancements do you hope to see for women in another 100 years?
A: From Zonta’s perspective, we would like to see more educational opportunities for women in our country and around the world. We would like to see more business professional opportunities for women so they can advance in the workplace. We would like to see improvements in healthcare for women and children in the United States and around the world. We would like to see an end to various practices – whether it be child marriage or female genital mutilation – that are detrimental to females. We would like to see an end to violence against females in general, and having women on a more even playing field with men financially, economically, and in educational opportunities.
And those would fit with my personal goals as well, which is why I’m in Zonta.