The year was 1984. The second wave of the women’s rights movement had opened doors to women in many Memphis businesses, corporations and volunteer organizations.
A few stalwart women had run for public office and were serving on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, but female department directors were scarce in local government, and both mayors were still having trouble naming women to public boards. Well-known, usually wealthy men were regularly being saluted at glitzy public dinners where they were given awards and high praise for their leadership in civic organizations, while women typically could expect at most a plaque from their clubs or volunteer groups at a regular monthly luncheon.
Deborah Clubb, then a young reporter in her fifth year at The Commercial Appeal, wearied of covering events honoring only men. Where was the comparable celebration for women?
Deborah took her idea for a sparkling awards dinner that would celebrate women’s work to Network, a Memphis organization devoted to connecting working women. With $1,000 pledged by Network to back the project, Deborah met with expert community organizer Jeanne Dreifus from the Memphis State Women’s Task Force to share ideas of what might work and who could help. Judy Card‘s office at the Memphis Public Library became the construction zone.
By March 1985, that steering committee had planned the Women of Achievement coalition, made contacts to build it, defined seven awards and organized a dinner where those awards were given in special recognition of Women’s History Month.
This year, Women of Achievement for the 37th time will call remarkable women to the stage to be cheered as their stories are told. Once again, each will be given a custom-designed glazed plate by Memphis potter Katie Dann, daughter of Mimi Dann, who shaped, glazed, and fired the special plates for our first 25 years. Each honoree will also receive a copy of the essay recounting her achievement.
Since March 1984, the coalition of as many as 35 different and diverse organizations has honored 270 individual women and three groups, including the Yellow Fever martyrs and local suffragists. The coalition solicits nominations from across the community in the areas of Initiative, Heroism, Determination, Courage, Vision and Steadfastness as well as for women from the past, Heritage. Then Women of Achievement members form seven committees to review nominations and select three finalists for each category. From those, category chairpersons and officers make final selections of honorees to be saluted in March.
In addition to Jeanne, Judy, and Deborah, the original steering committee that founded Women of Achievement included Beverly Booth Owen, Berkley Davis, Isha Echols, Judy Higbee, Patricia Howard, Mina Johnson, Happy Jones, Shirley Lupfer, Linda Pelts, Jane Sorin, Judy Wimmer and Carol Lynn Yellin.
Women of Achievement organization members and individual members reflect a diverse spectrum of Memphis women in races, religions, ages, sexual orientations, and interests. The list of award recipients each year reflects that same diversity.
Years later, Women of Achievement continues to be the only award given to women by women representing the whole community.