During the 19th century, more and more voices were raised for equality between the sexes. In 1848, the first women's rights conference was held in Seneca Falls, USA. In Sweden, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist published "Det går an" in 1839 and Fredrika Bremer's "Hertha" came out in 1856. Industrialism changed lifestyles. Women's right to education and work, their authority and right to vote became hot topics. Laws were rewritten during protests. During the First World War 1914-1918, more and more women were given new tasks and did not want to return to the confinement of the homes. In Sweden, women got the right to vote in 1919, became eligible and could vote for the first time in the 1921 parliamentary elections.
Non-Governmental Organizations, NGOs, arose primarily in the United States. Zonta was formed by local clubs and wanted to strengthen the role of citizens in society, alongside government agencies. Then Rotary and Lions for men and Zonta for women were added.
On November 8, 1919, The Confederation of Zonta Clubs (9 pcs) was formed at a meeting in Buffalo, New York state. The driving force was Marian de Forest, writer and charter president of the Buffalo club. Mary E. Jenkins, publicist of the Syracuse club, was elected president of the organization. Bylaws were adopted and the meeting chose the name Zonta, a word from a Sioux Indian dialect meaning 'honest and trustworthy'. In New York in 1921, Zonta's first Convention, our highest decision-making body, was held. Zonta's objectives were determined: to work for the growth of the organization as well as to promote professionalism among women and camaraderie among members.
Zonta was given a secretary in 1924 and centrally located offices in Chicago in 1928. A strict classification system for members' occupations was developed. To be able to influence society, members would have a leading position in profession or business. To ensure broad knowledge, a club was only allowed to have one member in each classification. Clubs were organized in Canada and at the 1926 Convention the bylaws were changed to allow clubs to be formed outside of North America.
Enthusiastic Zontas organized new clubs, mostly within the United States, and a trio made a friendship tour of Europe in 1929 to spread Zonta's message. Externally, efforts were made to influence laws on women's working conditions and aid was given to needy women and children in Turkey and girls from Serbia.
The era was marked first by the Depression and then by the Second World War. Zonta grew slowly but broadened its horizons.
In Europe, a club was formed in Vienna in 1930 and one in Hamburg in 1931. By 1940, Zonta had six districts and a total of 4,300 members. Convention 1930 adopted the name Zonta International, ZI, and added a purpose: Work for the advancement of understanding, goodwill and peace through a world of fellowship of executive women, women in business and professions united in the Zonta ideal of service.
Convention 1935 adopted another important purpose: Improve the legal, economic and professional status of women.
In 1944 it came to read: Improve the legal, political, economic and professional status of women. A program of scholarships in space and aeronautical engineering was started in 1938 in memory of Zonta member and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart who disappeared in 1937. During the war, two Conventions were canceled and Zonta tried to strengthen peace efforts.
An informal service project was organized in support of Women's War Relief in Great Britain. The first Swedish Zonta Club was formed in Stockholm in 1935. The driving force was the textile artist Elsa Gullberg, who was contacted by a Zonta in Boston.
Early members include Kerstin Hesselgren (one of the female members of parliament in 1921), Karin Kock (professor and Sweden's first female cabinet minister), Nanna Schwartz (first female professor of medicine), Estrid Ericsson (founder of Svenskt Tenn) and Eva Andén ( Sweden's first female lawyer). Later known names were Barbro Alving (signature Bang) and others.
Now the world map was redrawn. Germany was divided and an 'iron curtain' came to separate two areas of interest in Europe. New states were created in the Middle East. India, Pakistan and Indonesia became independent countries. Vietnam was split in two. After the Chinese Civil War, the People's Republic of China and Taiwan were formed. The League of Nations from 1919 had not been able to prevent the Second World War. But experiences of international cooperation became a basis for the creation of a new peace organization, the United Nations, the United Nations.
Zonta International was one of the NGOs represented at the UN's opening meeting in San Francisco in 1945 and has continuously supported the UN's work since then. In 1946, The Commission on the Status of Women, CSW, was established as the UN's special body for women. CSW meets annually, has 45 members and membership rotates between UN member states according to a special system.
In a more peaceful world, Zonta could grow and become a more active organization. In 1956 we had over 12,000 members in 379 clubs in 14 countries. A first formal international service project was adopted for the period 1946-48, "Action for World Peace". Zonta wanted to encourage and educate members to actively participate in society, both nationally and internationally.
In 1952, the next project, the "Friendship Project", was adopted to strengthen professional and cultural exchange between members in different countries. The same thoughts marked the clubs internally. Many members were the first women in their positions (eg judges, chief doctors, principals) and mutual support was important.
The clubs in Europe were scattered and did not belong to any districts at first. Nordic conferences were organized a few times, where organizational issues were mostly discussed. In 1962, the Nordic countries became District 13 with 31 clubs. Other European
countries became District 14.
This was an interesting time for women. A couple became prime ministers: Indira Gandhi in India and Golda Meir in Israel. Protest movements arose, some radical. Feminism was established and more and more men began to support women's demands.
Helvi Sipilä, lawyer and member of the Helsinki Zonta Club, became president of Zonta International in 1968-70, the first from a country outside North America. She represented Finland at the UN and in 1972 became Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, the first woman at that level. She chaired the UN's first World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975 and initiated the formation of UNFEM, the UN Development Fund for Women (now part of UN WOMEN).
In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women, CEDAW, our most important document on women's human rights to date. Zonta continued to grow. During Helvi Sipilä's presidency, clubs were formed in five countries in Africa. The next two-year period saw the creation of seven clubs in Asia. Eighteen clubs in Australia and New Zealand were able to form a district in 1974.
Many clubs were added in Sweden and Finland. 1978 was the year of birth for clubs in Trosa, Kristianstad, Luleå and Karlstad. Ambitions in supporting efforts also grew. It was emphasized that Zonta would not deal with traditional charity but work long-term and help women help themselves. Clubs were encouraged to give money to the joint international projects, not just to their local ones.
Now world politics was complicated. The Vietnam War lasted until 1973 but the Cold War and the arms race continued. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. After the death of Mao Zedong, China began to change its economic policies. The Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 and prolonged war ensued between Iran and Iraq. With the development of welfare societies in Europe, not least in the Nordic countries, women gained a better legal position and increased community service.
The UN's second world conference for women took place in Copenhagen in 1980 and a third in Nairobi in 1985. The growth within Zonta created new issues, not least organizational and financial. In 1982 there were 900 clubs in 50 countries, most still in the United States. Partially difficult processes led to changes:
Zonta International moved to a new office in Chicago and hired a new, strong CEO. The district governors had been members of the international board which in 1982 came to consist of 25 people. This was changed so that the entire board was elected by Convention and received 11 members. Membership fees were raised in stages.
In order to manage service funds in a professional manner, a separate foundation, Zonta International Foundation, ZIF, was established in 1985. It was considered beneficial for organizations such as Zonta to own their premises and in 1986 a building was purchased in Chicago with ZIF as the formal owner. The large District 13 was split at the 1986 Convention into three. Finland became D20, Sweden became D21 and the other Nordic countries remained D13. In order to enable the election of men in the clubs, the wording of the statutes was changed in 1988 at the Convention in Helsinki, the first in the Nordic countries.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Germany was united the following year. Soon all Eastern European countries had popularly elected governments. The Soviet Union crumbled into one Russia and several separate states. Yugoslavia disintegrated during violent hostilities. War broke out in Somalia and several countries in Africa. In South Africa, apartheid was abolished and a new constitution was introduced. In China, a peaceful demonstration for democracy was crushed. The collapse of the Soviet Union and unrest in Africa led to the trafficking of women on a large scale.
The UN celebrated 50 years in 1995 and held a fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Many zontos attended, including ZI president Folake Solanke, the first from Africa. She raised Zonta's international perspective and managed to gain precedence with UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in New York, when she argued for increased recognition within the UN of NGO work.
Interest in traditional non-profit work began to wane and affected the majority of NGOs. Zonta saw membership decline (from a peak of about 36,000 in the mid-1990s) and sought opportunities to reverse the trend. Requirements for membership in clubs were simplified. Many zonta clubs were started in new countries, some perhaps hastily. The district division was redone. D17 in Asia was split into three and the very large European D14 was split into five.
Clubs in the Baltic countries were included in the Nordic districts and Latvia came from 1993 to belong to the until then Swedish D21. Statutes for ZI had, after many changes, become a patchwork and new revised statutes were adopted by the Convention in 1990. The main purpose now became: To improve the legal, political, economic, educational, health and professional status of women.
The democracies of the Western world had experienced relative calm but on September 11, 2001, two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. The US with allies invaded Afghanistan and aid organizations were evacuated. Iraq was invaded in 2003. Religious and ethnic conflicts in the region worsened. A financial crisis started in the USA in 2008 with effects in a large part of the world. The so-called Arab Spring of 2010 unfortunately led to upheavals and war, which culminated in Syria. Migration caused by war and economic divides has increased sharply.
Global warming and other environmental problems have come to be seen as the major threats. Over time, women have gained a stronger position in the world, but reactionary forces have gained momentum and are also directed against women's rights. Zonta International has tried to strengthen the organization by simplifying work methods, reducing costs and modernizing and streamlining its communication.
Our old classifications did not fit today's labor market and were changed in 2002 to a system that connects to the ILO's. A new website was presented and our official publication The Zontian took on a new form but then fewer and fewer printed numbers. Membership fees have been increased, among other things so that they cover the administration of the ZIF, whose income can go entirely to service and so that certain capital reserves have been built up.
Zonta now has approximately 29,000 members in 63 countries, the largest group is in Europe. The Nordic countries have become more active and have nominated candidates for many international positions, including in committees. Gothenburg hosted the Convention in 2002. A number of zontas from the Nordics have been elected international presidents of ZI: Margit Webjörn 2002-2004, Beryl Sten 2008-2010, Maria José Landeira Oestergaard 2014-2016 and Sonja Hönig Schough 2016-2018. Different issues came to dominate their terms of office. Here are some:
Margit worked for advocacy work and introduced work against trafficking on Zonta's agenda. After the 11 September attack, a planned service project in Afghanistan had to be replaced by a smaller one carried out by a local organization.
Beryl strengthened relations with the UN and Zonta was able to influence the details of the projects we wanted to support. But Zonta's finances forced her to propose difficult decisions. Zonta's own building was put up for sale. A smaller area in an office building was bought by ZIF but was not approved by ZI. The management of ZIF was taken over by ZI's board and the CEO was replaced. Both Zonta's building and the newly purchased office were sold, and Zonta moved to lower-cost leased premises in Oak Brook outside of Chicago.
Maria José continued to promote advocacy. Both she and Sonja have tried in different ways to streamline the work and increase the number of members, including through new types of membership.
Zonta has a long tradition of supporting efforts, both international and local. Zonta is one of the UN's main cooperation partners among NGOs, often noticed during meetings with CSW. The Nordic countries were moderately active for a long time – we had our welfare systems and did not see the needs. But with increased awareness of our surrounding world, interest in the international projects decided by the Convention grew. Among the projects can be mentioned:
Violence against women is a global human and societal problem that engages Zonta Clubs worldwide. The Convention in Paris in 1998 adopted the Zonta International Strategies to Eradicate Violence against Women and Children, ZISVAW, as a permanent programme. It has evolved so that funds are now given to projects in the same way as to international service projects. Current project 2018-2020 is Ending Child Marriage, which supports efforts to end child marriage in 12 countries in Africa and Asia.
Zonta's permanent education program for women has been expanded and now includes these scholarships:
Clubs' local support efforts have varied over time and depending on economic, political and cultural conditions in the respective countries. The size of the projects covers everything from awarding small scholarships to paying for school buildings for girls in poor environments. There is more practical help, such as home visits and language training as well as distribution of birthing materials.
For a long time, Zonta saw itself primarily as a supporting organization. But it gradually became clear that we had to influence laws, the application of laws and general attitudes to a greater degree to improve women's conditions. There was some resistance – 'advocacy' was confused with 'lobbying', which has a negative connotation for many. But Zonta's advocacy work has now gained greater connection, it is not done for a special interest but for half the world's population and for the general good
A milestone was reached in June 2017 when senators from across the United States gathered in Washington DC for scheduled visits to their respective senators' offices with well-prepared petitions. Zonta's advocacy work is carried out at all levels:
Every fall, Zonta acts in the campaign 'Zonta Says NO to Violence Against Women' in all parts of the world. It was launched at the 2010 Convention in San Antonio, Texas. As decided by Convention 2006, Zonta's main purpose is:
To improve the legal, political, economic, educational, health and professional status of women at the global and local level through service and advocacy.
This history has been compiled by Margit Webjörn (former international president of ZI) from generally known facts, from own material and from Zonta publications. A special thanks to Eva Nielsen, historian and member of Copenhagen's Zonta Club II.