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. They gathered a group of about a dozen, including women from Network and several who had staged the Women in Community history series that was presented at the public library under a Radcliffe College grant in 1981.
By March 1985, that steering committee had planned the Women of Achievement coalition, made contacts to built 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 33rd time has called remarkable women to the stage to be cheered as their stories were told. Once again, each was given a custom-designed glazed plate by Memphis potter Katie Dann, daughter of Mimi Dann, who shaped, glazed, and fired the special plates for over 25 years. Each honoree also received a copy of the essay recounting her achievement.
In three decades the coalition of as many as 235 different and diverse organizations has spotlighted over 185 individuals and two groups. 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.
In addition to Jeanne and Deborah, the original steering committee that founded Women of Achievement included Beverly Booth Owen, Judy Card, 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 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.