Polly Mooney Forestier was merely a spectator when she accompanied her husband to the Civitan International Convention in Boston in 1974. What she witnessed there became history, as the membership barely passed an amendment to the organization’s bylaws. Civitan would be the first major all-male service organization in the world to welcome females.
“Vic was as excited as I was when Civitan delegates voted to accept women as full members,” says Mooney Forestier.
But when she returned home, Mooney Forestier’s application to the local Civitan club was turned down. The men in the club were not ready to have a female member even though they knew her well. That didn’t stop her from joining, though. A new club build attracting women in the same town garnered more than thirty leaders, and Mooney Forestier was elected charter president.
“My challenge as I saw it as the first female to hold the various leadership positions was to convince male members that women were just as interested and just as challenged to support the local communities in service and we cared about the needs of those we served,” says Mooney Forestier.
Mooney Forestier not only conquered that challenge, and many more, as she became one of the first of two female governors to serve the organization, and one of the first two women on the International Board of Directors. Then in 1989, the membership would elect her to Civitan International’s highest volunteer role, as president for the 1990-1991 year.
Eight more women have followed in Mooney Forestier’s footsteps over the last thirty years, including several who were pioneers in their own way. Gay Aaron was among the first group of women who joined the organization too. She accepted an invitation to be a part of a new club in Florida just a year after the bylaw change vote.
“Our club builder was progressive and realized what a valuable resource women would be to Civitan. He recognized the best way to capture our enthusiasm was to immediately get us involved in the club’s leadership,” says Aaron, who served as Civitan International’s President from October 2010 through September 2011.
Eva Wilhelmsen was the organization’s first female President from outside the United States. A leader in the Norway District who joined in 1980, Eva grew up with a brother who had Down syndrome and relished her time in an international office because she learned a lot about Civitan’s flagship project.
“I had first-hand information to bring to my own country and to all the districts I visited worldwide. I was able to tell about the need, the successes and how important it was that we support the work done at the Civitan International Research Center,” says Wilhelmsen.
This year, Wilhelmsen has stepped back into a leadership role, serving her home district as governor – working to revitalize membership there. She shares she never felt it was difficult to be accepted as a female in her various roles, and says the move the organization made long ago adds up to better service.
“I think Civitans understood the need of working together. Women are caretakers and bridge builders. They solve problems in a different way than men,” says Wilhelmsen. “Having both men and women gives the organization flexibility and strength.”
Debbie Juhlke was Civitan International’s first African American female to serve in the top volunteer role. Even in 2016 during her presidential year, she remembers times where she felt disrespected because of her race, but stayed focused on how she could forever impact the work being done by the organization.
“To know that I was championing the way of other women, including women of color, it gave each day a renewed sense of purpose and reinforced my commitment to being a Civitan,” says Juhlke. “As a Civitan we are called to be advocates and builders of good citizenship, and as women we naturally gravitate towards this cause. Women specifically possess the strength, perseverance and a heart to be a fierce protector of the weak.”
It’s seeing that fortitude of others that made Past International President Kendyl Massey’s journey with Civitan so rewarding too. Serving in the role from 2017-2018, Massey led the organization through a challenging time of renewal and work to prepare it better for the future.
“I love seeing women who blossom under the opportunity to have a say in decisions made in their clubs, to share their ideas and have them heard and accepted,” says Massey, “Women should surround themselves with others who have a positive attitude and want to see the organization move forward and remain viable.”
While their experiences may differ, the biggest support for these women came from within themselves.
“I had great role models before me,” says Past International President Betty Haralson, “Those women understood the challenges and were able to give good advice on how to handle things such as home and family and at the same time make sure to guide Civitan in the right way.”
“Several great women paved the way before me. They have demonstrated that women can be whoever they want and be a force in their own lives, as well as Civitan,” says President Patsy Perkal.