As my year of being Chair of Women’s Network is coming to an end, I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on the changes I’ve seen since I became a member. I’m more and more grateful for the leadership and historical context that our more seasoned members provide to the conversation. This is what gave me the idea for my letter this month. I wanted all of you to hear from someone whose leadership and wisdom I admire greatly. I asked Jan Grossmann to answer questions I had relating to how she’s seen Women’s Network change and grow through the years. I was delighted that she said yes. I’m confident that you’ll find it as enlightening as I did.

What year were you the president of WN?

For the first several months of our existence, Steering Committee met without any officers.   I became the third president, serving from the summer of 1982 until summer of ’83. Although I had been slated to become the second president, I switched places with Mellany Jones because I was expecting a second child a couple months later, when our first president, Toni Somers, resigned and withdrew from her Women’s Network membership just a few months after becoming president.  Mellany Jones stepped up to become our second president in the summer of 1981, at the time of Toni’s resignation.

Who else was serving on steering at the time?

As I recall, Mariel Liggett, Sue Ann Schaefer, Chris Marks, Marci Lower, Vicki Dunscombe, and Gerogeanne Porter were other members of Steering.  Others involved in the early years were Nancy Fay, Kathi Posch, Libby Gill, and Georgia Lungren.

What were the primary topics of concern facing the steering committee then?

This was a time when it became unlikely that WN would remain a part of the Chamber of Commerce, and instead might break away.  A number of Steering members favored breaking away, including our first president.  I knew in my heart, however, that if that happened, WN would likely fail because we would lose support of area business owners and management, who at that time were all male.  I used every connection that I had with members of the Chamber Board of Directors, to negotiate what I thought would be an acceptable solution for the Steering Committee, with the goal of keeping Women’s Network as part of the Chamber of Commerce.

After considerable behind-the-scenes negotiation, the Chamber’s Board of Directors agreed to approve a resolution that 1) opened a permanent seat for a WN representative on the Chamber Board, and 2) designated WN as a “division” of the Chamber of Commerce, rather than as the subcommittee of the Small Business Committee that we had been.  Then I, along with Mellany Jones, “sold” that commitment to other members of the Steering Committee and obtained agreement from a majority to remain within the Chamber.  That’s when our first president resigned, mid-term.

We were completely broke – going month to month with no treasury at all – so financial woes were one of our biggest concerns.  Our monthly printed newsletter, which was mailed, was the way we publicized our meetings, and we didn’t have money to print it, so Larry and I donated the printing and mailing for the first couple years.

Steering often debated how to charge dues; the Chamber of Commerce was also struggling financially then and the exec thought the Network was a burden more than an asset – she was always wanting to charge us more per member.  We debated whether or not a person should be a designated Chamber member to belong to Women’s Network.  We debated whether we should offer a type of membership that was very inexpensive, as some women couldn’t afford to join our group.

We rarely had difficulty finding speakers or drawing crowds to our events…we quickly outgrew the Small Business Committee of which we were considered a sub-committee.

What do you see as the biggest changes between WN then and now?

Women faced many important issues that were related to being a business professional, and times were very different for women then.  Few opportunities existed for women in business to gather together, as women were excluded from membership in civic organizations.  There are some similarities, but the biggest change would be that there are now plentiful opportunities for women to get involved in civic groups and networking organizations, whereas in the early 80’s women weren’t allowed to join Rotary, Jaycees, Optimists, and other civic organizations.  (We could only be Jaycee Wives and Rotary Anns!)  As a result, it seems that today Women’s Network leaders may have to work harder to recruit and to maintain a base of members.

Life is easier now for women with children, as finding available daycare for infants in Columbia was virtually impossible in the early 80’s.  As a result, scheduling Women’s Network events so that many women could attend was challenging.  We eventually settled on the luncheon as being the most effective way to draw women leaders.   I can recall heated discussions about the damage I was inflicting upon my children when I sent them to daycare rather than quitting work to stay home with them when they were born.  Staying out in the evening would just create more damage for them – amazingly they turned out to be nice, successful people despite all this!

This social damning and guilt-slinging, usually by other women, was extremely hard on working women, and so began the quest for many women to become “Super-Woman” who could be the perfect mother while also working full time.

There were many issues specific to women that don’t exist anymore.  I remember being refused a job simply because I answered “yes” to the question, “Do you plan to have children?” which of course cannot be asked anymore.  It was common practice to ask female applicants what job their husband held, how many children they had, and what ages their children were, to help determine whether or not they were the “right fit” for the job.  Women who sought professional positions were sometimes accused of taking jobs that therefore caused men to go without one.  Topics for Women’s Network speakers usually centered on issues facing women, as a result of all of this.

What was it like to work alongside the current chair on a strategic plan?

I really enjoyed working on the strategic plan this year, especially meeting the other women leaders on the committee.  It was fun to think back to the issues we faced in the beginning years and how they compare to today’s issues.  It’s important to regularly analyze and review the direction we’re heading and make certain steps we’re taking continue to meet our mission and goals.

Where do you feel past presidents are best able to serve our current members?

Past presidents can best serve by simply showing up and continuing to be involved.  We have experiences that can benefit our younger and newer members.

What is your advice to young members of WN?

Take advantage of the wealth of information offered by other members; eagerly reach out to members you meet at the luncheons and don’t be afraid to reach out more than once to others, if necessary, as we’re all busy and may not respond at first.  Join and become active on a committee.  Offer to do things that others might not want to do.  Women’s Network is an amazing, wonderful organization – enjoy it and all the members you meet.  Encourage other women to consider joining WN.

What would you say to someone thinking about joining WN?

It’s an opportunity to connect with other women leaders in Columbia, but it will only be great for you if you commit to regularly attending the meetings and becoming active on a committee. Realize that others may appear more confident than they feel, just as you might.  When you attend the meetings, sit with someone new to you – someone you haven’t yet met – every time you attend.  Follow up with your new contacts with a friendly email or note.  Realize that it takes more than one meeting to become a friend, and that it takes work to develop relationships.

What is the biggest challenge as you see it facing WN now?

Our biggest challenge is to assure that we welcome and engage visitors and new members.  As leaders of WN, we need to remember that walking into a meeting room with a couple hundred people you don’t know can be overwhelming and humiliating to some folks – we need to make sure we create an atmosphere that is conducive to putting people at ease so they’ll want to get more involved.

What is the biggest opportunity that WN can take advantage of in the future?

Women’s Network has a great reputation.  WN draws good leaders who want to become more involved.  Our opportunity is to continue to serve the women who choose to join our organization, offering them the opportunities to learn and to grow as leaders.  We should work to make certain visitors feel welcome and new members feel like they want more involvement.  I think it’s crucial that we devote more of our meeting time to honor and showcase our present leaders and their contributions.  We need to give more of our committee leaders and Steering members “showtime” on our agenda each month.