Women’s Involvement in Chamber Evolves with Time
By Kaitlyn McConnell
Time changes all.
What is considered the norm today often was seen much differently even just a few years ago. One local example is the how roles were divided by gender at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
For more than 30 years, the Chamber's Women's Division represented the majority of female participation in Chamber activities. In a day and age when women were not a major part of the workforce, it began as a way for women to get involved in Chamber activities.
As time passed, and as women's roles changed, so did the division – along with women's roles in the Chamber overall. Forty years after the Women's Division was formed, the Chamber saw its first female chairperson of the board.
"The division did a lot to raise the profile of women in Springfield," says Jerry Clark Quinn, former vice president of Public Affairs at the Chamber, who was involved with the division. "It was great to be in the position to see that group of women evolve so that everyone benefited from their experience."
Start of the Women’s Division
That involvement ties back to 1957, when the Women's Division came to be.
Initially, the division was more social than strategic. The group was primarily comprised of female representatives who worked for Chamber-member companies.
"It helped with recruiting Chamber members," says Quinn. "Usually, the member was the head of the company, and the executive secretary or similar position would represent in the Women’s Division."
According to a 1988 article about the division in "Springfield Spirit," the Chamber's longtime monthly publication, the group's first task was to serve as hostesses for Chamber banquets.
"This included selecting a site, menu and decorating," noted the Spirit. "They were there to assist the Chamber in any way they could. The other important activity that first year was recruiting new members. They tried to get each business that was a member of the Chamber to send a representative to join the Women's Division."
Membership in the group steadily grew: A Springfield newspaper article noted that the original group, comprised of 13 members, had grown to approximately 350 by the mid-1970s. Eventually, membership expanded to include women other than just those employed by Chamber members.
"The look of leadership has many faces," said Pat Johnson, former president of the division, in a 1973 newspaper article. "It can have the face of a retired woman who still is vitally interested in what's going on in the community; the face of a one-time secretary who now owns her own business; or the face of a computer programmer."
In 1974, a newspaper reporter asked members why they joined. Their reasons varied:
"A secretary-bookkeeper, asked her reasons for joining, said, 'I hoped to improve my knowledge of the community, to enhance myself as a woman, and to promote my employer.'
"A processing engineer said, 'To be better informed on what is going on in our city and, if possible, to take part in its changes.'
"A secretary said, 'I wanted greater understanding of the community problems and functions, and ways and means of assisting in its betterment.'
"A homemaker said, 'To know Missouri and to know Springfield as a city. To learn from its people and to pass along this knowledge to others. To help make this a nice place to live and raise children.'"
Causes, service projects and education were early priorities of the Women’s Division. Newspapers chronicled events from the division's early days, including a time when women in various industries were honored each month.
The group provided venues for increased awareness of topics as varied as communism and cancer. Human-related events were also featured, such as the "Know Your Neighbor" panel in 1965, which showcased citizens of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Women's Division sponsored the event, which was seemingly open to the community, and attended by around 500 people.
In addition to planning and hosting events, members soon saw a variety of "development" opportunities through seminars and luncheons.
One example was "Homemaker's Holiday," an event sponsored by the division for around 15 years.
"It was a day away from life's ordinary ebb and flow for women who were slowly trickling into the workforce but who primarily thought of themselves as homemakers," noted the Leader and Press in 1985.
The annual event saw guest speakers on topics including "Short Cuts in the Kitchen," "A Minute Saved is a Minute Earned," and "It'll All Come Out in the Wash."
Other elements of the annual event included fashion shows and tips for food preparation. In 1965, "Instant Gourmet Cooking" was a topic, as was "1965 Fabrics and Their Care."
The event quickly grew in popularity. By 1974, a Springfield newspaper article noted that between 700 and 1,000 regularly attended the annual event.
While such topics might seem surprising today, they resonated with women in the late 1950s and early '60s. However, times began to quickly change -- and the Women's Division changed with them. The “Homemakers Holiday” was discontinued in the mid-1970s, and more emphasis was placed on another longtime event hosted by the division: The Working Women's Seminar.
Originally known as the Office Worker's Seminar, the annual event began in 1959 and catered more to businesswomen than homemakers.
In 1964, topics covered at the seminar included "Effective Listening" and "Office Teamwork." A few years later, "Exercise and Physical Fitness for the Office Worker," and "Grooming, Poise and Women's Place in Business" headlined. And by the 1980s, topics turned to "Creating a Business Impression," "Body Language" and "Legal Status of Women in the '80s."
"In the 1970s, the programs emphasized how to prepare themselves (women) by education and performance to move into management," said Joyce
Livingston, former Women's Division president, in 1985 to a Springfield newspaper reporter. "That was something there was very little understanding of then."
As times continued to change, so did women's roles with regard to the Chamber.
Shortly after celebrating its 30th anniversary in 1988, the Women's Division was dissolved and became known as the Professional Development Committee.
By then, Quinn recalls, women were already very integrated into the Chamber, and the transition made sense.
"Women were spread throughout the chamber," says Quinn. "There were even more emerging women in business, and it was thought that they should belong to the chamber as 'regular' members."
That decision made way for other changes as well. In 1992, the Chamber ended its "Woman Who Made the Difference" award, allowing women to be selected for the Springfieldian Award. The same year, Mary Kay Meek became the first female recipient of that top honor.
The day after her award, the News-Leader voiced its support through its editorial page:
"Springfield has recognized the work of a woman with the Chamber of Commerce's Springfieldian of the Year for 1992.
"Mary Kay Meek is a splendid choice.
"Those who made the selection are to be congratulated for their choice. Not because the recipient is a woman, but because she was the most deserving nominee."
The following years saw much more change in the Chamber with regard to women. In 1998, after nearly 70 years in existence, the Chamber saw its first female chair.
That person was Nikki Sells. But Sells wasn't chosen for the position because she was a woman -- it was because she was the right person, stressed then-Chamber President Jim Anderson through the newspaper.
"Breaking the gender barrier is incidental (in this case)," noted Anderson in a 1996 article (when she was selected as Chairman-Elect). "The officers of the nominating committee recommended Nikki Sells, and the board of directors accepted the recommendation not because of her gender but because of her leadership and abilities and skills and contributions she's made to our organizations."
Sells had been involved in the Chamber for several years before her selection. She and her husband, Robert, moved to Springfield in 1990 when they opened Express Personnel Services. And while she soon became involved in the Chamber, an area she specifically didn't work with was the aforementioned Professional Development Committee.
"I didn’t join – not because I didn’t want to support the other women, but because I understood that if women were going to make a difference in the organization, we needed to be sitting on committees with the men who were making the decisions – as equals," says Sells. "Not off in some room being 'professionally developed,' whatever that meant."
Instead, Sells’ time was spent in such activities as chairing the Chamber Ambassadors, engaging politically with bond issue campaigns, fundraising for the Chamber's current home, and serving on the Chamber's Executive Committee.
Then, in 1998, she served as the first female chairman of the board for the entire organization.
"Looking back, I think it was a big deal, and long overdue," says Sells. "To me, it was always about the best person at the right time who was privileged to serve in that role. That said, there had been many women who could have easily been chairman before me and who were more than qualified! I’m a big believer that timing is everything. I’m pretty sure there must have been some resistance somewhere, but I was not aware of it. That is a credit to Jim Anderson, the staff, and the men who served as chairmen just prior to me."
As chair, Sells' top priorities included economic development and support for small businesses like her own.
"Economic development was always at the forefront for me," she recalls. "Back then, Springfield was a city made up of 90 percent small businesses, each under 20 employees. It was important that we recruited some larger companies for balance and economic health. Public/private partnerships were also coming into play in a big way. So sorting that out and seeing how it could develop what was needed for the community was interesting."
Sells finished her time as chair around the same time that the final Working Women's Seminar was held.
Over the next decade-and-a-half, two other women -- the aforementioned Mary Kay Meek, as well as Anne Marie Baker -- served as chair before Debra Shantz Hart took the helm in 2016. Since then, two more women have been tapped for the board's top spot; Robin Robeson is the chair for 2020, while Logan Aguirre will be chair in 2021.
Shantz Hart's time was divided into two segments: After a one-year term in 1995, Shantz Hart returned in 2009.
"I started my own business in 2008 and one of the first calls I made was to Jim Anderson to visit with him about how I could get more involved with the Chamber," says Shantz Hart. "I believe the Chamber is a key organization in our community that promotes interests of small business and the interests of our community. I think the Chamber is vital to our community’s success and I wanted to find a way to become involved with the organization again."
The passage of time saw considerable change with regard to women's roles in the organization, says Shantz Hart.
"Because I served on the Chamber board in two different time periods, I saw a dramatic increase in the presence of women both on the board and in leadership roles," she recalls. "During my first tenure on the board, women were definitely in the minority; I think there were only 3 or 4 women on the board. When I joined the board again in 2009, the board composition had changed and nearly half of the board was women. The presence of women both on the board and in leadership was intentional, and some of our previous chairmen, particularly Jeff Schrag, worked very hard to increase the number of women on the board and in leadership rolls."
And like Sells, Shantz Hart spent several years involved with the Chamber before serving in its top position. She was as a member of the Chamber's Executive Committee for three years, and served as a volunteer leader in several strategically significant capacities.
While chair of the board, Shantz Hart led efforts tied to overall Springfield betterment. And just shy of 60 years after the start of the Women's Division, Shantz Hart worked to ensure that women -- and other groups -- were set up for continued involvement in the Chamber.
“As to gender equality, I wanted the board and leadership to reflect the mix of workers in our community,” she says. “I think we did, and continue to, do that with more women on the board and also with more young people on the board. My hopes for the Chamber would be that we continue to strive to have a board that represents our workforce in race, gender and age and with representation of large and small businesses."
"C. of C. women sponsor program for homemakers," Sunday News and Leader, March 21, 1965
"Chamber ends special award for women," Springfield News-Leader, Oct. 9, 1992
"Changes at the Chamber," Sarah Overstreet, Sunday News and Leader, Jan. 13, 1985
"Color of thoughts, not skin is real difference," Springfield Leader and Press, Nov. 10, 1965
"Community honors Mary Kay Meek," Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 25, 1992
"First woman in line to lead area chamber," Kathleen O'Dell, Springfield News-Leader, Nov. 30, 1996
"Homemakers Holiday is scheduled Monday," Springfield Daily News, March 22, 1963
"Leadership's faces varied," Springfield Leader and Press, May 15, 1973
"Leadership through the decades," Springfield Business Journal, July 28, 2010
"Lifestyle," Springfield Leader and Press, Jan. 10, 1985
"Many women to be honored by chamber here this year," Sunday News and Leader, Nov. 10, 1957
"Springfield woman makes mark on city," Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 25, 1992
"Women's Division of Chamber notes proud history...exciting future," Springfield Leader and Press, May 6, 1974