Women’s Boards: When Women Work Together

With the announcement that Maestro Riccardo Muti would be taking over the music directorship at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, members began to think about ways they could expand the CSO’s volunteer programs.

Until that point, the Women’s Association had served the symphony, but the CSO decided to change the group’s name to the League and open it up to male members. Simultaneously, they launched the Overture Council, for men and women ages 25-45, as well as a new Women’s Board.

“We wanted to create a women’s board that would be a much smaller number, 40 to 50 women, and we’d be looking for the next generation of leaders,” Women’s Board President Karen Goodyear of Chicago explains. Currently the board comprises 40s women ranging from their late 30s to 60s, though the bulk of members are in their 40s and 50s.

The Women’s Board’s first event was the 2010 Symphony Ball, formerly known as the Opening Night Gala, and they are in the midst of creating a new fundraiser that will launch in winter 2011 and target a younger crowd. This goal of reaching a younger audience is primary to many organizations’ women’s boards.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Goodyear says. “Women get their friends to come, and so on. We want to see new faces, people who have never been to an opening night, but like the idea of stepping up and putting a table together. We’re challenging our new members, not just throwing a party.”

Lyric Opera Women’s Board member Alison W. McNally of Winnetka agrees: “I love figuring out ways to get my peers involved, so they can share the joys and appreciate the beauty in coming to the opera.”

Women’s boards have a rich history in Chicago, dating back to the World’s Columbian Exposition that the city hosted in 1893. There, the Board of Lady Managers, presided over by Bertha Palmer, oversaw the exhibition of women’s achievements, which they collected from 47 countries.

The notion that women’s boards are in some way second-class is itself outdated, according to many of today’s members. They stress that the activities of women’s boards go far beyond planning social events.

Since its inception in 1951, the Women’s Board of The Chicago Horticultural Society has raised nearly $9 million for the Chicago Botanic Garden. In addition to sponsoring several fundraising events, including the upcoming Wonderland Express holiday party on December 2, the Women’s Board helps with plant sales and festivals. Members aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, literally.

“We’re out there unloading trucks in our jeans and our raincoats, not our white hats and gloves,” says Board President Mary Hill of Winnetka.

“It’s a wonderful tradition in Chicago,” Goodyear says. “We gather together strong, civic-minded women who want to give to their city. It’s all for the good.”