In an era when women could be found attending lunch meetings in gloves, hats and pearls — but had a harder time finding their way into boardrooms and management positions — the Zonta Club of Kankakee was formed, seeking to empower women by improving their economic, educational, health and professional status.

Of course, the challenges of women in the workplace in the 1950s didn’t stop many of the early members.

“I felt like Rosie the Riveter, because we became a part of that era, of women trying to work in business,” said Trudie Dickinson, who has been a Zonta member for almost 60 years and was a past president.

Dickinson, along with business partner Jean Thomas, both of Kankakee, and a few others, started Pentex, Inc., which produced specialized biochemicals, at a time when women weren’t chemists, let alone business owners, Dickinson said. It grew into an international business.

And the other women of Zonta became a source of information when they were getting the business on its feet, said Thomas, also a long-time member and past president. Information like who to talk to about influencing legislation and how to get connected with other businesses.

It’s been 60 years of helping women, and Zonta is celebrating that milestone with a community dinner on Saturday at the Kankakee Country Club. Club activities and achievements of the past six decades will be celebrated, and past presidents will be honored.

“Women didn’t know that much about other women in jobs — there weren’t opportunities like there are now,” Dickinson said. “You weren’t taught these things in college. [Zonta] exposed women to a different level of professional society to see that there are more opportunities than traditional roles.”

The early days

The club was chartered on May 3, 1956, by 41 charter members at a dinner at the Hotel Kankakee. With that, the Zonta Club of Kankakee became a member of Zonta International, a global community of professional women that focused on serving at the local level. There are more than 30,000 Zontians throughout 67 countries and geographic areas.

Early members’ professions included a horticulturalist, the owner of a Charm Beauty School, the office supervisor at Illinois Bell Telephone Co., the executive secretary of Catholic Charities and the owner and president of Riggin Metal Products.

Projects included volunteering in area nursing homes and hospitals, raising money for the American Red Cross, Easter Seals and March of Dimes, and assisting disabled children with purchases, like a pair of corrective shoes.

The Zonta Club also reached outside the community, organizing intercity meetings with Ottawa, Danville and Pontiac.

Early meetings were held during the lunch hour at several different locations, such as the Redwood Inn in Kankakee. Special events were held in the Gold Room of the Hotel Kankakee.

Membership was very exclusive. To be invited, a woman had to be in a decision-making role at least 50 percent of her work time. Zonta International only recognized some professions in their classification system. For example, for many years teachers, were not seen as decision-makers. And to further the goal of diversity, only so many members from the same profession were allowed in.

Over the years, fundraising for the club’s many projects took different forms, from selling fruitcakes to stationery, to Christmas stationery and wrapping paper.

One of the biggest fundraisers every year was the Executive Roundup. With the boss’s permission, Zonta members would surprise “roundup” an employee, telling them they were attending the luncheon that day. Employers often would make a contribution to Zonta.

And the members got into the spirit of it. “You were supposed to wear your cowboy hats and boots, white lacy cowboy hats that were as hard as bricks,” Dickinson remembers.

Making a difference

Over the years, while the specific causes Zonta supported have evolved as needs changed, the nature and motivation of the club has stayed the same, said Gwen Hopkins, member and past president.

Zonta has provided numerous scholarships over the years, as well as programs on substance abuse prevention, women in politics, the impact of international business on Illinois, self-defense for women and working at home.

The longest standing service project was Wayfarers, which began in 1962 and helped integrate people discharged from Kankakee State Hospital into the community.

In the ’90s, Zonta opened a clothing closet of professional clothes for women going on job interviews. At the Dr. King Education Center in Kankakee, members taught women and children to read and, later, how to use computers and English as a second language.

Still serving today

Dickinson remembers about 80 members at the club’s height, but even though there are fewer today, the organization still has a great impact on the community.

During April each year, the Zonta Club sponsors KC-CASA’s Take Back the Night event to bring awareness to sexual assault. They also hold the empowerment walk and purple ribbon campaign during April.

The Executive Roundup turned into the Executive Luncheon, still held today, during which Zonta honors outstanding women of the community with two awards: The Woman of Achievement and the Young Woman in Public Affairs.

The Woman of Achievement Award has been given since 1988 to 28 women of Kankakee County for dedicated service in their communities. The Young Woman in Public Affairs award is given to a local high school student, along with a scholarship of $500.

This year’s recipients were Sandra Knight, executive director of the YWCA in Kankakee, and Kassidy Jungles, a senior at Manteno High School.

“By recognizing women in our community, we seek to empower them and encourage all women and girls to strive to reach their full potential,” said Rhonda Thomas, current president.

And it’s still providing a social and professional network for women, a place they can get together, and work together, to make the county a better place. “It affords me the opportunity to interact with people I never would’ve come in contact with,” said Hopkins.

Said Dickinson: “We’ve come a long way in the last 60 years.”