Discover > Magazine > March 2012 > Girl power
Key Club celebrates 35 years of female leaders
story by Shanna Mooney
Key Club got its start in 1925 as a boys-only organization. Fifty-two years later, girls were allowed to join. By 1991, Key Club had its first female international president.
Key Club has come a long way in its 81 years, and it’s helped countless people worldwide since. But you can look up the history later. This is a celebration, people!
Can you even imagine your club without girls? Renee Wetstein can. Renee (picture shown at right) joined the Key Club of Ramapo High School in Spring Valley, New York, in 1977, the first year girls were allowed to become members. She was in eighth grade.
"I wanted to join because I wanted to do community service and because it was a very big, popular club," she says.
On the club level, Renee says, there were just as many girls as boys, and a big deal wasn't made of the transition. She was even elected lieutenant governor without any fanfare.
"I felt I had really good ideas to bring more inter-club activities," Renee says. "I wanted to start more clubs."
Girls join Key Club.
"Star Wars" opens in theaters.
Shakira, Kanye West and Jason Mraz are born.
Former Key Clubber Elvis Presley performs his last concert.
So she did. And she still had higher ambitions—but no female had yet been elected to international office. Until 1980, when she and Lisa Cross were elected Key Club International trustees.
Renee’s time as trustee to the New England and New York districts was the only time she really felt like she was treated differently.
"Lisa and I were the only girls elected to the trustee board," she says. "And during meetings in Chicago, the boys would go play basketball. We weren’t invited. Lisa and I were given money to go out to a nice restaurant in the hotel."
Lisa (right), then a Key Clubber at Elmer L. Meyers High School in Pennsylvania, didn't notice any gender inequality at the club or district level. She was encouraged to serve as bulletin editor on the Pennsylvania District board. Many other district officers on her board were girls, and she saw no reason to not run for district governor.
She lost the election, but she knew she still wanted to support Key Club. When she ran for an international board position at that year's international convention, Lisa finally noticed an invisible barrier between boys and girls.
"A few of my male peers said, 'You will never be elected because you are a girl.' I thought those comments were absurd," she says. "If I have the qualifications, dedication and passion, why can’t I get elected? The door is open. It was opened in 1977, and every time a girl was elected to a higher office, the doorway got wider. Why not try and take it to the next level?"
Girls take the top spot
Almost a decade after Renee and Lisa made history as the first female trustees, Michelle McMillen (below) went one step further.
"I overcame what many thought impossible—short, blonde, female, from rural St. Clair, Missouri—to become the first female Key Club International president. This was a major accomplishment for me personally and for all girls," she says. "July 4, 1991, was a day of celebration–we could say everyone celebrated the election of the first female Key Club International president."
And it started a precedent. Morgan Sack of Kansas was elected international president only six years later, and Lauren Kapsky (below, right) of New Jersey was elected the third female Key Club International president in 2000. The fact that so few girls have led the organization in more than three decades is shocking to Lauren.
"I always thought it fascinating that an organization with a 3:1 female-to-male membership ratio didn't have more young women at the top," she says. "It's difficult to say where this comes from. The U.S. has never had a female president or vice president, only 12 women serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and women make up only 16 percent of the House of Representatives.
“I am neither a social nor a political scientist, but I do think that women need to be more supportive of each other. I also think that women need to opt in. You will never lead if you don't run."
Overall, both Renee and Michelle say the Key Club experience was life-changing.
"It gave me confidence to speak in front of large crowds and really go for something I want—even if it was something no girl ever did before," Renee says.
Michelle just appreciates the whole Key Club adventure. "As in life, it was the journey, not the destination, that taught me the most," she says. "I have great appreciation for my Key Club days and especially the character and service it built as a way of life for me.”
That was then, this is now
THEN AND NOW
Renee's club (1977)
Ramapo High School, N.Y.
Size: 100+ members
Daniel's club (2012)
Northampton High School, Mass.
Size: 31 members
Even as an adult, Renee still actively lives a Key Club lifestyle. She now serves as club advisor to Northampton High School’s Key Club in Massachusetts, where her son Daniel is the club's president as well as lieutenant governor for the New England District.
Key Club is a part of Michelle's busy adult life as well. Now a wife, mother of three, triathlete and business owner, she consciously lives the values she learned in Key Club. She's also passed those values down to her children by including Key Club ideals in her home life.
"Our family mission is to create peace in our home and make the world a better place,” Michelle says. “I believe this is the leadership Key Club stands for."
For Lisa, the chance to meet talented and creative students her age—both boys and girls—taught her to raise the bar high and see what she could do, both personally and professionally. She's grateful for the opportunities she had in Key Club and the people who made those opportunities possible.
"Everyone should take a moment to celebrate milestones of equality," she says. "Someone had to step up and fight to make them happen." KC