JOIN TOASTMASTERS AND PRESENT WITH CONFIDENCE: That was the headline in the Navy’s Center Newsletter – The headlined that attracted Helen Blanchard to Toastmasters. She would later reveal those words literally leaped off the page at her as she had just taken on a new assignment – a position typically reserved for men.
And so began Helen Blanchard’s Toastmasters Journey – which would lead her to become the first woman president of Toastmasters International. The year was 1970. Helen’s new assignment with the – United States Navy Research and Development Center in San Diego California – was to travel to offshore test sites to train the engineers to use a uniform method of analyzing and reporting the technical data they collected. That headline – “Join Toastmasters and present with confidence” Helen knew was just what she needed; however, when she read the fine print, observed one minor detail – The article and invitation entitled “Men on the Move” was limited to men only – Yes! men only!.
The contact person for the program was a name Helen was familiar with – Bob Bolam. She called up Bob to ask for more information. He politely explained that Toastmasters was an all-male organization – Women did not join Toastmasters, they joined Toastmistresses – The same type of organization but one exclusively for women. Bob even suggested the possibility of Helen starting a Toastmistresses Club at the Center. Although Helen, was well aware that she was walking in a highly technical man’s world without the background of an engineering degree and that presentation training would be a boost to her confidence, decided to move on when she was unable to find Toastmistresses who shared her passion for presenting with confidence and to also “be on the move”.
Three weeks later, Helen got a call from Bob to informed her that the members of Center Toastmasters had unanimously voted to admit her to their club. Bob reminded the members, that the club met on Federal land, on Federal time and that Helen was a Federal employee. As such, her membership could not be denied. At first, Helen was a bit reluctant to attend their meeting, however, Bob assured her that their decision was unanimous and that she would be welcomed to the club with open arms. Ten of the fifteen members of the club were present at her first meeting. Once Helen saw the program in action, she wanted to join and formally applied from membership on June 2, 1970, under the non-gender-specific name of H Blanchard.
Helen’s first speech, her “Ice Breaker” was scheduled right away. She had two weeks of preparation as the club met bimonthly. Her evaluator’s comment by her own admission was that she had great potential but used so many “ahs” and “uhms” he decided to stop counting mid-speech. Several weeks later, her application was returned to the club’s VPM – Vice President Membership – for a first name. The challenge was now to find a male name starting with the letter H. She was racking her brains – Herman … Harry … Harold – or perhaps even Henry? Who Knew!!
One member of the club suggested the club find her a name. That became the Table Topic of the day. Since Helen had already done her Ice Breaker, the members used some of the information she revealed about herself to choose her male name. The winner was Joe Dobbs. He wove a beautiful story around her maiden name – Pallas suggesting there would be no better name for Helen – referring to her as “Helen of Troy and the Trojan horse” – than Homer! She agreed and that name remained with Helen until November 1971 when Toastmasters International informed the club they could accept female members.
In August 1973, the policy officially changed to permit any club to amend their bylaws to allow women in its membership. Fifteen years later, Helen Blanchard would become the first female President of Toastmasters International. Wow – What a Toastmaster’s life! Helen Blanchard died at age 86 on May 31, 2013. I met Helen when I was the District 4 Governor in 2009 -2010 and will always remember these words of encouragement I received from her: Enjoy life’s Journey – Yours and Mine!