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Born in Buffalo, New York in 1864, visionary Marian de Forest overcame childhood hardships to become a respected journalist and playwright, and major force in the progressive women's movement.
While working in a prominent role at the Buffalo Express, during a time when women were rarely in leadership positions, Ms. de Forest conceived the idea of an organization that would bring together women in executive positions. Understanding how important it was to break through the “glass ceiling” long before the phrase was ever used, she envisioned a strong network that would help women reach their rightful place in the professions.
On 8 November 1919, Ms. de Forest gathered a group of like-minded women who held prominent roles in the professional world at the Hotel Statler in Buffalo to form the Zonta Club of Buffalo. Zonta was founded as, and continues to be, a service organization of executive women working to improve the legal, political, economic and professional status of women worldwide.
The group chose the name, Zonta, which comes from a Lakota Sioux Indian word that means "honest and trustworthy." In one of her early speeches, Ms. de Forest explained, "Zonta stands for the highest standards in the business and professional world ... seeks cooperation rather than competition and considers the Golden Rule not only good ethics but good business.” She envisioned Zonta stretching across the country and beyond. In her own words, “This is the woman’s age and in distant lands and foreign climes women of all nations are rallying to the call … Zonta is given the opportunity of uniting them into one great, glorious whole.”
Ms. de Forest became president of the Zonta Club of Buffalo, and shortly after, formed and became second president of the Confederation of Zonta Clubs, comprised of nine founding clubs – Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, Elmira, Syracuse, Erie, Utica, Ithaca and Detroit. The Confederation later became Zonta International with the incorporation of Toronto in 1927. During the first 15 years of Zonta’s existence, Ms. de Forest, as founder and leader with her remarkable vitality and power of persuasion, saw Zonta grow from nine to 124 clubs that were established in the United States, Canada and Europe.
An excerpt from a radio address by Ms. de Forest on the occasion of Zonta’s 15th Anniversary exemplifies her spirit and charisma. “Far reaching is our plan to assemble in Zonta International the women executives of the world, an army of experts who through friendship, understanding,
cooperation and goodwill, will become an irresistible force of peace.” Her contributions through Zonta International have had a lasting impact on women’s lives worldwide.
At age 70, Ms. de Forest died on 17 February 1935, following a long, cancer-related illness. In 1998, she was inducted into the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame. Her nomination was the result of extensive research by members of the Zonta Club of Buffalo. Much of this information was documented in the Zonta archives located at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Throughout her life, Marian de Forest served as a role model for working women. Her impact is still apparent today. She was, indeed, a remarkable woman, a woman among women who inspired, led and made the impossible possible.