The Society of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, one of America’s oldest Irish societies, has inducted its first female honorary member, Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Anne Anderson.

The society was founded in Philadelphia in 1771 to help newly arrived Irish immigrants in the U.S. While the society has been open to Catholics and Protestants alike throughout the years, women have alway been excluded.

Anderson, who has spoken out about the tradition of men-only Irish societies in the U.S., was inducted, along with 20 women admitted to full membership, at a St Patrick’s Day dinner on Saturday at the organization’s founding chapter in Philadelphia.

“This is a very special night, whose resonance extends well beyond this room and well beyond Philadelphia.  It is one of these rare occasions when we feel the ground shift, and witness the arc of history bend a little,” said Anderson, who was the guest speaker at the society’s 245th Annual St Patrick’s Day Gala.

“Tonight, after 245 years as an all-male organization, you have opened your doors to women members.

“I feel immensely privileged to become the first woman honorary member of your Society, joining twenty distinguished women who are admitted to full membership. 

“It is a source of particular pride that I am only the second adopted member of your Society.  I am informed that I follow in the footsteps of George Washington who in 1781 became the first – and to date the only - adopted member of the Society.  There can hardly be a more exclusive club: a membership of two, with the other member being George Washington.”

Anderson also acknowledged the Friendly Sons of St Patrick’s president, Joseph Heenan, who led the campaign for the inclusion of women into the society, since taking over the role in June 2015.

“I express my deep appreciation to your President, Joseph Heenan, for his enlightened leadership and to your membership who last September, by an overwhelming majority, took the landmark decision to admit women members,” said Anderson.

Heenan, who told IrishCentral in December that the admission of female members was “long, long overdue,” said that more than 90 percent of the branch’s 650 male members agreed with the inclusion of female members.

“The decision came from a sense of fairness. I think it was a sense of imbalance and and that it needed to be on fair footings for all of us,” he said.

“Whether we’re male or female, you have your Irish heritage and you should be participating in it.

Speaking of the 1916 Centenary, Anderson said: “There could not be a more fitting year for your Society to take this step forward.  2016, as we all know, is a momentous year, centenary of what is perhaps the most iconic year in Irish history.  

“This is a year to reclaim the spirit and intent of the 1916 Proclamation.  And that spirit and intent, remarkably for its time, was deliberately inclusive.  

“The Proclamation addresses both Irishmen and Irishwomen. Its second paragraph calls on ‘our exiled children in America.’  We might linger a moment on that language: not “our exiled sons” as would have been in no way unusual at the time, but ‘our exiled children,’ to include both daughters and sons.

“The Proclamation’s most sacred promise is the new Republic’s guarantee of ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens.’”  

She also addressed the historic inclusion of LGBT groups at this year’s New York St Patrick’s parade.

“It is heartening, and moving, that Irish America should be marking this centenary year with new steps toward inclusivity.

"Five days hence, we will cheer a very different St Patrick’s Day parade as it proudly marches down Fifth Avenue – a parade that for the first time includes Irish LGBT groups.  Tonight the Friendly Sons have broken down barriers of 245 years; on 17 March in New York, we will see another barrier of very long standing dismantled,” she said.

“In both instances, Irish America is making a statement:  there are no second class citizens; no children of a lesser God.”

Anderson ended her speech with a message of inclusivity.

“Two hundred and forty five years ago, in choosing to become a non-sectarian organization, the Friendly Sons grasped something essential: that inclusivity enriches us all.  It is not just a gift bestowed or a right recognized.  It is something which carries its own reward: binding us together, making our communities stronger and more resilient.  

“And so let us celebrate the more inclusive Irish America that is emerging in Philadelphia tonight and in New York next week – an invigorated Irish America, more ready to take on new challenges, better equipped to embrace the future.

“As I conclude, let me emphasize again how meaningful this night is.  In this hallowed city, in this centenary year, your Society has shown true leadership, decisively embracing renewal and modernity.  As so often before, history is being written in Philadelphia.  It is a privilege and a joy to be part of it.”