One of America’s oldest Irish societies is to induct its first female member in March 2016, 245 years after it was first established.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1771, the Society of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick was started to provide relief to Irish immigrants who had just arrived in the US.
In 2016, its founding chapter in Philadelphia will induct its first honorary female member, Irish Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson, at a St Patrick’s Day dinner.
The admission of female members after almost two and a half centuries is a result of a campaign by the society’s president, Joseph Heenan, who pressed for the inclusion of women since taking over the role in June 2015.
He describes the move as “long, long overdue,” revealing 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,” Heenan told IrishCentral.
“Whether we’re male or female, you have your Irish heritage and you should be participating in it.
“I strongly see the value in having the accomplishments of many, many females that will only enhance our organization. I want the Philadelphia branch to be around for another 245 years and I think we have good footings with the addition of female members.
“I hope we set an example [to other branches] and I hope they look at the progress over time and follow suit. It took us 245 years and hopefully it won’t take others as long.”
The honoree, Ambassador Anderson, has also previously spoken out about the tradition of men-only Irish societies in the US, pledging to alter the tradition when she began her tenure in August 2013.
The first female envoy to the US from Ireland, Anderson said, “I am delighted by this decision, especially as we approach the centenary celebration in 2016.”
“It is a great moment to embrace and celebrate a more open and inclusive Ireland and Irish America.”
Speaking about the choice to appoint Ambassador Anderson in particular as the first female member, Heenan exclaimed, “She rocks!”
“I think Her Excellency found me by her voice and her example and in recognizing and explaining to other groups whose events she attends that some of those imbalances take place,” he continued.
“I’ve only admiration for her accomplishments and her conviction.”
It is not yet known whether other branches of the society will follow suit and admit female members. Although Philadelphia was the founding branch, branches are not officially affiliated in any structured form, do not follow the guidelines of any one central branch and as such, each chapter is free to establish its own code and regulations.
The society has been open to Catholics and Protestants alike throughout the years but women have always been excluded, barred from even attending events and dinners hosted by the society, although this too has changed in recent years.
Depending on the branch, a leniency around those attending events has been introduced allowing women to attend or accompany members, although women are still not allowed to become members themselves. In the case of the Philadelphia branch, it has been over 20 years since women have been allowed to attend the annual gala.
Several Friendly Sons and Daughters chapters have also been established to accommodate women wishing to become members.
As of yet, Heenan states that the move has not been met with any criticism from other groups.
“I’ve not not heard anything directly,” he said. “Odds are, statistically, there are plenty, but that’s evolving.”
Some members of the society have previously stated that the ban on women was less about exclusion and more about camaraderie for the male members.
Established in the 1770s to provide aid for Irish immigrants to the US, the aim of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick remains to help the progress of the Irish in America.
The society outlines its mission, as of January 2015, as: "To aid and assist needy persons emigrating from Ireland to the United States, to improve the education and level of scholarship of those of Irish birth and lineage in the United States and in Ireland by scholarships and grants; to make contributions to other worthy charitable and religious organizations and causes; appropriately to record and memorialize the exploits of the Irish in the United States, in Ireland and elsewhere; to strengthen the bonds of friendship between the people of Ireland and the United States."
Despite the change in membership requirements, there are no immediate plans to change the society’s name to reflect the greater diversity in its ranks.
“Let’s not get hung up on the name. It is our brand,” Heenan told the Irish Times, although he did not completely rule out a name change some time in the future.
“I know some may look at that and say, ‘isn’t that a little bit of a contradiction.’ I would say that time will take care of that,” he continued, arguing that the Boys Scouts of America have not changed their name despite having members who are men, not specifically boys like their title would suggest.
Ambassador Anderson will become an honorary member at the society’s 245th Annual St Patrick’s Day Gala, set to take place on March 12, 2016 at the Aronimink Golf Club. Her Excellency will also be the guest speaker on the evening.
Do you believe it is high time to end the tradition of men-only Irish societies in the US or is this a tradition that is best left untouched? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, below.