Dr. Alfred Durham, a member of Kiwanis, founded the Altrusa Institute in Nashville in 1917. Record numbers of women were going to work during World War I. Dr. Durham saw the need for women’s civic organizations. While he would organize the clubs and collect a portion of the dues, Dr. Durham envisioned the Altrusa Institute as a chain of national clubs where business and professional women could meet and exchange ideas.
Dr. Durham’s idea caught on. He organized clubs in Nashville, Louisville, and Dayton before he moved on to Indianapolis where he met Mamie L. Bass.
Mamie L. Bass had served as the Superintendent of the Women’s Division US Employment Services as well as being a partner in her brother’s architecture firm and assisting her brother in organizing a Rotary chapter in Indianapolis. While she admired Dr. Durham’s Institute, Bass felt that Altrusa could serve a higher purpose. In June 1918, when Altrusa held its first convention in Indianapolis, Mamie L. Bass’s vision became reality. The Altrusa Institute became a classified service organization for women.
Now a classified service organization, the Altrusa Institute renamed itself the National Association of Altrusa Clubs and adopted By-Laws that laid the groundwork for today’s Altrusans. Soon after, Mamie L. Bass created the Principles of Altrusa which defined Altrusa as “a builder of women” and an organization based on merit and accomplishment. The Principles were officially adopted in 1921 along with a major club building effort. By 1922, Altrusa had 20 clubs.
Since the organization required its members to be working professionals, Altrusa decided to make vocational education for women a national policy. Vocational Guidance expanded over the years to include not only scholarships and guidance for young women but older women as well.
Altrusa became international in 1935 when Altrusa organized its first club in Mexico. From that first step over US borders in 1935, Altrusa moved into Puerto Rico, Chile, Equador, Mexico, India, Korea, Russia, Ukraine, Ireland, Great Britain, Bermuda, Canada, and New Zealand. In 1946, Altrusa sent its first representative to the United Nations.
In the sixties, Altrusans began to look to America’s youth as the future of Altrusa. In 1966, ASTRA was established. ASTRA service clubs target young people ages 13 to 21 and encourage them in their education, professions and service to society. Expanding on its commitment to youth, Altrusa adopted literacy as on going service in 1977, and in 1997, Altrusa Foundation adopted Camp Safe Haven for children with HIV/AIDS.
The eighties and nineties brought many exciting changes to Altrusa. With the end of Communism, the former Soviet Union saw its first Altrusa clubs. With its increasingly global outlook, Altrusa expanded its projects beyond literacy and education. In 1989, Altrusa adopted a resolution to promote environmental concerns.
The Year 2000 and Beyond
Despite issues of international concern, Altrusa is, first and foremost, a community based, grassroots organization that seeks to solve the problems in our own back yards. Busy Altrusans raise money for local charities, volunteer at battered women’s shelters, help runaway teens, build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and so much more. Inspired by Thoreau, Mamie L. Bass put it best, “it is not enough to be good; Altrusans must be good for something.”