First Woman Commodore
By Frank & Lisa Mighetto
If they could see us today, yacht club members from a century ago might be surprised by the relatively recent involvement of women. The venerable New York Yacht Club led the way, at first denying membership even to Mrs. Lucy Carnegie when she applied in 1894, and then rethinking “the propriety of admitting women” and adjusting its bylaws after much debate [NY Times, Feb. 2, 1894]. In its early years, the OYC similarly did not extend membership to women, at least not on a regular basis. For the most part, women were involved through the Anchorettes, formed in 1946 as an auxiliary to the OYC. That changed in the 1990s, when our club not only officially admitted women as members but also began electing them as commodores.
Penny Cory (then Ritter) was one of the catalysts for this change. One evening during the early 1990s she attended an OYC dinner meeting without her husband (who frequently worked out of town), and was mistakenly presented a ballot for voting. As she reached for it, the ballot was quickly withdrawn and she was told she could not vote. “I was so furious,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I said if I’m not good enough to vote, I’m not good enough to serve,” and she withdrew her offer to organize the Special People’s Cruise. She subsequently wrote a letter to the Board, explaining that “this is not a woman’s issue, it is an issue about membership” and suggesting “one vote per membership.”The bylaws were soon changed and Penny was asked to become Fleet Captain Power. She moved through the chairs, becoming the OYC’s first woman commodore in 1996. “The bylaws committee looked at the whole picture,” Penny recalled in a recent interview. “When you deny half of your [potential] membership involvement, you
Penny with the Grand 14 in 1996
deny yourself the skills and abilities of those people.” Looking back, Penny reflects that “this issue could have been contentious,” but OYC members, even those reluctant to change, were “wonderful” and “courteous” as well as adaptable.
PC Robert Job, who served on the nominating committee that selected Penny, remembered that she was up to the task. “It was the right time to introduce the notion for a female commodore,” he recalled. “There were a few disgruntled old timers and she would have to be able to go one-on-one with the good ole boys. Penny was the gal.” Bob also remembers presenting Penny with “a canof Copenhagen so she could go to the Snoose Shed…that used to be by the transfer float, where the old timers would meet, chew Snoose and make the big decisions.”
As the only woman commodore in the Grand 14, Penny always received a big round of applause when introduced. “It was great,” she explained, “because shy I’m not.” And her husband “had a ball” serving as the only male First Mate, surrounded by 13 women. The Seattle Yacht Club’s Historical Committee recently reported that to this day, the SYC has yet to elect a woman commodore. Penny partly attributes her success as the OYC’s first woman commodore to proceeding cautiously and diplomatically, without forcing major changes or sending negative messages. “I got so much support,” she recalled. When her watch ended, one of the old timers that initially opposed the idea of women commodores approached her with these words: “Didn’t think it was a good idea, but you done good.”
Penny left the OYC in the late 1990s after her divorce. Last June, however, she was invited to attend the change of watch, to help commemorate Carol Robinson’s advancement to commodore. Remembering her years at the OYC “as the best time I ever had,” Penny applied to be readmitted – and she was welcomed back as a member in July 2010.