Joan Carter made news in 1986 as one of the first five women ever to belong to The Union League. A quarter century later, Carter made headlines once again when she became the first female president of the 148-year-old private club. “I certainly had no aspiration to be president of The Union League [when I first joined],” says Carter. “I was thrilled to just be a member. But when there was an opportunity for me to run for president of The Union League, I thought to myself that since I could run, I should run.”
It’s that kind of why-not determination that brought the successful South Jersey businesswoman to the helm of the once male-dominated Union League, which was founded as a patriotic society to support the Union in 1862, the first of many Union Leagues established during the Civil War. Since then the organization has served as a gathering place for boldface names in the worlds of business, politics and philanthropy throughout its history.
No one could deny Carter’s business acumen—she and her husband own a corporate- wellness firm and are major shareholders of Cybex International; she has also served as chair of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and as a board member of Penn Mutual Life. When The Union League was looking for a new president, she was a natural contender. “That the club has now elected a woman president is a statement both about women and the League,” says Carter. “It is a testament to how far women have come, as well as how The Union League has adapted to changing times to continue being relevant to our community and our nation.”
Staying relevant is one of Carter’s greatest challenges. Members are demanding more for their support, despite the fact that The Union League in Philadelphia is one of only three such clubs left in the country—there were once 226. Family-friendly events have been added to the social calendar in addition to standbys such as activities for sailing enthusiasts and wine lovers, and junior members are bringing a new energy to the historic halls. As Carter notes, a successful club today must be more than just “a place where men would get together and do business.”
The Union League’s much-lauded Heritage Center, which opened this June, is yet another way the club is broadening its appeal. The 8,500-square-foot space houses the nation’s largest collection of Civil War-related documents, statues and artifacts outside of the National Archives and has quickly become an attraction for scholars and history buffs.
“We wanted to share and preserve this incredible history not only with our members but for future generations,” says Carter.