Women in Rotary celebrate 30 years

As the current president of the Southampton Rotary Club, I have been reflecting on the challenges and triumphs facing women over the years in their desire to become a part of the world-wide organization known as Rotary International. The 2018/2019 Rotary year is a celebration of “30 Years of Women in Rotary”. It has been quite a lengthy, challenging journey and we owe many thanks to individual clubs and the men and women who persevered to change Rotary and enabled women to join this great organization.

(seated L-R) June Van Bastelaar, Sylvia Sheard, Jenny Amy, Suzanne Stauffer & Maryadelle O’Gorman (standing L-R) Cathe McIntosh, Cathy Janveau, Trish Saunders & Susan McDonald

Let’s take a look at the timeline leading up to women becoming vibrant, contributing members of their Rotary clubs around the world:

  • Rotary was founded in 1905 “so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas, form meaningful, lifelong friendships, and give back to their communities”.
  • In 1912 the Belfast Club of Northern Ireland stated it was undesirable to elect women to membership or have them at the weekly luncheons.
  • In 1923 in the UK, a proposal was made for a ladies Rotary Club. The proposal was lost and “Inner Wheels Clubs” for Rotary wives were formed, but these clubs were not chartered Rotary Clubs. There were also, and I believe in some places still are, “Rotary Anns”, who work in a similar way as “Inner Wheels”, supporting Rotarians.
  • In 1950 the first attempt to get an enactment to delete the word “male” from the constitution was proposed to Rotary’s Council of Legislation. It was overwhelmingly defeated. The enactment didn’t come into effect until 1989 despite many other proposals being made between 1964 and 1980.
  • In 1977 the Duarte Club in California admitted women members. The club’s membership to Rotary International was immediately terminated. However, they were later reinstated in 1986
  • It took until 1983 for the Duarte Club to be able to file a lawsuit with the California Superior Court who then proceeded to rule in favour of Rotary, upholding gender-based qualifications for membership. This California Court of appeal refused to hear the case, so the appeal was sent to the US Supreme Court where, on May 4 1987, it ruled that Rotary Clubs may not exclude women from membership on the basis of gender. Sylvia Whitlock became Rotary’s first female president that year.
  • The Rotary International Board of Directors, 38 years after the first proposal, issued a policy statement allowing women to be members in Canada in 1988 and a year later, the council of legislation finally eliminated the requirement for membership to be limited to men. At last, women were welcomed to Rotary Clubs all around the globe!Of the 1.2 million Rotarians around the world, it was reported in April 2016 there were only 250,000 women members and it was not until 2008 that the first woman was elected to the Rotary International Board of Directors, so we do still have a way to go!

I was recently talking about being president of the Rotary Club of Southampton and was quite taken aback when someone commented they thought it was an old men’s club. Rotarians, both men and women, are trying very hard to change that perception. Of our current membership of 43, 14 of us are women. We are educators, bankers, event planners, and bookkeepers. We are business owners, hospital administrators, retail managers, and librarians. We’re social workers, and we’re experts in pension planning, communications and IT. We are not old, nor are we dull. We bring many skills, many talents, and a desire to give back to our community.

For any woman wanting to join Southampton Rotary, contact Sylvia Sheard (President) at sylvia.sheard@gmail.com

Rotary’s Vision Statement

“Together we see a world where people unite to take action to create lasting change across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves”