Can you imagine the consternation when Rotary Clubs across North America learned that women were to be admitted to the carefully maintained men-only domain?  If that changed Rotary, Rotary would never the same and indeed, it has never been the same.

Interestingly, the first constitution of the Chicago Club #1, adopted in January, 1906, makes no reference to gender, referring only to "persons".  This should have made it possible for women to be Rotarians.  Few know that in 1911 an all-women Rotary Club already existed in Minneapolis and from 1911 and 1917 an all women Rotary Club existed in Duluth, Minnesota, alongside the men's club.

In 1912, the board of directors of the Belfast, Northern Ireland club discussed the advisability of electing women to membership or allowing them to attend weekly luncheons.  The club records of that period indicate the board considered it undesirable to elect women to membership or to have them at the weekly luncheons.  In that year, also, Ida Buell of the Duluth women's club spoke to the 1912 Duluth Convention seeking support for women's clubs.  The Convention discussed the admission of women and rejected the idea.  While the Rotary International Boards of 1914-1915 and 1915-1916 disapproved of Women's Auxiliaries, the Board of 1916-1917 had no objection to their being formed.  However, in 1918 the Board refused recognition of women in Rotary.

But change would come, although it took time.  On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, the Duarte club admitted two women to membership on June 1, 1977 and they were followed shortly afterwards by another woman.  The reaction of the Board of Rotary International was predictable.  On March 27, 1978 Duarte's charter was terminated.  The Club re-named itself the "Ex Rotary of Duarte" and in June, 1978 filed a suit in the California Superior Court against the RI Board decision.  This was not heard by the court until 1983 when Judge Max Deutz ruled against Duarte.  In 1986 the club appealed that decision to the California Court of Appeal and the Deutz judgment was reversed.  The Rotary International Board appealed that decision to the California Supreme Court which refused to hear the case and the RI Board then appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1986.  It went on and on but women were determined.

On September 4, 1986 Seattle I D admitted 15 women members and on the 17th of September, General Secretary Philip H. Lindsay wrote a strong letter to the club informing it that it could not admit women and continuing to do so would result in its charter being withdrawn.  In January, 1987 Seattle I D then filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in support of the Duarte Club, and in that year the Oakland Club # 3 wrote to the General Secretary of RI questioning the termination of Duarte's charter.

In 1984, D-5030 District Governor Carl E. Swenson had perceived the need for a new Rotary Club in Seattle and appointed Lloyd Hara as his District Governor's representative to form the Rotary Club of Seattle International Districts.  When the provisional club prepared and filed its Charter Application, it deleted references to "male" or "men" and the application was rejected by RI.  The application was re-submitted including those terms and a charter was issued on September 18, 1984 and Seattle I D took a resolution for the admission of women in 1986.  This was soundly defeated.  On September 4, 1986 Seattle I D admitted fifteen women members and on September 17 General Secretary Philip H. Lindsey wrote a strong letter to the club informing it that it could not admit women and continuing to do so would result in its charter being withdrawn.  In January, 1987 Seattle I D then filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in support of the Duarte Club, and in that year the Oakland Club # 3 wrote to the General Secretary of RI questioning the termination of Duarte's charter.

Again an appeal by the Board of RI against the California Court of Appeal decision and on May 4 the Appeal court handed down a 7-0 unanimous decision affirming the California Court of Appeal decision, ruling that Duarte could not discriminate against members because of gender.  Duarte had the final say in the matter when on June 23, 1987 Dr. Syliva Whitlock was inducted by DGE Dr. Kim K. Siu as the first woman Club president in the history of Rotary.  In January, 1989 the Council on Legislation voted to change the Constitution and By-laws to permit the admission of women into Rotary and on July 1, 1995 Mimi Altman of the Deerfield, Illinois Club became the first woman District Governor of D-6440, followed by Gilda Chirafisi (D-7230), Janet Holland (D-5790), Riba I. Lovrein (D-5220), Virginia B. Nordy (D-6380), Donna J. Rapp (D-6310), Ann Robertson (D-6710) and Olive P. Scott (D-7190).  There were eight DG in the 1995-1996 years and twelve during 1996-1997.

It should be well noted that Rotary women have been an integral and strong part of Rotary ever since the battle for equality was won.  Cobourg, one of the most successful clubs, had our first woman president, Gael Moore during 2004-2005 and was a great job she did.  We Rotary women are all very proud to be contributing Rotarians.

Shirley Johnson August 27, 2010