The Women Of Rotary

From Rotary’s inception women have always played an important role in the club’s activities; however not always as official members. Indeed, it was not until 1987 that women were officially invited to join Rotary as members, although some clubs began to “stir the pot” earlier than 1987. Some clubs allowed women prior to 1987 as members, but when they did their charters were often revoked.

In 1910, the real debate began regarding the role of women in Rotary. At the 1910 Rotary National Convention, Chairman Ches Perry, asked the president of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles about the rumor that his club (Los Angeles) had sanctioned a Ladies Auxiliary. It turned out only to be a rumor and the president of the California club made the statement that “there is no Ladies’ Auxiliary club in connection with the Los Angeles club, never has been, and probably never will be.” A Kansas City Rotarian added,” I think it is a hard enough job to handle two or three hundred men without having anything to do with the ladies.” Nationwide newspapers picked up on the statements and the official controversy of women membership in Rotary had begun. It would last for 77 years!

The story of women in Rotary actually began at the very beginning as there were occasional social events in Chicago where wives were invited. Despite continued opposition on the part of the National Association of Rotary Clubs to women’s involvement, women still (early on) managed to form clubs based on the Rotary idea, although officially not part of the Rotary structure.

In 1912, Ida Buell of Duluth, Minnesota was granted permission to speak to the 1912 Rotary Convention – an early first step to including women in the Rotary process. Ms. Buell asked the convention to allow her newly formed women’s organization to be started using the Rotary model and that it be duplicated in other cities. The suggestion was quickly dismissed by the all-male club convention. Even as Rotary's Board of Directors issued a statement that women were free to form organizations, they also made it clear that they could not use the “Rotary” name.

Early on in the Rotary Club of Birmingham the only conversation concerning women involved arranging “Ladies’ Nights” where wives of members would have a social outing. The first Ladies’ Nights were held at the home of Thomas H. Molton. Women were destined to play a much more important role in Rotary in the years to come but not without a continuing and visible struggle.


Women In Rotary

The Defiant Ones

The Rotary International Association Board had made  it  clear  early  on  that women could establish clubs resembling the Rotary model, but could not make use of the “Rotary” name. In reality, many in the Rotary hierarchy did not ever like the idea of having women’s clubs patterned after Rotary. In 1921, a contingent of four wives of Chicago Rotarians approached the  RI  board requesting permission to form the Chicago Ladies of Rotary, a Rotary auxiliary. The majority of the board voted no, saying  that  the  board  “appreciates  the  very worthy purpose underlying the organization,” but refuses  to  allow  the name “Rotary” to be used in connection with the group or any other group. Nonetheless, the ladies formed the organization anyway and in the same city where Rotary was originally formed. In May of 1921 the Women of the Rotary Club of Chicago was established as an Illinois nonprofit corporation and the club quickly grew to 250 female members.

In Britain and elsewhere in Europe the defiance of the Chicago ladies was not as in the face of the Rotary hierarchy and when clubs were formed they    went with a noncompeting name – the “Inner Wheel” club. In 1923 wives of members in Manchester, England were invited to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Manchester where they heard an important address given by the vice-president of Rotary's International Association for Great Britain and Ireland  where  he  spoke in favor of women Rotary organizations. In January of 1924 the first meeting of the Inner Wheel Club of Manchester was held – the name “Inner Wheel” being derived from the inner circle of the Rotary wheel emblem. The organization initiated a drive to raise funds for knitted  garments  for  the children’s ward at a close-by hospital. This first project evolved into the “Baby Bundles” program, where the clubs sent garments to young children all over the world.

Although the Inner Wheel idea never took hold in the United States to the extent it did in other countries, it expanded all over the world adding multiple projects to its agenda and is now recognized as one of the largest women’s organizations in the world.


Women Of Rotary

A Change Of Attitudes

In 1934 a Chicago study concluded that the “admission of women to the Rotary Club  would  appear  to  be  unthinkable.”  The  reasons  Rotary  remained  a male bastion for over 80 years were many: habit that led to tradition, the perceived rights of members to choose their own fellow members, and the feeling on the part of many members  that  they  were  not  comfortable  being  forced  to accept women by  decree.  These  reasons  were  joined  by  some  preposterous arguments. One member remarked that “we won’t be able to tell jokes around the table (at least some kinds of jokes). Another remarked that “my wife would never let me attend Rotary if women were also attending.” Despite these arguments and others there were more and more attempts to introduce women to the active membership of Rotary.

In 1978 in direct contravention to the Rotary constitution, the Duarte, California Rotary Club admitted three women to their membership and an uproar was heard around the country. And because the ladies were invited to join the club, Rotary International revoked the club’s charter. This prompted an ugly lawsuit brought by the California club and the three new members. The lawsuit was based on a law incorporated in the civil rights acts of California and thirty- nine other  states  that  proclaimed  that  business-related  organizations  could not  discriminate  on  membership  matters  based  on  sex,  race,  color,  religion or national origin. The plaintiffs proclaimed Rotary to be in the  business  category. Prior to this case, other Rotary clubs  had  routinely  requested  a  change in the constitution to allow women members and with each three year assembly of the Council of  Legislature,  Rotary’s  parliamentary  body,  the change  to  the  constitution  seemed  more  possible.

Ultimately however, the decision was not to be made by Rotary. After several years of “legal ping-pong’’  on  May  4th,  1987  the  United  States Supreme Court came to a 7-0 decision ruling against the  Rotary  hierarchy. In 1989    the    council    eliminated    the    word    “male”    from    all  constitutional documents; and as a result, hundreds of women  joined  Rotary  across  the  United States. By then the Duarte, California Rotary Club’s charter had been reinstated.

Women Of Rotary

Women Walk Through The Rotary Swinging Door

In terms of Women in Rotary everything officially changed in 1987 with the 7-0 decision by the United States Supreme Court which would force Rotary to accept women as members. All over the country women by the hundreds were invited to join the formerly all-male organization.

In 1987-1988 William C. Hulsey served as president of the Rotary Club of Birmingham. Although there were other accomplishments during Billy’s year, the primary one, from an historical standpoint, was the admission of the first women into Birmingham’s Rotary Club. In Billy’s own words, “we took in women for the first time. The time had come and it has worked out well.” Many believed it was in fact  long overdue.

On October 14, 1987,  in  an  announcement  placed  in  the  RotaryGram,  the  first three female members of our  club  were  introduced.  They  were:  Dr.  Sara  Crews  Finley,  then - Co-director of the Laboratory of Medical Genetics at the University of  Alabama; Katherine M. McTyeire, the President of  Iron  Art,  Inc.;  and  Sheila  S.  Blair,  Executive  Director of Leadership Birmingham. Maryam B. (Mimi) Head, President of Ram Tool & Supply Company, was introduced soon after. On an amusing note, new member, Spencer Robinson, was formally introduced at the same time as the first three women. He would joke that being introduced with the first three ladies to Rotary made him “the  token  male”  of  the  group.

Shelia Blair remarked in 1997 that the pace of women membership had been steady,  but she’d prefer it be a bit faster. Women now  account  for  10%  of this club’s membership.

The struggle to admit women into Rotary didn’t have to be – but it had been  – one  long, hard fought battle. Now it seems natural that women are  included  in  Rotary membership; indeed, women have made quite a contribution to Rotary. Two women of this Rotary club have served as our presidents – Shelia Blair and  Katherine  J.  “Kate” Nielsen. At  this writing, a third woman, Betsy Holloway, is president-elect and will lead the club in 2017- '18. The fact is – times change, cultures change, traditions are altered and changed, and the definition of change itself changes. Inviting women into Rotary was a change for the best, bringing a whole new group of dedicated members who brought with them their creativity    and vitality. Yes, the time had come.