Women in Rotary


Presented Sept 2012 by Bob Shankman



Before I start, I want to note that I’m wearing the newest Rotary pin, which clearly shows  the current theme “PEACE THROUGH SERVICE”. So, I ask that you all take a few seconds, now, and look around your table and see who is also wearing a Rotary pin.

BUT, as you look around the table and room, today… or at any Rotary meeting you probably don’t see anything unusual. HOWEVER, it wasn’t always like this.

Having women in the audience is relatively new.

I’m intrigued by the fact that women are such a new addition to this 100 + year old organization. I’ve learned that  there have  been several, very early attempts to include them.

The 1st official attempt was at the  R.I. (Rotary International) Convention in 1910. Some delegates introduced discussion to allow women, but it was overwhelmingly rejected.

The LOS ANGELES HERALD August 18, 1910 had this to say about the decision:    “Because the average man cannot manage the average  woman, the members of the Rotary Clubs of America barred women from their organization.”

It is interesting to note, however,  that the first constitution for Club # 1 (The Chicago club) adopted in Jan 1906 makes no mention of gender. It  refers only to “persons”.  But apparently, it was implied to mean “men “.

Efforts to join internationally also began early. In 1912 a club in  Belfast, Ireland discussed the advisability of women joining and/or attending weekly luncheons. However, it was rejected.

The 1921 International Convention, in Scotland, produced the Standard Club Constitution. In it the terminology was changed to state “A Rotary club shall be comprised of men.”  But, it also permitted, at that time, the formation of a separate “Ladies Auxiliary”.  I guess they were using their own version of “separate, but equal”.

There were other movements, over the years, but they didn’t gain any momentum. The Upper Manhattan Club in 1972, for example, proposed to admit women but it was rejected with “laughter”.

Several subsequent international conventions, specifically in 1950 (India) and 1964 (Sri Lanka) considered deleting the word “male” from the Constitution. But, again they were withdrawn or defeated.

Additional efforts were heard in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This was coincidental with the rise of the women’s movement and the fact that women were reaching higher levels, in their professions.


In 1976, Duarte, California had a very small Rotary Club. Duarte is a town about 12 miles east of Pasadena. Currently there are about 21,000 residents. Since the Club had only eight members, then, they voted to invite three women into the club. Two of them, both school principals, Mary Lou Elliott and Donna Bogart, joined immediately. The third joined a few months later. They wanted to grow the club and this move dramatically grew it.

Initially, the new members were listed using only their first initials. However, a few months later, in celebration of the Club’s 25th anniversary, they were re-introduced using their full complete names.


As you might expect, word spread and a few months later (Feb. 1978) their charter was revoked by R.I. . After refusing to remove the members, this club changed their name to the EX –Rotary Club of Duarte – and existed without a charter.

This began a series of legal actions. The Club initially filed  suit protesting the revocation of the charter. In 1983 the California Superior Court ruled in favor of R.I. and upheld gender-based discrimination. But the California Court of Appeal later reversed this decision, that same year.

The Court ruled that the Duarte Rotary Club was, in fact, a business establishment and that it came under the auspices of the Unruh Civil Rights Act which outlaws discrimination.

R.I.  then tried to appeal this decision  to the  California Supreme Court . The Court, however, refused to hear the case. It was then appealed to the US Supreme Court. It seems that  R.I. was very intent on keeping women out.

The  US Supreme Court made their decision on May 4 1987 . It ruled that Rotary clubs may not exclude women from membership on the basis of their gender. It basically upheld the decision of the California Court of Appeal.

This was a 7-0 decision. There were two Justices that did not participate. It is speculated this was true because Harry  Blackmun was an Honorary Rotarian and Sandra Day O’Connor’s spouse was a Rotarian.

“… the Court rejected Rotary’s argument that it has a constitutional right to bar the admission of women as members of any affiliated club because of its selective membership policy, public service activities and other attributes.”  Stated the NY Times 5/5/87


Rotary (US) reacted fast and accepted the decision. A policy statement was issued  stating  that any US  club, could now admit qualified women as members.

The Duarte, California Club ( now reinstated)  initiated  it’s first women in early June 1987. The Club is still in existence and meets Wednesday mornings at 7:45 at Dennys.

While there was widespread media publicity, after the Court decision, there was no direct communication from Rotary International. The Duarte club eventually received an invoice/recap sheet asking it to list its  members as of June 30, 1987, and to pay international dues based on the membership. The Club listed all members, including the women.

To this day, that invoice remains the only communication from  R.I. regarding the end of the Duarte charter revocation and its subsequent reinstatement.

Women continue to play a key part of the spirit of the Club and they are now known as  “The Mouse That Roared, the Rotary Club of Duarte.”


Sylvia Whitlock, one of the early members, became the 1st women Rotary club president after the court ruling. She recently went on to become  Governor of District #5300 (California & Nevada) on July 1, 2012.

In 1989 at its first meeting, after the Supreme Court ruling, the International Council of Legislation, voted to eliminate the “men only “requirement.

Prior to this decision, although not allowed as members, women, especially wives, were enthusiastically welcome  at meetings. In fact they were known as Rotary Ann’s.  

This tradition began in 1914. The national convention was being held in Houston and several members rode on a train that started in San Francisco. Two women, named Ann, were traveling with their husbands and affectionately became known as “Rotary Ann”.  The name stuck and soon applied to women who attended the meetings or functions.



The first woman proposed as a member, here, was Laura Camp, on May 26, 1988  about a year after the decision.   – Regrettably, she called me two days ago, and advised  that she would not be able to attend today’s meeting. -   However, it seems obvious to me that no one wanted to “break the rules” when the proposal was made.   Because a week earlier there was a notice in the NEWTARIAN   “asking all members if anyone had a copy of the Club Constitution.  The By-Laws Committee was interested in borrowing it”.  Pete Spurgeon was the historian, at that time, and would “delve into the archives”.


Laura  was inducted on June 29, 1988 by Warren Welsh, past district governor.  Laura was proposed by Bill Hall who outlined her credentials and  pointed out:

 “this is one person who meets all the requirements to be a Rotarian” .  Bill described her as “dynamic, always willing to go above and beyond”.  

Warren  said that she was joining a group  “that has done so much for the Country and  the world. “ and then listed the Four Way Test.

He also stated that  “ This is  a milestone in the history of Newton Rotary making it bigger and better than ever”.

Laura’s husband, Dick , was at the meeting.  I guess the 5 children were at school.  

Laura has advised me that she was warmly accepted without incident. As you know, she went on to be Club president in 1998-99.


On July 27, 1988  Ann Hecht, a guest, said “If wives of Rotarians are called Rotary-Anns, what do you call husbands of lady Rotarians?”  The following week, Bob Fisher volunteered that the spouse should be called “Rotary Andy”.   It should be noted that very little mention has been made of either term  since Laura was inducted.  Now we are all know as Rotarians.

Laura, however, was not the only women that year. Pam Lazarro was proposed by Bob Fisher and  inducted by Bill Hall on Aug 10, 1988.

Fisher spoke about  her versatile business career in real estate and petroleum distribution. He further stated that “ Pam’s an executive at Agway, and married to Carl. Together they have a flock of progeny on the home front, including our speaker, today.”

The speaker, that day was, in fact, her son Drew who spoke about his 3 week tour of Japan.



·      The original constitution made no mention of gender, but it was implied to mean “men only”

·      International efforts to include women began as early as 1912

·      The constitution was changed in 1921 to explicitly restrict membership to men

·      The Duarte, California club inducted two women in 1977

·      R.I. revoked their charter in 1978

·      A 10 year legal battle ensued resulting in the US Supreme Court stating that “women cannot be excluded”

·      R.I. reacted fast and changed the Constitution

·      Laura & Pam were inducted into the club in 1988

·      2012 is the 25th Anniversary of the Court decision


Since that time, we have had many  women in this Club.  Currently we have  25.   Several, since 1988 have served as President: Laura Camp; Nancy Morrisey; Denise Current and Janice Pascuilli. .

Rotary International currently has about 200,000  women or 17% of the membership and there are about 91 women District Governors


We have several current and former members, here, with us today.  Can you all stand ?