A History of Women In Rotary International

      [Presented on 15 June 2008 at the Great Northland Breakfast

in Los Angeles, California}

By Carolyn E. Jones



It is for me a great honor to do breakfast today with Zones 27, 28, 31 and 32.  In fact, if the rezoning effort continues under the current plan, I expect – as a member of Zone 24 -- to be breaking bread with some of you for many years into the future.


I thank my friend, RI Vice President Mike McGovern for inviting me.  He usually has to dangle Maine lobster in front of me in order to get me to speak but I am making an exception in this case.


 The best way to tell this story is to first tell you a little bit about myself.  This presents a serious problem because my mother taught me not to talk about myself.  So, I will try to strike a balance in such a way as not to disappoint my mother and not to disappoint you.


In 1939 my mother and father were riding together on his motorcycle.  It was a dark and wet night.  My uncle and his wife were following closely in a car.  My uncle drove too fast over the crest of a hill and slammed into the back of the motor cycle, throwing my mother some 7 meters into the air.  It took a year of hospital visits to patch up my mother and put the pieces back together.  The doctors said she would never have children.


I was born on January 9, 1941.  I don’t mean to make myself seem self-important but I have always thought that my being here is a miracle birth and I have spent the rest of my life trying to figure out why I am here and trying not to waste the miracle.


Who is this miracle baby called Carolyn?  I grew up:  colored – black – African-American.  I don’t know who made these decisions about what to call me.  I know I never got a vote.  But it was always about skin color.  Sometimes, my life was better because of this issue.  Most of the time it was not.


I remember one grammar school teacher encouraging me to do my best in school and that I did not need to end my life cleaning some other lady’s home.  And I benefited when Stanford University decided to actively seek qualified blacks to add to its student body.  Stanford did not make any special exceptions for people like me.  Stanford merely made sure that we knew that we were welcome.


But more often, we were packing our lunches in a shoe box when we took a road trip because we were not sure if a restaurant would serve us.  And in my town, people were only of 2 colors and people of my color lived below the main street while the other color lived above it.


So, until I went off to law school, I lived my life as a colored/black/African-American minority.  Whenever anything happened to me that was unfair, I thought it was because of the color of my skin.


It was only when I went to Yale Law School that I learned I was a double minority.  One day, I sought support and advice from one of my favorite law school professor.  He said that getting the top grade, an “A”, was not enough.  As a woman, I would have to be even better.


When I graduated from law school, all my classmates were accepting job offers to be lawyers in law firms.  My first job offer was to be a legal secretary with the opportunity to work my way up to the level of a lawyer in the firm.


Once I graduated from law school, I went to Trieste, Italy where I lived and worked for a year and a half as an interpreter and translator.  The people in Trieste had never before seen or known anyone of color.  My life there reminds me of the American television comedy, “Cheers” where everybody knew my name. 


After a year and a half out of the country, I came home because – at the end of the day – I am an American.  America is my home.


I worked several years providing legal services for the poor in northern California.  Then I finally moved to Alaska to serve in the Alaska Attorney General’s Office for 23 years.


It was in Alaska that my legal life intersected with Rotary International. 


Rotary International is “an organization of business and professional men united worldwide who provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build good will and peace in the world. “  So stated the Rotary Manual of Procedure in 1981.  The General Secretary defended this provision with the explanation “that the exclusion of women results in an “aspect of fellowship … that is enjoyed by the present male membership” and also allows RI to operate effectively in foreign countries with varied cultures and social mores.  


Although women were not admitted to membership until 1987, they were permitted to attend meetings, give speeches, and receive awards.  Women relatives of Rotary members could form their own associations and were authorized to wear the Rotary lapel pin.  Young women between 14 and 28 years of age could join Interact or Rotaract, organizations sponsored by Rotary International, as well as study abroad under the organization’s youth exchange program. 


It was 4 May 1987 when the highest court in the United States handed down a decision that affected the application of a law of the State of California and the decision was limited to the State of California.  The court decided that in the state of California, women could not be excluded from membership in Rotary solely because of their gender.  [The RI Board had earlier decided that if they lost the California case, they would concede the U.S., rather than endure the costly expense of litigation in the remaining 49 states.  Rotarians in the other 49 states immediately assumed that they could invite women to join in their states as well.]


Just one day after the Supreme Court decision, a Rotarian phoned to invite me to lunch at his club on Wednesday.  I said “thank you” but “no thank you.”  I said:  “Manuel, I am in my 40s.  For years, I have carried the torch and led the way for various causes.  It is someone else’s turn.  I am not interested in going where I am not welcome.”


The following Tuesday, Manuel phoned again to invite me to lunch on Wednesday.  Manuel phoned 5 Tuesdays in a row.  It became clear that Manuel was not going to stop phoning me and inviting me until I finally went to lunch at his Rotary club.


I went to lunch.  The first 2 men I saw when I crossed under the threshold were 2 men that I knew in my regular life in Anchorage.  They looked; they smiled; they greeted me.  It was spontaneous.  I knew that I was welcome. 


I went back for more lunches.  And the rest, as they say, is history.


But while the Rotary Club of Anchorage East was making me welcome, Rotarians in other parts of the world were in anguish over this change.  And they made their opinions clear in their letters to the Rotarian magazine.  Here are just a few samples:


From India: In … countries, like India, because of their culture – many women remain as housewives and very few can join.  Because of their small numbers it will be difficult to give them proper representation on boards and committees.  … Rotary has not shut the door to women.  They are always welcome as Rotarians’ wives, and as such participate in almost all our projects.


A Rotarian from England wrote: In regard to the recent US decision “permitting women to become members of Rotary clubs … It was more “forcing” upon Rotary clubs in some states.


The man from Canada said: This seems like a bad dream.  If the majority chooses to continue present membership policy that is the way it should be.


The news from Nigeria was no different: The [real] issue is the collective right of men to freedom of association. … I am afraid that the Western world is carrying equal rights for women too far. 


The Portuguese Rotarian weighed in: For a long time our wives have been collaborating with the Rotary movement.  The place for Women and Rotary is in Inner Wheel or in a similar organization!


From Denmark:  In my opinion, it is dangerous to allow women to join.  ...  The situation is not yet mature enough for such an important change.


Wrote a New Zealander: I like to have the comfort of a men’s club because I would simply hate to see women forced on me or us. 


Every 3 years, Rotary’s legislative body, the Council on Legislation meets.  In earlier meetings, the Council had several times voted down the idea of admitting women to Rotary membership.   This changed in January 1989 when the Council met in Singapore and adopted an amendment to the Rotary constitution that would permit any Rotary club worldwide to admit women into membership.  To amend Rotary’s constitutional documents requires a 2/3rds majority vote.  At that meeting, 328 delegates or 73.7%, voted in favor of deleting the word “male” from the constitutional documents.


Prior to the Council decision only Rotary clubs in the U.S. and Canada could admit women members.  By the time of the Council’s vote there were an estimated 10,800 Women and Rotary in those 2 countries.


In less than a year after the Council’s vote, women were members of Rotary clubs in 33 countries and territories, representing 5,000+ clubs in 239 districts.  Women were Rotarians in such diverse countries as:  Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.


Within 5 more years, the first 8 women were taking their places to serve as governors for the year 1995-96.  5 of the original 8 were from the zones represented at this breakfast:  Donna Rapp, Mimi Altman, Virginia Nordby, Olive P. Scott and Gilda R. Chirafisi.


Now with 20 years of membership (1987-2007), Women and Rotary account for approximately 178,050 Rotarians – 14.54% of the total membership.  At the International Assembly in January 2008, there were 65 women DGEs from 24 nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Iceland, India, Nigeria, Rumania, Slovakia, and Venezuela.


Once women completed their service as governors, they were eligible to be considered for appointment as international training leaders – a select group of about 40 PDGs who prepare the next incoming class of DGEs.  The first 2 women to receive this assignment –1 from Florida and 1 from Alaska -- were appointed in 2000, within 5 years after the first women had served as governors.  Over the past 8 years, those numbers have reached a high of 10 female training leaders, or 25% of the entire leadership class.


Women have held numerous responsible positions at the zone level and have more than once chaired the committee organizing a zone institute – Rotary’s annual meeting of past officers.  At the RI level, women have chaired the membership development and retention committee, the public image committee, the sergeant-at-arms committee and more.  Finally, in 2005, a woman was appointed to a 4-year term as one of the 15 Trustees of the Rotary Foundation.  And, on 1 July 2008, the first female member of the RI Board of Directors will take office.  Interestingly, the new director is from France – one of the Rotary nations most staunchly opposed to having Women and Rotary when the California case was being litigated.


I remember a Rotary youth exchange student from Australia telling me in 1995, that the men of Australia would never ever let women join Rotary.  Yet, I personally know several female Rotarians in Australia; several past governors; and several past and present international training leaders. 


I remember a Rotarian from Great Britain telling me that women would never be Rotarians in his part of the world, and that the governor was not even permitted to bring his spouse to the club meetings when he made his official visits.  Yet, I have personally met three female governors from England and this year one of the training leaders was from England. 


Reportedly, Japan has long resisted permitting women to join their Rotary clubs.  But, in 2007, I personally shook the hand of a female DGE who arrived in San Diego for her training. 


The charter president of the Rotary club of Kabul, Afghanistan was a woman.  I could give countless examples. 


Sylvia Whitlock, the first female president of a Rotary club said: “Just the face of Rotary has changed.  But Rotary’s commitment to service has not changed. – and that’s why we join, because we want to serve.”


Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of a former U.S. president, once said:  “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”


Our incoming RI President D. K. Lee has selected as his theme:  “Make Dreams Real”


Sometimes dreams are really what life is all about.  This little piece of Rotary Global History that I have related tonight is about living the dream.


I cannot declare that we live in a perfect Rotary world where women are embraced in every corner of the world but I can say with absolute certainty that change is in the air and it is happening everywhere.  And I look forward to the day when I will no longer be asked to give this speech about “Women and Rotary.”  I look forward to the day when we will all just be Rotarians.


Thank you letting me talk to you today about me, about dreams and about Rotary.



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