Rotary International (RI) was founded by Paul Harris in 1905 on the premise that it was a voluntary “organization of business and professional men…” (Article III Section 2 of the Rotary International Constitution), and continued as an only-male club for decades. Although it had been predated by women’s voluntary organizations that had started in USA as early as 1790, women’s admission into this exclusive male Club was never an option, not even as honorary members (there having been only two classifications of membership in Rotary: Active and Honorary, either of which could be bestowed only upon a male). As recent as in 1981, the RI General Secretary defended this gender-based segregation provision with the approval that the exclusion of women is fine on grounds that it allows 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” (Jones C.E.). This obviously reflects a male world where women had no place in a public domain such as Rotary was. Due to the restrictive nature of their admission into Rotary, women were not allowed membership into RI for decades after its foundation, though they were permitted to attend meetings, give speeches, and receive awards as a matter of courtesy. Female relatives of Rotary members in particular could even form their own associations and were even authorized to wear the Rotary lapel pin, but to become a member was out of question! Among such was Paul Harris’s own wife who, although she is said to have succeeded in making numerous public speeches and public appearances, did so as Paul Harris’ wife and not as a member of Rotary. In his book entitled This Rotarian Age, Paul Harris himself is very supportive of women forming their own clubs which were largely built on Rotarian basic principal of service above self (pp 133-134), but is largely silent on the subject of female membership. This silence spoke volumes.
A quick glance at Rotary history reveals extensive debates over a period of eight decades both within Rotary Clubs, and between them and Rotary International, on whether or not women should join Rotary. While these debates raged on, women formed their own all-women versions of Rotary Clubs. In 1911 in the USA, an-all-women Rotary Club was founded in Minneapolis, and between 1911 and 1917, another one of a similar nature was launched in Duluth, Minnesota alongside the men’s club. In 1921, the Duluth Club was represented at the Duluth Rotary Convention to seek support for women’s clubs. The convention briefly discussed the admission of women into Rotary, and just as quickly rejected the idea. The Rotary International Boards of 1914-15 and 1915-16 disapproved of such women auxiliaries, approving instead the policy of discouraging the formation of Women’s Rotary Clubs, and forbidding the appropriation of the Rotary name by any organization that is not likely to be admitted as an affiliated Rotary club. The Board of 1916-1917, however, raised no objection to the formation of an auxiliary club composed of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of Rotarians to be known as Ladies’ Auxiliary of such and such Rotary Club. This non-objection unfortunately did not last, for in the following year, the 1917-1918 RI Board totally refused to recognize them. In May of the same year, the wife of the Chicago Rotary Club President successfully convened a luncheon meeting of 59 women who formed the “Women of Rotary.” The Rotary International (RI) Board rejected the name, and it was changed to “The Women of the Rotary Club of Chicago.” By1940, only one woman was able to attend many of Idaho Rotary Club meetings, and even then, it was because she inherited and run her deceased husband’s Ford dealership. She was never allowed to become a member.
The struggle to admit women in or to block them from being admitted in Rotary clubs was taking place not only in North America, but in other parts of the world as well. In 1912, the Board of Directors of the Belfast, Northern Ireland club discussed the issue of women admission into the Rotary Club, but even this proposal was nipped in the bud over issues of social class, and besides, the RI Board still considered admitting women quite undesirable. On 15th May 1923, the Manchester Club, England, proposed the formation of a women’s club in Manchester, but the proposal was not heeded. In India, many women were denied entry into Rotary. Even as late as 1950, years after Rotary had been established, in an attempt to be fair to all, the Ahmadabad Rotary Club of India proposed that the word “men” be dropped from the Standard Club Constitution. The proposal was rejected. In Canada, the agenda of the Council meeting at the RI Convention in Toronto in June 1964 contained an enactment for the admission of women to Rotary clubs, but the Convention delegates voted that it be withdrawn.
Clearly, women remained on the fringes of Rotary as they were of society solely because of their gender, but between 1964 & 1976, gender equity in Rotary International became a heightened issue, and several more attempts by Rotary Clubs to get RI to allow the admission of women were made worldwide, but these were largely unsuccessful. The RI attorney had put up an argument that the decision to admit women in Rotary “threatens to force us to take in everyone, like a motel.” In 1976, the aggressive Duarte California club made a landmark history: it allowed three women to join Rotary. Rotary International was alarmed, and its request to terminate women’s membership was rejected outright by the club, and as a consequence, the club’s charter was irrevocably terminated in 1978. Meanwhile, the Duarte Club was supported by the Seattle-International District Club in opposing RI leadership’s iron handedness, and finally in 1986, the Seattle Club unanimously voted to admit women. On May 4th 1987, the USA Supreme Court confirmed the California decision. It is of no surprise therefore that the first female club president to ever be elected was from the Rotary Club of Duarte, California (1987). Finally in 1989 at a triennial meeting in Singapore, the RI Council on Legislation voted to allow all Rotary Clubs the world over to admit women. Even the Elks Rotary Club which for long prohibited female membership long after other clubs had admitted them voted as recently as 1995 to finally allow them. Rotary’s first female District Governors, eight in all, served in 1995-96. By 1997-98, nearly 2,000 of the 29,000 clubs worldwide had women presidents. In 2004, ninety-nine years after its foundation, the other Rotarian motto of “He profits most who serves best” was changed to “They profit most who serve best,” a demonstration of a move to a general acceptance of women in Rotary world-wide. In 2005, a hundred years after Paul Harris founded Rotary as an organisation for men only, Rotary ushered in its first female Rotary Foundation Trustee.
On the African continent (where the first club was first founded in 1921 in Johannesburg, South Africa), the first woman to be inducted, Sauda Kilumanga, was fielded by the Rotary Club of Dar-Es-Salaam (District 9200) in 2005. Since then, numbers have steadily increased. By 2007, not only were there several female club presidents, but female district governors as well. Female Club presidents became the norm so much so that by 2009, women counted for over 188,000 RI members, among whom are those in the relatively young Rotary Clubs in Rwanda such as the Kigali-Virunga Rotary Club which has fielded two female presidents since its inception, and is today proudly celebrating ten years of a gender-neutral membership in a country that leads in gender equity policies. Long May It Prosper!