When the mouse roared

PDG Sylvia Whitlock and RIPN Jennifer Jones.
PDG Sylvia Whitlock and RIPN Jennifer Jones.

The mouse that roared” was how RC Duarte, a small club in then RID 530, California, USA, was described by its District Governor as it appealed to the US Supreme Court to admit women in Rotary following a relentless 11-year battle.

“Women have literally changed the face of Rotary; it is much prettier now,” said PDG ­Sylvia Whitlock, RI’s first woman club president, at the zoom meet organised by RID 3232. Industrialist Rajshree Pathy, member of RC Coimbatore Texcity and daughter of PDG G Varadaraj was the guest of honour.

Referring to the event’s title — Edge of tomorrow — borrowed from the Tom Cruise movie, Sylvia said, “I always use this phrase because tomorrow keeps changing. The tomorrow that I am really looking forward to is when Jennifer Jones becomes RI president in 2022. We have waited for that for a long time, not because Jennifer is a woman, but because she is a capable woman.”

Filled with facts and anecdotes, Sylvia shared a fascinating glimpse into the journey of the Duarte club. In 1976 the club had invited four women — Donna Nogart, Mary Lou Elliott, ­Rosemary Freitag and Sylvia — as members in an effort to bolster its sagging roster. “Initially we were registered with our initials and not our real names because Rotary had a longstanding policy that Rotarians shall be ‘men of good character’,” she said.

Initially we were registered with our initials and not our real names because Rotary had a longstanding policy that Rotarians shall be ‘men of good character’.
— PDG Sylvia Whitlock

The next year, on its 25th anniversary, RI representatives visited the club and saw the women members. After they returned to Evanston and gave a report. RI informed the club president that it did not want women in Rotary and the club’s charter will be revoked for violating the bylaws. “But our members, instead of asking us to leave, renamed the club as ‘­Ex-Rotary Club of Duarte’ and the name stayed for 11 years.” The club continued on its quest for humanitarian service but was not involved in international activities.

“Interestingly Duarte was not the first club that wanted women in Rotary. Years ago, a club from India (RC Ahmedabad) had suggested this at the CoL in Detroit. But nothing happened then,” she said. The Duarte club filed a suit against Rotary in California, but lost the case. “The ruling said that Rotary has the right to choose its members. We sat up and understood that this was not going to be some slam dunk that we thought it to be.”

The case was then taken up at the California Appellate Court where the club alleged that Rotary’s all-male policy violated the State’s Unruh Act, forbidding gender discrimination in public establishments. It won the case. But the ruling was limited to Rotary clubs within California.

Rajshree Pathy, chairperson and managing director, Rajshree group of companies.
Rajshree Pathy, chairperson and managing director, Rajshree group of companies.

That year Sylvia attended PETS as president-elect of her club. “It was 290 men and one woman,” she laughed. The men were all cordial and the DG suggested appealing to the US Supreme Court.

On May 4, 1987, the Supreme Court pronounced its historic verdict favouring women’s admission into Rotary. Justice Lewis Powell dismissed RI’s arguments that it has a constitutional right to exclude women members if it chooses. “The evidence in this case indicates that the relationship among Rotary club members is not the kind of intimate or private relations that warrants constitutional protection,” he pointed out.

The news hit the headlines and the next morning while Sylvia, a school principal, was nearing her school, was interviewed by a CBS newscaster. To a question on how she was chosen club president, she blurted out, “I don’t know. I must have missed a meeting.” And that became the headline on television. “A dumb reply. I still regret that,” she laughed.

There were many questions after that including one on whether the food was any better now that women are in Rotary! “I explained that we weren’t cooking.”

We must make Rotary a fire-place meeting where there is more camaraderie and inclusivity.
Rajshree Pathy, Past president
RC Coimbatore Texcity, RID 3201

For 11 years they continued the battle. Directors changed in RI; but each group of directors supported the exclusion of women. “And I always thought what kind of a world they were showing to their daughters,” she smiled.

She recalled a conversation with a Rotarian and his wife on her way to the Calgary convention which happened after a CoL where the club’s appeal to admit women in Rotary was turned down. The Rotarian, identifying her club from the CoL, said that he had voted for women’s membership at the Tokyo convention. “His wife was opposed to it and when asked why, she said, “because we have men going out for meetings at night and we don’t want women there.” I tried to clarify: ‘This is not a social club; it is a service club.’ But she didn’t seem to care.”

Although the club won the case, the women were not given a warm welcome into Rotary. In 1989, PRIP Frank Devlyn gave a passionate speech at the CoL and the representatives voted to accept women in Rotary. But it took 17 years after that, for The Rotarian to publish an article about women in Rotary, Sylvia said.

At the 2017 convention, RI introduced the Sylvia Whitlock Leadership Award to recognise Rotarians contributing to the success of women in Rotary. Sylvia was the first recipient and last year RIPN Jennifer was conferred the award. “It is not just for women but for anyone who advances the cause of women in Rotary,” she said.

Asking a question, PDG Rekha Shetty, the first and only woman governor of RID 3232, asked if gender disparity was the cause for the slow rise in women membership. “Women should not be treated as window dressers. They should be given responsible positions and they will perform as well as men,” said Sylvia.

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Women in Rotary have come to stay and they have started to outperform on every platform. Addressing the meet DG Muthupalaniappan said this year RID 3232 has a good number of women Rotarians at the helm. Of the seven areas of focus, four are led by women, and several women chair district committees this year, he said. The governor added in a lighter vein that women played “a very important part in my life”, and he was greatly influenced by all of them… his wife, two daughters. “And even our pet dog is a female”, he said amidst laughter.

PDG S Krishnaswamy  moderated the session with Rajshree, recalling  his association with her late father, PDG G Varadaraj. “A strong woman can transform a home, a community and a nation,” said Rajshree in her interaction at the meet. As charter president of RC Coimbatore Texcity in 1990, “I ensured that we had 50 per cent women members in our club. But today the club has just four women Rotarians,” she observed, regretting that her business commitments had hampered her from her active involvement in Rotary. Making a passionate plea for involving the entire family in Rotary events, she said, “During my father’s days, Rotary was more a family affair. We knew children of other Rotarians and went on picnics. Sadly I see Rotary has become more business-like and families are not participating as much as they used to. We must make Rotary a fire-place meeting where there is more camaraderie and inclusivity.”

Women should not be treated as window dressers. They should be given responsible positions and they will perform as well as men.
—  PDG Sylvia Whitlock

B Dakshayini, district director, International Service, said that global membership of women is 22 per cent and that PRID Anne L Mathew was the first woman RI vice president in 2013. Rotary’s original motto: ‘He profits most who serves best’ was modified in the 2004 CoL as ‘They profit most who serve best’, and again in the 2010 CoL the ‘They’ was replaced with ‘One’.

Ganesh Suppiah of RC Chennai Coromandel gave details about the district’s signature project — ­Project Orange — to address avoidable blindness by establishing vision centres across the district.

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