Written By PAG Jones Kyazze, MD.

This article started off as a Presentation which had been requested of me by my Rotary Club of Kampala – Munyonyo, specifically Mpuuta Buddy Group,chaired by Rtn. Cissy for the weekly Fellowship of 20th March 2023. The month of March carrying Women’s International Day (8th March) made both the presentation and this consequent article quite relevant. Hence, the Club management deemed it fit for the Presentation to be made into an article worthy appearing in the Club Magazine and Website.

As soon as the flyer announcing the presentation and its title were published, some ladies called me to question the validity of the part of the title: ”Men’s Struggle…”  Yes, indeed, the struggle was initiated, gallantly spearheaded and mainly fought to its conclusion by men Rotarians and non-Rotarian men coming from areas of human rights and legal services. Naturally, some few women played a role in this basically men’s struggle.

Before indulging into the Men’s struggle itself, let us reflect a little on WHY women were not made part of the original Rotary and kept out for all those 84 years [1905 – 1989]:

  1.  1905 When Paul Percy Harris and his other 3 men friends [Sylvester Schiele, Hiram Shorey and Gustav Loehr] started Rotary, it was meant for Business and Professional men of integrity, lonely and lost in violent and corrupt City of Chicago. It was for fellowship and mutual support in their businesses and professions.
  2. There were hardly any business and professional women at the time.  Furthermore, the initiator Paul Harris himself was single, which seems to have been the case with the other three.  Paul was not only single, but also women shy and an intellectual introvert. He was eventually offered an Honorary Doctorate of Law by the University of Iowa. He got married in 1912 at a late age of 47 years and somehow by accident. During a hunting adventure, Paul got his jacket torn. The kind lady who repaired the jacket, Jean Thompson of Scottish origin ended up becoming his wife. They lived together for 35 years. They did not have any children. By the way, introvert Paul Harris also shied away from the Presidency of the first Rotary Club; leaving it for Sylvester Schiele.
  3. Once the tradition of a Men’s Club settled in, changing it was as difficult as changing any other habit is. In this connection, some of the reasons given for resisting the entry of women were as flimsy as, “We shall no longer be able to crack jokes under the belt; the fun will no longer be the same”
  4. On the other hand, when the case of admitting women in Rotary arose during the 1970s/1980s, there were quite a number of women who were opposed to the idea for obvious reasons.
  5. At the same time, the creation of “women only” organizations such as Zonta International in 1919 and Soroptimist International in 1921 or even the Inner Wheel Club in 1924 (initially composed of Rotarians’ spouses and daughters though often working in partnership with) delayed the struggle.

With that background, we can now try to look into the phases of the Men’s struggle:

  1.  In my view, the thought of women into Rotary may have been borne out of Paul Harris’s marriage to Jean Thompson in 1912. She is said to have been a very sociable and service-minded person. Her influence in softening the ground at that time cannot be totally ignored. This reminds me of Lady Baden Paul who was the first leader of Girl Guides beside her husband Lord Baden Paul as he started Boy Scouting in 1907.
  2. The second occasion when the idea of women coming closer to Rotary membership was in the year 1914.  Several Rotary Clubs from California chartered a whole train to travel to Houston in Texas for that year’s Convention. One Rotarian Club President, Brunnier, dared travel with his wife who was the single woman on the train. One Rtn. Approached Mrs. Brunnier saying, “Mme, I don’t wantto address you as Mrs. Brunnier… what is your other name?” “Ann”; please call me Ann!” Replied the lady. As luck would have it, at the other end of the trip in Houston, the Rtn. President Guy Gundeker who had been designated to meet the train carrying the Rotarians from California, came along with his spouse whose name happened to be “Ann”.  It is from that moment that the Rotarians, in their excitement, took the decision to name all Rotarian lady spouses as “Rotary Anns”Later, male spouses of lady Rotarians came to be referred to as “Andys.”
  3. Once the wind of women started blowing towards Rotary, there was little that could be done to stop it; especially as it was mainly driven by men Rotarians from within and court cases handled by non-Rotarian men from outside, accusing Rotary International of discrimination.
  4. The climax of the matter occurred when in 1976, the 8-man Rotary Club of Duarte in California dared to admit three women against the Rotary International constitution. Flouting the Rotarian FOUR-WAY TEST, the names of the new Rotarians were officially forwarded to Rotary International authorities, keeping the first names silent:

M-L Elliott (instead of Mary-Lou Elliott); D. Bogart (instead of Dona Bogart); R. Freitag (instead of Rosemary Freitag).

  • It is at one of the Rotary International Conventions that the RI authorities discovered that the new Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Duarte were actually women. The Club’s Charter was promptly cancelled with all the punitive consequences. The three ladies decided to take Rotary International to Court on behalf of the Club, ending up in the Supreme Court of California which condemned Rotary in 1986; and the Supreme Court of USA confirmed the condemnation in 1987.
  • Cutting the long story short, the 1989 Rotary Council on Legislation voted to admit women into Rotary Clubs. The Rotary Club of Duarte earned the nick name of: “The Mouse that Roared”

Some noteworthy Facts in the Story of Women in Rotary

  1. Paul Harris marries Jean Thompson in 1912
  2. 1914 The term “Rotary Ann” is introduced in the language of Rotary International
  3. 1976 Rotary Club of Duarte illegally admits three women; Club’s Charter withdrawn until 1986
  4. 1987 US Supreme Court Condemns Rotary; 1989 Rotary Council on Legislations votes admission
  5. 1995 July eight women become District Governors
  6. 2005 Carolyn Jones becomes first woman trustee of The Rotary Foundation
  7. 2008 Catherine Noyer Riveau becomes the first woman-member of the RI Board of Directors
  8. 2012 Elizabeth Demaray becomes the first woman-Treasurer of Rotary International
  9.  2013 Anne Mathews becomes the first woman Rotary International Vice-President
  10. 2022/2023 Jennifer Jones becomes the first woman to serves as Rotary International President, that is 117 years after the birth of Rotary in 1905.  

It must be said that since women joined Rotary, they have not only changed the face of Rotary but have also added great value to Rotary, particularly in its Avenues and Areas of Service and Fellowship!      

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