From 1905 until the 1980s, women were not allowed membership in Rotary Clubs, although Rotarian spouses, including Paul Harris’ wife, were often members of the similar “Inner Wheel” Club. Women did play some roles, and Paul Harris’ wife made numerous speeches. In 1963, it was noted that the Rotary practice of involving wives in club activities had helped to break down female seclusion in some countries. Clubs such as Rotary had long been pre-dated by women’s voluntary organizations, which started in the United States as early as 1790.
The first Irish Clubs discussed admitting women as members in 1912, but the proposal floundered over issues of social class.
Gender equity in Rotary moved beyond the theoretical question when, in 1976, the Rotary Club of Duarte in Duarte, California admitted three women as members. After this club refused to remove the women from membership, in 1978 Rotary International revoked the Club’s charter. The Duarte Club filed suit in the California courts, claiming that Rotary Clubs are business establishments subject to regulation under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnic origin. Rotary International then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The RI attorney argued that “… [the decision] threatens to force us to take in everyone, “like a motel.” The Duarte Club was not alone in opposing RI leadership; the Seattle-International District Club unanimously voted to admit women in 1986. The United States Supreme Court, on May 4, 1987, confirmed the Californian decision. Rotary International then removed the gender requirements from its requirements for club charters, and most clubs in most countries have opted to include women as members of Rotary Clubs. The first female club president to be elected was Silvia Whitlock of the Rotary Club of Duarte, California, USA in 1987. By 2007, there was a female trustee of Rotary’s charitable wing, The Rotary Foundation, while female district governors and club presidents were common. Women currently account for 15% of international Rotary membership (22% in North America).
The change of the second Rotarian motto in 2004, from “He profits most who serves best” to “They profit most who serve best”, 99 years after its foundation, illustrates the move to general acceptance of women members in Rotary.
The Rotary Club of Eureka in 1987-88 during Pat Folkins presidency admitted the first woman club member, Peggy Betholtz. To date we have gained many women members that have become an integral part of our club.