Female speaker shares story of fight to lead Rotary

Female speaker shares story of fight to lead Rotary

I work to honor, in running the Daily Facts, what I refer to as the Spirit of Redlands — it’s the drive to do community service, the priority of philanthropy that Redlands was founded on. Our many service clubs are among the ways that spirit is reflected, and Thursday we got a big dose of it at the Rotary Club of Redlands meeting.

I belong to the evening and the morning Rotary clubs, so I attended this week’s lunch meeting as a guest.

I have also been a guest at just about every service club in town. The Spirit is strong here. (At the risk of excommunication, I confess the Optimist Club and the Kiwanis Club of Redlands might be my favorites.)

But Thursday I was moved to tears by the goodness of Rotary.

Sylvia Whitlock, who became the first female Rotary president after her right to membership went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, was the speaker.

She was funny and inspiring and she wove Rotary’s values throughout her story.

The mandate that Rotarians welcome women to their ranks came down 27 years ago. She asked for arms in the air: Who was a Rotarian 27 years ago? A handful went up and she nodded. Someone shouted, “All men.”

Her club, in Duarte, was small. The president looked at the community and saw women in leadership roles, and invited some.

“This didn’t start as a women’s issue, but as a simple attempt to recruit more members into Rotary,” she said.

It was 1976. She had never even heard of Rotary.

“I had heard of Kiwanis,” she said. “Do you know what Kiwanis means?”


“It means waiting to get into Rotary.”

Not silence.

Whitlock accepted the invitation and in 1982 she became a member of the club. She was ready to be a part of the good Rotarians do.

At the time, Rotary had more work to do to eradicate polio. (Today, she pointed out, there are just three places polio still endures: Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. And Nigeria’s almost free of it.)

The Rotary district governor told the club president it was OK to invite women, but, he said, don’t send their names to Rotary International; just send initials. Whitlock pulled a face of disdain and mentioned this was not in line with our Four-Way Test of the things we think, say and do. The first filter is truth.

So there they were with women in the club, thriving, for years.

Then they got caught and were told they had to ask the women to leave, or the club could be declared “not a real Rotary.” The club held firm and lost its charter.

It went to appeal to the board of directors, but only real Rotary clubs could address that board, which they were decidedly not, what with all those members in skirts.

So it appealed to the Council on Legislation and the ousting was confirmed.

“It was not an issue of whether women could be in, but whether Duarte had violated the bylaws by inviting them, which of course they had,” she said.

The California Superior Court sided for exclusivity too.

But then the California Appellate Court reversed the ruling and said the Duarte club could be both inclusive and officially Rotary.

This was the year she was president-elect of what they had renamed the “ExRotary” club, and she was sent to the annual conference for incoming leaders. She, like the other participants, was reminded in advance to take her coat and tie, “so I took my coat and tie and went,” she said.

“I was one woman out of 290 men,” she said. “The most interesting part was during restroom breaks ….” Everyone started laughing and she was cut off. “I never get to finish that line.”

At the event, her club’s incoming governor announced that the fight to remove the rogue Duarte club was not over: “Rotary International will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and I have every reason to believe we will win.” Forthwith Whitlock had a banner made that read “Rotary Club of Duarte, the mouse that roared — equal opportunity for all.” And she heard somebody say, “They’re forcing us to take everyone in, just like a hotel.”

The court was determining whether the group had a First Amendment right to exclude, and it was looking like it did not.

Sandra Day O’Connor didn’t vote, because her husband was a Rotarian, but the judges found for the Duarte club. It was 1987.

The judges’ statement was progressive: “Even if there were a slight encroachment on the rights of Rotarians to associate, that minimal infringement would be justified since it serves the state’s compelling interest in ending sexual discrimination.”

As of that moment, all clubs in the nation had to welcome women. If a club did not, it would lose its charter.

Whitlock was on her way to work as the principal of an elementary school when the news was announced.

“Twenty minutes after the announcement all the media in California descended on the school,” she said.

She went into a room to give interviews, and for hours gave intelligent, researched responses to their questions. Then one reporter asked, “How did you get chosen to be president?”

She shrugged at us and said, “What do good Rotarians say? ‘Oh, I don’t know, I must’ve missed a meeting.’ ”

What do you think they aired out of all that footage of intelligent, researched responses? Yeah.

She made a comment about how the media home in on the inconsequential stuff and I blushed with shame at my notes, which included the Kiwanis joke but not the polio statistics.

Then she unwittingly gave me a chance to redeem myself, and started talking about what being a Rotarian means to her.

“There is very little that compares with the feeling that, through Rotary, you may have saved the life of that child into whose mouth you placed those inoculating drops,” she said.

She talked about establishing an AIDS clinic in Jamaica, supporting an orphanage in Mexico, sinking wells in Nigeria and raising almost $90,000 so girls in India could escape a life of victimization and go to school.

“All of these activities were done with the help of the Rotary Foundation, which provides the backbone of the humanitarian work we do,” she said. “The core value is service above self.”

Another club value is peace through service.

“I do believe that until we meet the needs of people for food, clothing, shelter, clean water, health care, education and all the basics, there is no place in which they can receive and absorb and respect the concept of peace,” she said.

“We are the world. You are only one person, but to the parents of that child into whose mouth you and the other Rotarians placed the drops that could save his life, you are the world. How can you be any less?”

At this point I was moved, but my eyes were dry.

Then she presented a pin to repeat Paul Harris Fellow Cal Boothby for a milestone in donations.

“You build hospitals in which you’ll never rest, provide food you’ll never eat, sink water wells from which you’ll never drink, and erect houses in which you’ll never live,” she said.

I groped a Kleenex from my purse for my wet eyes.

“When we give through Rotary, we give from the bounty with which we have been blessed.”

And there it is. The Spirit of Redlands.

“This is what Rotarians do,” she said. “Our goal is to make the world a better place—cleaner, healthier, more self-sustaining, happier and more peaceful than it was when we came into it.

“Can we do it? We must.”

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