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  • Doug Townsend


Rotary started as a group of professionals and small business owners with common interests in community service and business networking. In the early 1900s, this meant men. In fact, this was enshrined in Rotary’s constitution and by-laws.

By the latter part of the 20th century, this restriction was becoming an albatross in the eyes of a number of members and clubs. There were countless women who met the membership requirements as entrepreneurs, professionals, or business managers. They wanted to be involved in community service as Rotarians but were barred from membership by Rotary International’s Constitution.

In the mid-1980s, two Rotary clubs in California decided to defy Rotary International and admit women into full membership. This led to a court challenge as Rotary’s Board of Directors defended the Constitution believing that they would not receive worldwide agreement to accept the change.

In 1987, 37 years after the first proposal to allow female members into Rotary, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Rotary Clubs could no longer exclude women from membership on the basis of gender. This came at a time when Rotary had more than a million members and a public presence in nearly every country in the world. It could no longer be considered to be a private organization and, as a public organization, it was subject to laws against discrimination.

Rotary was quick to decide that any district or country that wanted to follow the court ruling was free to do so. This was welcomed by most clubs in the USA, Canada, and much of Europe, and gradually spread from there. Today, there are more than 200,000 female Rotarians around the world.

Locally, members of the Cataraqui-Kingston Rotary Club recall that a straw poll of its members at the time supported the California ruling before Rotary International made its decision. An overwhelming majority of members voted in favour of allowing women into membership. Within a month, the Rotary Club of Kingston brought its first woman into membership and, a few months later, three women became members on the same day. The Kingston-Frontenac Club welcomed two women into its membership on November 1, 1994.

For some, this was simply an acceptance of overdue change. For others, it was a recognition that the more people we had to engage and work on all the local and international areas of service that needed Rotary’s help, the better off we would all be.

The perception of Rotary as an ‘old boys club’ has changed considerably as women continue to join the ranks and assume leadership roles. Today, women make up between 30 – 50 percent of the membership in most Canadian Rotary clubs. Of course, it’s commonly known that women also do much more than 50 percent of the work!

It’s also exciting to note that Jennifer E. Jones, a member of the Rotary Club of Windsor-Roseland, has been nominated to become Rotary International’s president for 2022-23. This ground-breaking selection will make her the first woman to hold that office in the organization’s 116-year history.

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