Women Fill Top Spots in Rotary Club 10 Years After Being Admitted

Few of the 7,400 Rotary clubs across the nation can boast the glitz, brass, and power of the downtown Los Angeles LA5, which counts among its membership former drug czar William Bennett and Unicel chief Roger Beach.

So moving to the head of this organization is no small feat. LA5's president, in addition to other duties, must have a strong but diplomatic touch to get the most out of the club's high-powered, time-driven professionals.

That's not a problem for Kathy Turner. The head of Helstrom Turner and Associates, the fourth-largest personnel recruiting firm in the Los Angeles area, she will next month become the first woman president of one of America's largest and most prestigious Rotary clubs.

Ten years after the United States Supreme Court forced Rotary to accept women as members, what's perhaps most notable about the appointment is that it hasn't raised any eyebrows.

"Women know how to get things done and she's doing it," says David Meshulam, special agent for Northwestern Mutual Life and one of 650 LA5 Rotarians. "Kathy's making all the men stand on their feet."

Since the 1987 decision, which paved the way for other service clubs such as Cosmos, Kiwanis, and Lions to also abandon their all-male policies, female membership has grown rapidly. Women number 54,000, or 13 percent of 400,000 Rotarians in the US. They are rising to top positions, presiding over 1,500 clubs. Twelve female district governors oversee 70 or more clubs.

Their rise reflects the great strides women have made in professional and business life. Twenty years ago, for example, women made up less than 4 percent of middle-management. Today, 40 percent of the nation's bank vice presidents, product managers, accountants and consultants, for example, are women, according to Elaine Chao, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"If we want the best of the leaders of the business and professional community, we have to take in men and women," says Charles Keller, who became president of Rotary International shortly after the court decision.

But that attitude wasn't always representative. The oldest service club in the nation, Rotary International was created in 1905 for professionals and businessmen around the world who shared interest in work and service. "Service above self" is their motto.

Career women were few and far between at that time. But as women began to make their way in the professional and business world, advocates began lobbying to have them join the clubs.

But it took time - and a court action - for barriers to come down. Rotary chapters around the world had been debating whether to admit women at least since the late 1970s. But efforts to change the club's bylaws to make the club gender-neutral had failed year after year, although each time, opposition to change became weaker. Then on May 4, 1987, the Supreme Court upheld a California law prohibiting discrimination by Rotary or other private clubs.

The decision led to the resignation of diehards. But, observers say, most skeptics later became converts. "The growth and future of Rotary will be in many ways positively affected by women," says Glen Estess, a former vice president of Rotary International from Birmingham, Ala., who voted against admitting women.

Karen Kline, who founded Accent Chicago, a chain of six gift stores in downtown Chicago, remembers a few negative remarks when she joined the Chicago Rotary Club weeks after the Supreme Court decision. But three years later, when she was recruiting members to launch a new club, she says most men - particularly the younger ones - saw that women joining was a given.

"The idea of an all-male club is very peculiar to men who are in their 20s and 30s," says Ms. Kline, who now, as a district governor, oversees 3,000 Rotarians in the Chicago area.

Ms. Turner of the LA5 joined Rotary to find balance in a life that, for 20 years, had been centered on her work at May Department Stores. "What people want in Rotary is something to do in their community that's relevant to their lives," she says. For her and thousands of Rotarians, that has meant developing strong friendships and participating in projects ranging from working with local school children to sponsoring literacy programs in schools overseas.

"The very fact that there are more women is a testimony to the fact that [Rotary] wasn't a club for men only," says Ann Jardim, dean of the Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston. "It was an organization for people with similar interests in trade, business, service."

Many clubs have grown under women's leadership. In Carmel, Calif., for instance, Mary Margaret Fleming recently drew 1,590 to a regional meeting of 49 Rotary clubs when the district hadn't had more than 750 before. In Barrington, Ill, Sheryl Saunders doubled the membership of the club she presides over. Within months after Kline launched a breakfast club in Wilmette, Ill, seven years ago, the club had 65 members.

Women also are bringing a renewed focus on social issues, observers say. In Los Angeles, LA5 Rotary president-elect Turner vows to make anti-gang efforts a top priority.

Today, the largest number of women Rotarians is in the US and Canada. The addition of women in Europe is occurring at a much slower pace: There are more in Uganda and Kenya than in all the European countries that accept women Rotarians, according to Mr. Keller.

Nobody seems to dispute that Rotary clubs are different than they were 10 years ago. "It's no better, it's just different," says Keller, who has since stepped down as president. "Men enjoy each other's company. They thrived on that for 80 years. Those of us ready to make the change were looking at the future and the reality that the business and professional community was changing."

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