IN 1978, Ellen Bernard flew to Sao Paulo, Brazil, on a Rotary International scholarship - but couldn't have joined this far-flung service organization, which banned women from membership. Today, Ms. Bernard is an assistant vice president of the Bank of Boston and a full-fledged Rotary Club member. She joined the organization, along with 23 other Boston-area women, in a recent induction of new Rotarians - boosting the local club's membership by about 15 percent.
For Bernard, you might say, life began with Rotary. As an undergraduate at Boston College, she studied a year on the Rotary scholarship at the University of Sao Paulo and met her future husband there. He's now a candidate for a PhD in solid state physics at the University of Lowell.
But more important, two years later - largely based on her experience as a Rotary scholar - Bernard was offered a complete two-year scholarship in the MBA program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Upon graduation from UNC, Bernard was hired by the Bank of Boston, and in eight months the bank sent her to Brazil to develop an internal handbook for analyzing commercial and investment banks there. Something begun years before with her Rotary Foundation Scholarship to Brazil had come full circle.
``When I was on the Rotary scholarship, I was so impressed with the Rotarians I met,'' she says. ``I was impressed with their professionalism. I wanted to be like them.
``I have no animosity or frustration about not being able to join until now, but I'm pleased that I can join now.''
For some years Rotary chapters around the world, including the Boston chapter, have been debating the issue of whether or not to admit women. A recent United States Supreme Court decision, upholding a California law prohibiting discrimination by Rotary or other private clubs, opened the door to the induction that took place in Boston. Three weeks ago Rotary International met in Munich and ruled that chapters throughout the world could accept female members.
At the same meeting that welcomed Bernard to membership, Susan Molley, an attorney for the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, also joined the Boston Rotary. Previously, Hancock had withdrawn corporate sponsorship of Rotary members because of the club's men-only policy.
Two years ago William Glovsky, a Rotary member and a Boston lawyer, resigned from the Boston chapter because of what he considered its slowness in pushing for the admission of women.
But at the very same meeting at which 24 women were admitted, Mr. Glovsky was readmitted, along with Sharen Litwin, a partner in his firm. Ms. Litwin had worked on an amicus curiae brief filed with the Supreme Court in favor of opening Rotary to women. ``Rotary has entered the 20th century,'' Glovsky says.
When the Duarte, Calif., chapter of Rotary enrolled three women in 1977, Rotary International headquarters in Evanston, Ill., removed its charter. The chapter soon challenged the removal under California's Unruh Act, which bans discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin.
A California appeals court upheld the Duarte chapter, and Rotary International lawyers took their case to the Supreme Court. In May the high court agreed with the California decision, requiring Rotary to admit women - but the court has no jurisdiction over chapters outside the US.
``I am filled with hope for the club and for service organizations. Not being able to take in women was a great handicap. But for some members this has been an agony,'' remarks Kerck Kelsey, a vice-president of the Bank of Boston and president of the Boston Rotary chapter, one of the oldest in the country.