There was a special celebration in Lynnwood last week for women participating in Rotary.
Just 30 years ago, on May 4, 1987, women were first allowed to be in Rotary — and it was a fight for women to be given that right.
To celebrate the accomplishment of allowing women into Rotary, the Rotary Club of Lynnwood hosted a reenactment of the Supreme Court case that made it legal to allow women into the prestigious, community-minded organization.
Jeffrey Goodwin, a member of Lynnwood Rotary and a former judge, appropriately played the role of the Supreme Court judge presiding over the case. Rotary President Marilla Sargent, a woman, played the part of William P. Sutter, who argued to keep women out of rotary. Rotary member Steven Sterner, a man, played the role of Judith Resnick, who represented female Rotary members fighting to keep their status as Rotarians.
Throughout Rotary’s history, women had been allowed to attend meetings and participate in some activities, but they were not able to be official Rotary members.
Judge Goodwin set the stage for the reenactment. The case began in 1976, when the Rotary Club of Duarte, California invited three women to join, even though Rotary International did not allow women into Rotary clubs at that time. They filed their charter listing the women by their initials only, but the charter was revoked in 1978.
The Rotary Club of Duarte filed a suit in the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1978. The case was heard in 1983. Judges ruled against the Duarte club, saying that as a non-business establishment, participating women were not protected by the Unruh Act prohibiting discrimination based on gender.
The Rotary Club of Duarte appealed and won. Rotary International then appealed with the California Supreme Court, which declined to review. Rotary International moved up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted the case.
“There was considerable disagreement about accepting this case,” Goodwin said. “Largely because the Court had recently decided a similar case and debated the merits of reopening the issue.”
The two sides made their cases.
“Rotary was founded 81 years ago by four Chicago men who wished to meet with outher businessmen in a highly selective environment,” Sargent, channeling Sutter, said. “Your honor, the preference of Rotarians at their weekly meetings is to be with the boys. It’s been that way for 81 years and that’s become the accepted standard.”
Sterner, channeling Resnick, expressed his outrage after first defining the Unruh Act, which states “All persons within the jurisdiction of this state (California) are free and equal, no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments of any kind whatsoever.”
“Your honor, by providing goods, services and facilities to its members, Rotary is in fact a business, and therefore must comply with the Unruh Act and admit Women,” Sterner said.
The court made its decision on May 4, 1987, a 7-0 ruling that officially allowed women to join Rotary.
“Even if the Act does work some slight infringement of members’ rights, that infringement is justified by the State’s compelling interests in eliminating discrimination against women and in assuring them equal access to public accommodations,” Goodwin said.
Shortly after the ruling, the Rotary Club of Duarte, California selected Sylvia Whitlock to be its president, making her the first female president of a Rotary Club. By 1990, there were about 20,200 female Rotarians worldwide. That number multiplied to more than 199,000 by 2010.
“We have come a long way since May 4, 1987,” Sargent said, now speaking as herself.
All women attending the Lynnwood Rotary meeting on May 4, 2017 received a single yellow rose to commemorate 30 years of women in Rotary.
–Story and photos by Natalie Covate