Some Rotary Club members were hesitant, 30 years ago, to have women join their clubs, but now, it’s hard to imagine Rotary without women.
Rotary clubs from the Nanaimo area hosted an International Women’s Day luncheon at the Nanaimo Golf Club on Tuesday, March 8. Guest speakers included two of the first women to join the Rotary Club of Nanaimo – Lucie Gosselin and Janeane Coutu – and district governor Lorna Curtis of the Rotary Club of Oak Bay.
Up until the late 1980s, Rotary clubs had only men as members, and it took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to decide that Rotary didn’t meet the definition of a private club and couldn’t exclude women, said Curtis.
“While Rotary International lost its legal battle to remain a men’s-only club, it proved fortuitous, as history has shown,” she said.
In 1992, the Rotary Club of Nanaimo invited Gosselin, Coutu and two other women to join. Before that, however, there had been some pushback. Coutu said at one of her first meetings, she unknowingly sat down at a table which happened to be occupied by some senior members of the club who had been among the most vocal in opposing women members.
“Nobody was mean, nobody was rude…” she said. “I didn’t find any kind of gender bias at all being a club member, at least that I can remember.”
There was one instance, while she was sitting in at another Rotary Club’s meeting, when two men got up and left the table as soon as Coutu sat down, she said, but two other men quickly came over and took the seats, and that’s what sticks with her most.
A few years later, two different Rotarians knocked on Coutu’s door on separate occasions specifically to apologize for their reluctance to accept women in the club.
“[They] apologized to me for … thinking it was bad for women to join Rotary and how happy they were it happened and [how they] can’t imagine Rotary without women,” Coutu said.
Curtis said she generally felt welcomed when she joined her club, though she remembers one rude comment from a male Rotarian who wanted her to know he had tried to stop women from joining. Curtis didn’t retort at the time, but told herself that she would show what a woman can do.
Now, there are 277,000 women in Rotary clubs worldwide, Curtis said, though she noted that that still represents only 23 per cent of membership.
“A top priority for Rotary is growing and diversifying our membership to make sure we reflect the communities we serve,” she said. “We know that our capacity to increase our impact and expand our reach is larger when more people unite with us which is why we value diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Gosselin became the Rotary Club of Nanaimo’s first woman president in 1998, and Coutu also went on to become club president. Rotary International’s next president in 2022-23, for the first time, will be a woman – Jennifer Jones of the Rotary Club of Windsor-Roseland in Ontario. Curtis said women who are leaders and members at Rotary Clubs are making positive change around the world.
“The best thing that ever happened to Rotary was allowing women to join,” she said.