"I saw a girl walking down Reseda Boulevard. She said she was in business by herself. I said we should ask her to join."
That was Rotary member Stan Clarke's flippant way of dealing with Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling opening the international service organization to female membership.
Accountant Clarke made his observation at a Monday lunch meeting of the Reseda Rotary Club, where members paid up their club fines (offenses included tardiness and failure to wear name tags) before turning to discussion of the big news of the day.
But while the high-court decision stirred plenty of interest and a variety of opinions, it didn't seem to come as a crushing blow to Rotarians in Reseda or elsewhere in Southern California.
Unflustered in Encino
A Rotary district governor in Encino, Howard Mark, said his men were unflustered by the event. "Gee, now we can finally admit Phyllis," one member said.
Said Mark: "I think it (the ruling) is going to be accepted very well. The only thing that's changed really are three letters--that's M-E-N--that have to be taken out of the bylaws."
Ever since a California appeals court established the right for Rotary Clubs to admit women last year, many local clubs have kept potential female members in the wings on a wait-and-see basis, according to Mark. He said the clubs felt it would be bad form to admit women members and then have to ask them to leave if the Supreme Court ruling went the other way.
Even those men who initially balked at the idea may have had their objections worn down now that they have had women hanging around the clubhouse for a year. The resisters have had 10 years to get used to the idea that a decision like this might be coming--the Duarte Rotary admitted three women in 1977 and Rotary International reacted by pulling the club's charter. The Supreme Court decision, based on that case, bars the international from revoking charters of chapters that admit women.
Mark said there have been Rotarians who threatened to leave the club should this day ever come. He said he heard the same threat 20 years ago when Rotary clubs accepted their first black members. "It's just hot air," he said. The same members who threatened to quit are now saying: "They can't force me out of the club by bringing in a few women," Mark said.
Orange County Rotary official Ken Clark said there might be more of an uproar in other states if the Supreme Court decision begins to break the gender barrier in Rotary clubs, as expected. "This is old stuff in California," he said.
But even here, there are some holdouts. Seventy-seven-year-old Mack Parks of Claremont said, "I'm completely opposed to it (admitting women). I believe strongly that an association of all men or all women should be allowed in this country."
A 32-year member of the Claremont Rotary, Parks said he would not have joined the club in the first place if women were allowed to join. "I wouldn't want to be in a club if there are lots of women in the club that I'm not related to and if my wife did not belong to it." He said his wife has no interest in joining such a club, and he's glad that she doesn't.
"You can't settle this thing with legislation," said Parks, a retired realtor.
Another L.A.-area Rotary official, Sam Schauerman, predicted that, in the wake of the recent decision, some clubs will begin actively recruiting women for the same reason that the Duarte club originally brought in women--because they needed more members.
Rotary members are inducted according to classification, or occupation. The clubs try to maintain a balance so they have one of a variety of professions represented. So if, for instance, there's already a male druggist in a club, a female druggist won't be admitted, said Schauerman, vice president of instruction at El Camino College in Torrance. He said that rejecting applicants on the basis of occupation could be a device some clubs will try to use to keep women out.
(One incoming club president, Owen Amrine of Paramount, said he would do everything within his legal power to discourage women from joining. He believes the place for women in the Rotary organization is in the auxiliary club, the Inner Wheel, to which his wife belongs.)
In some areas, the classification method will work to women's benefit. Howard Mark said that in Panorama City there are five bank presidents and three major department store heads who are women, so to fill their quota of occupations, the Panorama City club, of which Mark is a member, will need to invite some of these women to join.
When women do start attending Rotary meetings, what goes on in the inner sanctum may be news to some--but not to Esther Johnson, who has provided piano accompaniment at meetings of the Santa Monica Rotary Club for 35 years.
The Santa Monica club didn't wait to see what the Supreme Court would decide on the Duarte case, but went ahead and admitted Johnson last year. "I was there at lunch every day so it didn't make much difference if they made me a member," the retired accountant said.
She said no one within the club has questioned her status as one of the boys, but at a Palm Springs district conference recently, a dubious sergeant-at-arms approached her and inquired: "Are you a Rotarian?"
"Yes, sir!" Johnson said she snapped back proudly.
"I think everyone's sort of prepared for it (the coming of the female Rotarians) now," Johnson added. "I'm certainly ready to share the club with other women."
Staff Writer Doug Smith contributed to this article.