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Will Be 1st Club Led by Woman : A Revolution in Rotary Comes Round in Duarte

May 10, 1987|SUE AVERY | Times Staff Writer

When Sylvia Whitlock becomes president of the Rotary Club of Duarte next month, she will be the first woman ever to head one of the 20,000 clubs affiliated with Rotary International.

The speaker at Whitlock's installation dinner will be Carol Agate of the American Civil Liberties Union, who helped the Duarte club through nine years of legal action that culminated in the Supreme Court decision Monday that allows states to force Rotary International to admit women members.

The club met for breakfast last Wednesday, as it does every week, and for the first time since its ouster from Rotary International in 1978, members wore Rotary Club badges.

"This is the first time some of our members have had these," said Duarte Rotary President Bill Brooks, referring to those who joined after the club had become a local service organization that renamed itself the Duarte Ex-Rotary Club.

'Awesome Responsibility'

Whitlock joined the club in 1982 and has never been a Rotarian, though she attended a Rotary International training seminar in March for presidents-elect.

"It was 310 men and me," she said.

"Being the first woman will be an awesome responsibility because everyone will be watching me. So I guess I will have to be the best president."

The meeting Wednesday was bolstered by the attendance of three members, all men, from the Covina, Northeast Los Angeles and Whittier Rotary clubs, who said they came as a good-will gesture.

Also in attendance was Sanford Smith, an attorney and a member of the Arcadia club who had donated his legal services to the Duarte group.

"For every lawyer who wants to handle a case like this, it is hard to find a client able to stay in it so long," Smith said.

'Strong People'

"Originally I thought it would take five years. You are strong people and you have been good Rotarians, even if you were Ex-Rotary. Thank you for being my clients, and I'm glad the whole thing is over with."

In 1977, the club, which had only eight active members and was about to disband, was fighting for survival when it admitted three women in violation of Rotary International bylaws.

By 1978, the club had doubled its membership, but after

introducing the women to other Rotarians at its 25th anniversary celebration, the Duarte group was expelled from Rotary International.

The club now has 19 members, 10 of whom are women. Half the members joined after the group became Ex-Rotary.

'Won't Change Much'

"We have operated more informally than a Rotary club normally does," Brooks said.

"Things will change, but I don't think anyone will miss our being an independent service club because the big changes are with the officers, who are more accountable to International. The way the club functions won't change much."

Brooks said Wednesday's meeting was typical except that there was no speaker or program. Don Anderson, a past president, announced that the club's community project would be "Say no to drugs," and Brooks discussed plans for the installation dinner.

But it wasn't quite business as usual, with several reporters and television cameramen on hand. Brooks said he had just received a letter from a Granada Hills woman asking how she could join Rotary.

Lee Riblet, a visitor from the Covina Rotary club, said: "When I joined Rotary, I was kidded about it being an old men's club, but you've changed that."

Unacceptable in Japan

Earlier Riblet and Jack Stimson of the Northeast club said that the admission of women was inevitable but that they were afraid women wouldn't be accepted by clubs in some other countries, mainly Japan, where it is culturally unacceptable for women to join men's organizations.

It was in Tokyo nine years ago that Luke McJimpson, a 28-year member of the Duarte club, pleaded with Rotary International convention delegates to reinstate the local club. The delegates turned him down by a vote of 1,060 to 34.

McJimpson's defeat in Tokyo prompted the club to begin its lengthy legal action in 1978 by filing suit in Los Angeles Superior Court. In 1983, Judge Max Deutz refused to reinstate the club. It appealed that decision, and in March, 1986, a state appeals court reversed Deutz, saying that Rotary clubs are business establishments subject to regulation under the state's Unruh Act, which bans discrimination based on race, sex, religion or ethnic origin.

Rotary International then appealed to the state Supreme Court. When that court refused to hear the case, Rotary International petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

Repeated Discussion

As the case made its way through the courts, club members repeatedly discussed the situation, Anderson said in an interview last week.

"We kept asking if we were doing the right thing, and the members always wanted to continue. At each point in the court proceedings, we always discussed whether we wanted to go ahead."

Riblet and Stimson called the dispute over the admission of women a tempest in a teapot and said they did not know why it took so long to resolve it.

"The wives are the ones who objected to it," they agreed.

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