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Men's Clubs Go Way of Dinosaur : Women Bolster Membership Rolls, Put a New Spin on Goals


In the three years since the U.S. Supreme Court jimmied open the door to California's all-male service clubs, women have torn it off the hinges, snapping up memberships and moving quickly into positions of power.

As they infiltrate the largest such clubs--the Lions, Rotary and Kiwanis--women are changing the character of the organizations, reviving previously neglected projects and dragging traditionally female concerns onto center stage. While it hasn't always been easy for the old-timers, most members concede that women have injected spirit and revitalized dwindling membership.

In clubs once stalked by attrition, where members have been known to nod off after the flag salute and a rousing patriotic song, the women have provided an electroshock treatment of sorts. "It has," said Larry Jenness of Laguna Niguel, a Rotarian since 1952, "revitalized us."

A prime example of the change is found in Orange County, where 8% of Lions Club members are now women and seven clubs recently elected women presidents.

One Lions Club has female presidents lined up for the next three years. Women have taken "a big leap" in recent months, said Debbie Vanderwest of Buena Park, wife of Lions district governor Kurt Vanderwest. "They are," she said simply, "moving up fast."

The effects were felt immediately, as subtle as a silenced joke, as disconcerting as a single woman at a male banquet table. Eventually, members say, as women gain in numbers, they will accumulate power, deciding what gets done in their communities, across the country and around the globe.

Already, there has been a shift in projects. More time is being devoted to orphans, the homeless and battered women, members say. A Rotarian and former Parent Teacher Assn. president, Betsy Sater of Laguna Niguel, said school projects will benefit. Kiwanians who concentrate on helping youth now have "really a different outlook" when reaching out to girls, said former international President Frank di Noto of Newport Beach.

Sometimes, women say, men were blissfully unaware of pressing community needs. Laguna Niguel Lions knew nothing of the urgent demands on a nearby shelter for battered women until women members invited the director to a meeting, according to Gloria Kimmell, a club vice president.

"It was a woman's idea, of course," she said. "It deals with women's issues."

The 2-year-old Four Cities Kiwanis Club in Orange might not exist if it weren't for Candace Dye, a 34-year-old nurse who helped form the group, envisioning it as a support system for children hospitalized at UCI Medical Center.

Like Bonnie Holmes, first female member of the Costa Mesa North Kiwanis Club, most women say they join service clubs for one reason--to give back to their community. Others admit they can gain professionally by plugging into groups that are known not only for community service and camaraderie, but also as a network of business contacts.

"Anybody that does business in the world today in a competitive industry who doesn't think about international connections is limiting themselves," said Maxene Johnston, who runs a Skid Row homeless shelter and is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, one of the world's largest.

What they are not interested in, Sater said, is using membership to meet men, something wives of some club members feared three years ago.

"There was a vocal minority that said they were going to quit if the 'girls' were allowed to join--or their wives were going to make them quit--but none of that ever materialized," said Bob Wood of the Newport-Balboa Rotary Club, where about 40% of the members are now women.

Added Fred Owens, a longtime member of the Costa Mesa North Kiwanis Club: "There were guys who said, 'You get them in here and there'll be hanky-panky, then there'll be hell to pay.' "

Sater scoffed, "We're not joining to meet men. These are businesswomen."

There is more patronizing than womanizing behind closed doors of service club meetings, some members say. "It's more of a, 'Well, hello dear, you can sit next to me and I'll show you the ropes.' That sort of thing," said Sherrie Laveroni, former member of the Monarch Beach Sunrise Rotary Club in South County. "It's really kind of cute."

When Joanne Yusi became the first woman to join the Laguna Niguel Rotary Club three years ago, most welcomed the 5-foot, 2-inch powerhouse. Only two or three members quit, she said, including the one who called her "dearie."

"I'm a woman in business, and I don't need to have somebody pat me on the head to let me know that I'm OK," she said. "Maybe they were the unhappy ones. I prevailed."

Many club members were eager to accept women before the Supreme Court heard the case in May, 1987, of how the Rotary Club of Duarte was dumped by Rotary International for going against the bylaws and admitting women. The court upheld a state law banning discrimination by any business establishment based on race, sex, religion or national origin.

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