Sunday, February 5, 2012

Eight Very Cool Women

It seems hard to believe today that just over 25 years ago, Seattle’s Rotary Club Number 4, the biggest club in the United States and one of Seattle’s most able civic organizations, did not allow women to be among its members.

That fact, among others, prompted a group of eight women, for whom civic life was a clear and unadorned responsibility, to form their own organization. Over several months of breakfasts and lunches, they decided on the character of their organization, infused it with their personalities and experiences, exercised the social networking tools of that day – handwritten address books, food with discussion, the IBM Selectric typewriter -- asked one of their children to create a logo, identified a hundred people and asked each for $100, filled out the papers for incorporation and rented an office space in a downtown tower.

Many things thirty years ago were the same as they are today. They got a good deal on the office because there was a sharp recession going on. There was a detour for people who lived on the West Seattle peninsula. Their old bridge had been hit by a cargo vessel and a new one was being constructed. The detour would last six years. It sometimes took 40 minutes to get from one end of the downtown to the other, the reason then was the downtown bus tunnel, a difficult cut and cover construction project. The Seattle Mariners were headed south to Arizona and expected to lose two thirds of their games during the regular season, which proved largely true.

Sometimes, when people are busy creating something, the details of the doing obscure the historical themes of the creation.  Here’s the wonderful Carl Sandburg poem about that idea:

“I am riding on a Limited Express, one of the crack trains of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: ‘Omaha.’”

I recently interviewed four of the City Club’s founding women at a board retreat of their 30 year old creation.  While the interview was a practicum of what they did and how they did it, the great arc of history forming the role of women in American civic life after the Civil War was very much in the room as these elegant women discussed how they went about producing an organization that would result in the recruitment and training as civic leaders many thousands of young men and women.

They are travelling the same path of women’s self improvement clubs that gave significant numbers of women access to educational opportunities routinely denied them by their public institutions. 

They are inheritors of political movements like suffrage, temperance and settlement.

They are the skin and bones of the City Club Movement, the connection to civic life of the reform ideas of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that resulted in the first City Club in Cleveland in 1912 and another in Portland in 1916. At the same time, women were pursuing a parallel civic reality in many different organizations like Junior League, started by Mary Harriman, daughter of the railroader, helping settle a flood of immigrants flowing into the country at the turn of the 20th century.  A bit later, the American Women Suffrage Association morphed into the League of Women Voters with the role of educating and activating 20 million newly enfranchised voters.

Rotary started in Chicago, in 1905, created by a young attorney, Paul Harris, who yearned for a professional club that would capture the small town culture he remembered as a young man.  With three other colleagues, a tailor, a mining engineer and a coal broker, they began meeting weekly, rotating the obligation of hosting the meeting to the other offices of its rapidly growing list of members.

Early on, the club adopted the most revered of perceived small town virtues, service. An early Chicago Rotarian, Arthur Frederick Sheldon, coined a phrase that has, in various iterations, labeled the cause marketing theme of Rotary clubs to this day:

"The science of service is the science of business; he profits most who serves best."

First Convention, 1910
Seattle was an early adopter of Rotary, in 1909, becoming the fourth club founded following Chicago, San Francisco and Oakland. In 1910, the first national convention was held in Chicago and representatives of 16 clubs were there. Rotary's rise was viral and it had a particular appeal in the western US. Following San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle, Los Angeles was #5, Tacoma was #8 and Portland #15. In 1911, the convention came to the Rose City.  At the start of the convention, organizers announced that London had formed a club, as had Winnipeg and Dublin. Twenty years after that first meeting in Chicago, Rotary had 2,000 clubs and 108,000 members. Rotary was global, no trick . Today, 32,000 clubs with 1.2 million meet in 200 countries.
Paul Harris, center, at 1911 Portland Conference

Whether to allow women prompted a lively discussion at the Portland conference in 1911 though it was not resolved, the group ignoring the issue. It's interesting that a photograph of the Chicago delegation shows a woman who appears to be wearing the same credentialing as the other members. She was Paul Harris' stenographer.  That same year women-only Rotary clubs formed in Minneapolis and Duluth and met for six years until the Americans entered the World War.  Women-only clubs were difficult in the Rotary model because categories of membership are based on professional occupations, most of which were denied women at the time. A doctor, a lawyer and a chiropractor were the founders of the Duluth women's Rotary.

Faced with a letter seeking official status for women from some part of the globe at each annual meeting, the 1921 Rotary International Conference finally confronted the question, adopting a resolution that would add this sentence to Article 2 Section III of the group's constitution:

"A Rotary Club shall be composed of men."

Efforts were made to soften the snub with the creation of the "Inner Wheel," a kind of auxiliary for women, in 1923. Always problematic for the high civic tone of Rotary, the inclusion of women kept clanging off some of the fundamental pronouncements of the club, like the Four Way Test, published in 1932 and adopted in 1943:

"Of the things we think, say or do
1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?"

In 1950, a club in India proposed dropping the word "male" and later, in 1964, what is now Sri Lanka proposed the same resolution. Both were defeated. In 1977, a club in Duarte, California, located just north of Pasadena, admitted three women as members. In 1978, Duarte was booted out and proclaimed itself, to great new membership success, as the Not Rotary Club of Duarte, California.

A California Superior Court agreed with Rotary but a state court of appeals reversed. The US Supreme Court took the case and in May of 1986, sometime after the International District Rotary in Seattle voted to admit women members, the Supreme Court ruled for Duarte, which promptly began calling itself "the mouse that roared."

Within a year, 20,000 women became members of Rotary and today 200,000 women, one in six members, call themselves Rotarians.

All of this was noteworthy to the women who had started City Club five years earlier, but old news.  They had early on abandoned the idea of making their club a preserve for women and immediately recruited men to be a part of their leadership and, five years out, their club, figuratively, was cooking. 

Once too old for Junior League and too woman for Rotary, these eight women found their own way to do their duty in the public square and to bring tens of thousands of others to join them there.  They were really quiet revolutionary on their own terms, echoing the words of the Portland Club:  "No Mossbacks.  No Drones."

Anne Farrell, Colleen Willoughby, Kate Webster, Sue Lile Hunter, Jean Rolfe, Marilyn Ward, Barbara Hodgson and Nancy Nordhoff variously continue their service.  Colleen Willoughby came up with the idea of pooling resources of professional women so that their collective philanthropy can have a more significant impact.  The Washington Woman’s Foundation has 500 members today who have collectively raised and given $11 million to the Seattle community and many others.  Some of those who worked with Colleen on the founding of City Club currently participate in the Foundation.  Others have gone on to serve at the University of Washington Medical School, Children’s Hospital, YWCA, the Seattle Foundation, the University of Washington, Washington State University, St.  Mark’s Cathedral, Planned Parenthood, the Washington Women’s Bank and nearly every significant organization in the community that takes its public responsibilities seriously. 

Very nicely done, ladies.  And thank you.

A footnote.  Anne Farrell, one of the eight women who founded City Club, joined Rotary after it opened its doors to women and, after a time, became its first woman President.

HistoryLink's File on City Club

Rotary after 100 years

Washington Women's Foundation

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