At the start, Rotary was a men's club with the Rotary International (RI)'s constitution prohibiting women from being members. So, it was not surprising that when Harbourside began in 1980, women were on the fringe of the Club.

But that didn't mean that they were inactive. In the early days, the women provided support to their husband Rotarians. They assisted with fundraising and social activities, and helped with the various club and community projects. Some of the other Rotary clubs in Victoria established ladies auxiliaries called "Rotary Anns" or "Inner Wheel" but the Harbourside wives did not formalize their role that way.

The relationship of women to Rotary changed on June 1, 1977, when the Rotary Club of Durante California inducted three women members into their club. RI immediately pulled the club's charter and the Rotary Club of Durante took RI to the Supreme Court of California arguing discrimination. The Club won that suit but lost on an appeal. The suit eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and on May 4, 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that RI must allow women and other minorities to be eligible to join Rotary.

That started a debate in Harbourside. Not all Harboursiders were in favour of having women members. Luckily, then-President Doug Potentier was the Deputy Chief of Police and was able to keep matters well in hand. Common sense prevailed and on April 5, 1989, President Doug inducted the first two women members into the Club. They were Beverly Rozee, an investment broker with Odlum Brown; and Christine Dysart, owner of Brown's the Florist.

It soon became clear that these women had joined not because they were interested in breaking into an "all boys club" or finding a wealthy husband but because they shared the Rotary values and wanted to be of service. Despite the debate, they were made very welcome in the Club and were immediately put to work.

Clearly some changes had to be made before women would feel comfortable and welcome enough to become members. Language was cleaned up, some jokes weren't told (at the podium at least), and social functions had to accommodate members of both genders.

However, one thing stood out as a bone of contention and that was the singing of "Happy Birthday". How could that be? Traditionally, the men would sing "Happy Birthday Dear Fellows". The women, of course, objected to being called "fellows" but the men insisted that the definition of a fellow was "a person of equal rank, position, or background; a peer". They were technically correct, if out of date. The women assumed the more modern, and also correct, definition of "fellow", as being "a man or a boy". So, for over a decade, when a woman member had a birthday, the men sang "fellow", and the women sang "Rotarian", each group trying to sing louder than the other. It was all in good fun and to this day, you will still hear the occasional "fellow" sung in the room when we are singing Happy Birthday. Change, however, came slowly and Beverly and Chris remained the only women members until 1991.

Slowly, one by one, more women joined the club. By 1994, there were six, and by 1999, there were 15. At time of writing, in January 2011, of the 89 members, 26 are women. Things look bright for the future: of the 20 members who joined since 2009 and who still remain active, 12 are women.

Even though their numbers were small, the women's contributions were not. In 1993, Ardath Paxton-Mann became the first Director of the Club, in the capacity of Co-Director of International Affairs. Then in 1999, Susan Kurushima became the first woman President, followed in 2000 by Chris Dysart, and Maureen Duncan in 2005.

1999 was an exceptional year for the women members. Of the 15 women members, five were on the Board: Susan Kurushima was the President, Chris Dysart, the President Elect, Ann Moskow was the Treasurer, and Ardath Paxton-Mann and Deirdre Campbell were Directors. They worked hard, presented fresh new ideas, and often had a softer approach to making decisions.

Women not only served on the Board, they introduced three of our five major fundraisers. In the early 1990's, Chris Dysart introduced Roses from Rotary, and in 2001, Ann Moskow and Margaret Mann introduced The Rotary Tea, which later became The Rotary Brunch. Guests at the Tea made such favourable comments about the fruit cakes that another fundraiser was started: "Christmas Cakes from Rotary". Over the years, the three fundraising events have raised over $350,000. Roses and Cakes are not only still very successful, they are very popular with the entire 'family of Harbourside' because of the wonderful fellowship among all the volunteers.

According to the History of Rotary website, "The addition of women in Rotary has represented the single greatest force in the growth of Rotary International and the fastest growing category of new members is women, especially in the western world."

Perhaps the comment that sums up the impact that the inclusion of women in Harbourside has made was one that a senior male member made to a female member. Looking across the room where some 100 people were preparing the Roses from Rotary, he said, "And who would have thought that there was a time not so long ago when we wondered if it was a good idea to welcome women members? What would Harbourside be without them?"

January 2011

Here is a link to additional information about women in Rotary International