Press Information

Related Pages
Photo Albums


By Erica Tochin, Boston Globe Correspondent  |  October 25, 2007

Ingrid Miles is used to taking charge. She successfully ran for selectwoman in Ipswich, then set her sights on expanding affordable housing in town. She also had a career in corporate finance and is a successful real estate broker.

Yet, when she accompanied her husband in 1995 as he presented a slide show to the Ipswich Rotary Club, she felt uncomfortable because she was the only woman in a room full of men.

"It was a little intimidating at the time," she said.

Miles is now the president-elect of the club, notable for a woman who wasn't even sure she wanted to join, and for a group that only allowed women as the result of a Supreme Court decision in 1987.

For decades known as a "good-old-boys club," Rotary was an exclusive group of businessmen that promoted community service. A member's wife, known as a Rotary Ann, might have been involved as a volunteer but would take a back seat to her husband. Now, women are active members and leaders.

"You're going to see more women," Miles said. "We're seeing it now in the presidential election that we have a woman being seriously considered. Nobody's making the point that she's a woman. Everybody's past that."

In 2004, the organization even changed its secondary motto, "He profits most who serves best," to "They profit most who serve best," to reflect the change. Though many countries still have clubs without women, American - and particularly North Shore - clubs have seen an influx of women.

Not only is the female membership growing rapidly; women also are assuming leadership roles originally ascribed to men. Out of 47 clubs in the district that encompasses the North Shore, 18 have female presidents. Ten years ago, there were 13. Women make up about 23 percent of the district's 2,132 members.

"One of the best decisions Rotary ever made was to allow women," said Grace Connolly, a lawyer who is president of Newburyport's Rotary Club. "It opened up half the population of the world."

Paul Harris, a Chicago lawyer, founded the Rotary Club in 1905 with two friends. They chose the name Rotary because they rotated club meetings to a different member's office each week. Since then, Rotary International has grown to include more than 32,000 clubs and 1.2 million members worldwide. According to statistics from the organization, there were 101,726 female members in 2001. There are 178,050 members now.

"Women have changed it from a good-old-boys club to a more-vibrant organization," said Carol Gamble, a hospital administrator and past president of the Wakefield Rotary Club. "The combination of talents from men and women together complement each other, and men are enjoying that women are hard-working and smart and taking the leadership roles. I don't think they feel threatened."

Far from it. Many clubs, including the one in Wakefield, are aggressively recruiting women.

"[Allowing women into Rotary] was long overdue," said Richard Reidy, president of the Wakefield Rotary Club. "It's kind of embarrassing, but we weren't asking women, the caretakers of the world, to join a service organization."

As more and more women become involved in business, they join Rotary for networking opportunities, said Miles, who joined in 2004.

"In any kind of organization you need all different kinds of people," said Patricia Roberts, president-elect of the Marblehead Harbor Rotary Club. "Women by nature are social beings and they're looking for ways to reach out." Roberts said that her club recently held a social activity that was spearheaded by several female leaders within the club.

The opportunity to serve others, including the local community, also makes the organization appealing to women.

"Women bring that level of compassion, caring, and interest, especially in things involving children and families," Connolly said. Although the organization is most famous for funneling money into causes such as the battle against polio, the local clubs do charity work of their own. Connolly's club recently handed out free dictionaries to every fifth-grader in Newburyport. "It's not just writing checks. . . . We're trying to actively participate in those activities we sponsor."

Reidy said: "Women bring that caring attitude that men don't bring, and they add a whole new dimension [to the organization]."

Gamble was approached by Wakefield's police chief about starting an initiative to raise awareness about domestic violence. Gamble went to work and formed the Wakefield Alliance Against Violence, a nonprofit group that not only helps victims but also aims to teach children about prevention.

"As a leader in Rotary and as a women, you have an opportunity to really make a difference and target those needs of women," Gamble said.

"Women are natural nurturers, and that nurturing quality is so vital in that model that we all subscribe to, which is 'Service Above Self,' " Miles said. "When it comes to service, men are not so forthcoming about this type of work. People weren't even aware of what Rotary did on a local level, but I think [women] do a better job of communicating."

"What I love to see is more women, and especially younger women, involved," Gamble said.

All four women agree that the ratio of men to women in their clubs is slightly unbalanced, though women have made great strides.

The district now has a female governor. To date, there has never been a female president of Rotary International, but Connolly said: "Will there be a woman president [of Rotary International]? Absolutely, I think someday there will be."

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company