Monday, May 8, 2017

The Mouse That Roared

By C.J. Hirschfield

Duarte, Calif., is a city of about 21,000 located on historic Route 66 in Los Angeles County. One of its claims to fame is that was the home of the first avocado tree grown in the state. Another is that in 1987, Duarte’s Rotary Club won a U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down the international service organization’s male-only membership policy. Later that year, Duarte Rotary elected Dr. Sylvia Whitlock as the first female Rotary president in the world.

Dr. Sylvia Whitlock

Last week I hosted this impressive lady at my home. She was in Oakland to give a speech in honor of the 30th anniversary of women in Rotary. As a woman who has belonged to Rotary for 15 years – and who became friends with my future husband through Rotary – I count myself as one of her many grateful beneficiaries.

Born in New York and educated through high school in Jamaica, Sylvia has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D (cum laude) in education. Erudite and well-traveled, she’s also a proud grandma who happily shows off photos of her grandkids. In the 1980s, she was an elementary school principal in Duarte who wanted to join the local Rotary Club. The club had been chartered in 1952, and in 1976, the club violated Rotary’s bylaws by inviting women to join. The response from Rotary International was swift and harsh: the Duarte club’s charter was revoked.

I love the fact that the little Duarte club didn’t back down. It cheekily renamed itself the Ex-Rotary Club of Duarte, but its members still wanted to be full members of one of the greatest humanitarian organizations in the world.   

In 1982, at the invitation of one of the women whose admission had caused the ouster of the club, Sylvia joined the Ex-Rotary Club of Duarte, excited at the prospect of community service. The court case was already making its way to the Supreme Court, and Sylvia had a banner made that read “Rotary Club of Duarte, the Mouse That Roared — Equal Opportunity for All.”

When the case finally reached the Supreme Court for a vote, the only woman on the Court – Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – chose to recuse herself, reportedly because her husband was a Rotary member. 

Sylvia was on her way to work when the news was announced. Twenty minutes after the announcement, she recalls, it seemed as though all the reporters in California had descended on her school. For hours she gave intelligent, researched responses to their interview questions.

"Women Also Serve," Sylvia Whitlock's book about Duarte and Rotary.

As of that moment, all Rotary clubs in the nation had to welcome weomn. If a club refused, it would lose its charter.

Oakland’s club is on record as having supported the historic effort. Over the years, the club continued to voice its support for women’s membership to Rotary International’s legislative council. And on June 11, 1987, the first day we could officially have women, we introduced six women members.

Last week, more than 100 Oakland Rotarians honored Dr. Sylvia Whitlock, and were moved by her story.

Sylvia Whitlock with proclamation from Oakland Rotary.

“I became more proud of an organization that I have only had the highest esteem,” says club member Harold Lowe. “There are times when we are reminded that no matter what we do in the world, we can and should always strive to be better.”

Also honored at the event was Piedmont resident and volunteer extraordinaire Carla Betts, who in 1997 became Oakland Rotary 3’s first woman president. “Queen Carla,” as we call her, is a legend at the club for all the right reasons.

Carla Betts celebrating with champagne.

Oakland Rotary 3 currently has the highest percentage of women of all the large clubs in the U.S.

In Rotary, there’s a tradition of ringing a bell at meetings – in exchange for a donation of $100 – to honor a member or an important life event. Last Thursday, to honor Sylvia, Carla and the fact that Rotary was smart enough to enlist the endless talent and enthusiasm of women to benefit people in need—in our community, and around the world – the bell was rung multiple times. So many times, in fact, that the club raised over $6,000 for its numerous service projects.

It was a pleasure getting to know Sylvia a bit while she was at our house. She graciously left us a box of chocolates—and a strong sense that the “mice” need to keep roaring in this crazy world.


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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