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You’ve come a long way, Rotary

Thirty years ago, the service organization didn't allow women members. Meet some of women who paved the way for change in the midstate.

Carolyn Dumaresq - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

Carolyn Dumaresq remembers one of the first Rotary meetings in which she had to decide what would be the reason for imposing a weekly fine.

As part of the then Steelton club’s meeting tradition, a chosen Rotary member decided how to fine others in attendance. It was fun-natured ribbing, and the money raised always went to charity. It played out like this: You might be asked to pay a fine if you weren’t wearing a tie or you missed a meeting.

More than not, it seemed that each week Dumaresq, the superintendent of the Steelton-Highspire School District, was reaching into her purse. Fellow members had taken to teasing her at each meeting.

“I would shell out money all the time,” she said.

When it was her turn to pick what would lead to the fine, she looked out at the group of 20-plus men and asked them about a certain undergarment. “Anyone not having stockings on has to pay,” she said.

“I made a mint,” she said.

This bit of club history played out in late spring 1987. Dumaresq wasn’t just new to the club. She was also one of the first female Rotarians to join the local Rotary district. In May that year, the Supreme Court ruled Rotary clubs may not exclude members based on their gender.

Stephanie Acri, an elementary principal in the same school district, joined the club later that summer. She thinks now the charity-induced teasing probably was a bit of a test.

Were the new women going to complain? Make a big deal over the men’s tradition? “We laughed with them. That made a difference,” she said.

Across town Virginia Roth, in her mid 20s, was making inroads at the Harrisburg Rotary club. She was among the first group of women to join that club. Of the 140 members at the time, roughly two were women.

“Some members were not in agreement with the Supreme Court decision,” she said.

So she worked with what she knew: communication. She engaged, met the members on their own turf and found the common service themes that Rotary promoted. She admits that at times it was like having lunch with her father’s friends.

“What do we have in common? I focused on that,” said Roth, now president of PPO&S, a marketing and communications company in Harrisburg. “I’m curious, I was a good listener. The thoughtfulness was appreciated.”

And she volunteered. One of the first jobs she took on was a meeting greeter. At every weekly meeting, two people were assigned to welcome the membership.

“Chances are, I figured I was going to meet 50 percent of the members,” she said. “Of those, hopefully I could remember three or four names.”

Submitted

In Steelton, one or two members left the club after women joined, Acri remembered. The club also had to change some of its meeting venues because women weren’t allowed.

“You couldn’t let what someone said get under your skin,” Acri said. “If you would, you were going nowhere.”

But overall, the club was friendly and accepting, she said.

The Supreme Court decision stemmed from the actions of a small club, the Duarte Rotary Club in California, that was allowing women to join.

Rotary International withdrew the club’s charter after it found out. But the California club sued, claiming Rotary International violated state civil rights law. The case weaved in and out of lower courts for years before reaching the Supreme Court. On May 4, 1987, the high court ruled in Duarte’s favor.

Two years after the high court’s decision, Rotary International’s bylaws were changed to eliminate the “male only” provision for all of Rotary, according to rotarywomen.org.

Dumaresq and Acri were the first women members for the Rotary District 7390, which includes several midstate counties and more than 40 individual clubs.

Rotary member Allen Smith sponsored Acri and Dumaresq. At the time he was solicitor of the Steelton district.

Smith remembers that quite a few members didn’t agree with his decision. That never deterred him. It just wasn’t smart to ignore half of the population, he said.

“I thought we needed them. We needed members,” the attorney said.

“Allen was never one to be shy,” Dumaresq said.

And Dumaresq wasn’t one to be intimidated.

She was the first female superintendent for Steelton, and one of the first female school superintendents for the state. The Rotary move didn’t faze her, she was used to being the only woman in boardrooms and meetings. That was her wheelhouse.

“I never felt like I wasn’t a part of the group at Rotary,” Dumaresq said.

Acri came from a similar background lacking in gender diversity. During her time in graduate school, Acri remembers being the only female student in class for two years.

“Rotary wasn’t any different for me,” she said.

Dudley Smith, a former executive at Merrill Lynch, sponsored Roth for the Harrisburg Rotary. Smith passed away in 2015.

“When you are in your 20s, you are wide-eyed looking for direction,” Roth said. “I can’t say I had the vision that my sponsor had. He understood the door of opportunity that he was opening,”

Rotary led to access and the opportunity to develop service relationships with other business leaders in the community.

“The Supreme Court’s decision opened up doors professionally. It gave us huge advantages,” Dumaresq said. “You got access to that network: principal business leaders. People got to know you personally. You broke bread with them. You are sitting at a table and you hear about opportunities.”

Rotary was about service to your community. You had to prove yourself to your fellow members, Acri said. Rotary members were leaders in the Steelton community. The district’s children depended on that community service.

“I wasn’t going to throw it in their face that they had to accept me. I was going to do my fair share of work,” she said. “I volunteered. I have to get involved.”

For tackling any challenge — uncomfortable experiences, business, schooling — Roth likes to boil down the Rotary experience to simple, proven concepts: dependability, responsibility, active listening and continuity.

To put it simply, she said, “I show up.”

Cathy Hirko
Cathy Hirko is Associate Publisher/Editorial Director for the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business. Email her at chirko@bridgetowermedia.com.

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