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Rochester's Rotary Clubs look to women for leadership

The presidents of Rochester’s three Rotary Clubs: Sara Gilliland, of the Rotary Club of Rochester; Patricia McCleese, of the Greater Rochester Rotary Club; and Joanne Rosener, of the Rochester Rotary Risers.
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It hasn’t been a very long history for the women of Rotary. There was a time, just a few decades ago, when Rotary International was an all-male organization. The bylaws restricted membership to "male persons." Today, such a limitation is hard to understand, but the late 20th century was an era in which the issue of inclusion, membership in private organizations and gender was being widely debated.

Founded in 1905 by Chicago attorney Paul Harris, Rotary came to Rochester in 1925 on a rainy May night when the club’s charter was presented at a program at the Kahler Café. Since that time, Rochester has benefited from the community service of thousands of Rotarians who work tirelessly to bring positive change locally and globally. But for many years, Rotary limited participation to men and didn’t take advantage of the capabilities and leadership of half of the population.

Reason (and the U.S. Supreme Court) declared in 1987 that Rotary clubs could not exclude women on the basis of gender. In 1989, Rotary’s Council on Legislation voted to admit women into Rotary clubs worldwide. And for the three Rotary Clubs of Rochester, it didn’t take long for those newly admitted women to have a direct and positive impact on their community through their hard-won membership.

Rochester’s first female Rotarian was Susan Kelly, who made her contribution to local history in 1987. Nearly a decade later, Marilyn Stewart became the first woman to serve as a Rochester club president when she took the gavel in 1996. Rochester area women took Marilyn’s example to heart and became extraordinarily active in Rotary leadership roles. Increasingly, Rochester’s three clubs look to women to provide leadership.

In the just concluded 2017-18 year of service, the Greater Rochester Club’s president was Judi Wilson, Rochester Risers was guided by McKinsey Goodenberger, and the Rotary Club of Rochester was served by Janice Domke. Just beginning their year of service to Rotary as presidents are Patricia McCleese, Joanne Rosener, and Sara Gilliland, who took the helms of their respective clubs in July.


So for two consecutive years, the once male-only service organization is led in our city by a group of dedicated and community-focused women. For those of us who participate in the mission activities and programming of Rochester Rotary, it’s impossible to imagine our clubs without the people who not so long ago were denied membership. In all that Rotary International takes on — promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, supporting education, and growing local economies — women from nearly every country in the world are vital contributors to its success.

Rotarians can’t imagine it any other way.

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