Women of Rotary
Mr. Lewis T. Briggs, Sr. (1925-26) unofficial Club historian through 1961, noted that from the beginning, Rotary members’ wives, called “RotaryAnns,” were invited to “Ladies Nights.” These events tended to
replace the weekly lunch meetings and were generally organized around certain special performances of famous singers or musicians who happened to be playing in Erie or later on, in support of particular Erie Playhouse or Warner Theater events.
RotaryAnns and members’ secretaries were also often encouraged to attend certain weekly programs deemed to be of interest to women. Many longstanding See-Way editors thanked their wives for typing the weekly newsletter, most notably Harold Durst’s wife, Peg, who was honored with her own Paul Harris Fellow Recognition Award upon “their” retirement as See-Way joint editor in 1997 after 11 years of faithful service.
Geraldine “Jerry” Zurn was the first woman to join the Rotary Club of Erie in Dec 1987. She remained a member until 1990. A testament to Erie’s long Catholic tradition and the clear influence of the orders of the Sisters of Mercy and Sts. Benedict and Joseph around the region,
another early woman member was Sr. Lawrence Antoun in January 1988.
Mrs. Kathleen Horan was the Rotary Club of Erie’s first woman President in 1995. Mrs. Horan became a member of the Erie Rotary Club in 1991 when she was nominated for membership by
Bob Haller, a Trustee of the First United Methodist Church of Erie and a founder of Methodist Towers, where Mrs. Horan had been Executive Director since 1985 before becoming the General
Manager of the Regency.
Mrs. Horan’s experience with Rotary began in 1985, when her daughter, Jennifer, wanted to study in Ecuador. As the President of the local National Organization of Women (NOW) and the
local ZONTA, an association of local professional women, Mrs. Horan found it incongruous that her daughter could be a Rotary Exchange Student but could not become a Rotary member due to her gender.
When asked what her primary goal was as the first Erie Rotary Club President, she responded very earnestly, “To do no harm. In those days the Club was more into funding than in activism. The members were staid executives who did not want to make a lot of waves in the community, but rather fund things that they felt correctly made the community better. As a President, your main role is to make sure the weekly meetings run smoothly; it is not a time for big initiatives, as
Vice President and Program Chair you have a lot more influence in the direction of the Club.”
Mrs. Horan further noted that it is important that these groups are now integrated, rather than segregated by gender. “In inclusive clubs and associations, you get to develop skills as a leader, not of men or women, but as a leader of people. This is much more valuable to the individual and to society as a whole.”
In 1999, the Rotary Club of Erie was proud to successfully nominate Erie’s own Sr. Joan Chittester, world-renowned author and speaker on issues of justice, human rights, and equality for women in religion and in society, for the prestigious Jean Harris Recognition Award. In
1997-98, the Rotary International Board approved the creation of this award named for the wife of Paul Harris, founder of Rotary International. This distinguished award honored the efforts of
non-Rotarian women who have made a significant contribution to the development and progress of others in their communities. Today the award is gender-neutral.
Mrs. Horan was succeeded be a number of outstanding women as Club President including Mary Ellen Dahlkemper (2003-04), who has brought the Haiti Literacy Program to the attention of the whole District, as Chair of the District 7280 Scholarship/World Peace Committee since 2002. Mrs. Dahlkemper was also the Club’s first woman to be selected the Four-Way Test Award Recipient in 2009.
By the time Lisa Watkins (2010-11) became interested in joining Rotary in October 2002, it was still considered a very exclusive club. Mrs. Watkins recalls feeling that there were some members who were not as friendly as they could be and that it was clear that not everyone was happy to see women leaving the kitchen for the Boardroom. “Honestly, I did feel that sense of not being entirely welcome at first, but that part of the Erie Club’s culture was completely gone in the first three years of my time in Rotary. By the time I became the fourth woman President, rather than thinking about the internal culture of the Club, I felt it was important to conduct a bit of a public relations campaign to show the community a different face of Rotary, so they knew it was not a club full of stuffy, old, white men.”
As of April 2012, women comprise 24% of the Erie Rotary Club and they are as, if not more active in attendance and service as their male counterparts. Worldwide, the participation rate of women in Rotary is about 17%.
Mr. Norm Stark (1998-99) regards the admission of women as full Rotary members as the most important evolutionary change in the organization since its inception in 1905. “While social and civic club membership has decreased in recent decades, Rotary membership worldwide has remained stable, mainly due to this factor. They bring new ideas, common sense, and project management skills to their Clubs, as well as the ability to not only propose new initiatives but to
actually see them through.”
As a member of the health care profession for most of his life, Mr. Dick Brzuz (1994-95), who immediately preceded Mrs. Horan, was glad that Rotary diversified and began to include women as members, “All my professional life I was accustomed to being outnumbered by women ten-to=one. It was very uncomfortable for me to be at Rotary events where there were no women.”