First woman to serve as Rotary president recalls struggle


When Sylvia Whitlock joined the Duarte Rotary Club in the 1970s, Rotary International revoked the club’s charter. Although she met the club’s requirement as a “person of good character,” Whitlock’s main problem was too much to overcome: She was a woman.

But Whitlock, a school principal from Duarte, persevered. And when the club’s “men-only” rule changed to admit women in the 1980s, Whitlock’s good character figured in her becoming the world’s first female Rotary Club president.

Whitlock described her journey to members of the Rotary Club of Los Altos at their March 12 meeting, recalling how her “renegade” Rotary Club in Duarte appealed to Rotary International after it was found in violation of Rotary’s constitution. According to Whitlock, it originally referred to “persons of good character” before morphing into “men of good character.”

Club members stood by her. They created a club pin showing an “X” over the Rotary wheel and proudly called themselves “ex-Rotarians.” At that time, much of the opposition to female membership originated with women who questioned why their husbands allowed women into their club meetings.

For 11 years, Rotary International resisted change through court battles. The California Superior Court ruled that women could be excluded as a membership issue. However, it developed into a civil rights issue. After California’s Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, Rotary International appealed to the California Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed women’s membership in its 1987 ruling.

Whitlock was so busy with Rotary service projects, she acknowledged that she “missed the big point.” After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Whitlock and seven other women simultaneously became the first official women Rotarians in the world, because they were already unofficial members of their clubs. Later she was also was selected to serve as a Rotary District Governor, leading the way for increased female Rotary leadership throughout the U.S.

She has chronicled her far-reaching push for women’s civil rights in Rotary in a book, “Women Also Serve: Duarte Invites Women to Join Rotary.”

Thirty-four years ago, the Rotary Club of Los Altos welcomed its first female member, Elizabeth Barkley, a dean at Foothill College. The 41 women currently listed as Los Altos Rotary Club members make up 40% of total membership. Los Altos resident and former mayor Marge Bruno served as the club’s first female president in 1995.

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit

Schools »

Read More

Sports »

Read More

People »

Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

Browse and buy photos