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Rotarian women break ground

POULSBO — Jerry, Dan, Dick, Willard, Vern, Dennis, Bob, Allan, Paul, Doug ...

Though it may not be immediately obvious, there is something missing from the names of the founding members of the Poulsbo Rotary Club — women.

Perhaps one of the biggest and most controversial events in Rotary’s history in Poulsbo took place 11 years after the club’s founding. During installation night in 1987, five women became the first in all of Kitsap County to join the organization. The Poulsbo chapter’s inclusion also pre-dated much of the world as Rotary International didn’t adopt the standard until 1989.

The first women to join the Poulsbo Rotary were Ruthie Berg, Joyce Cooper, Barbara Stephenson, Barbara Webb and Kee Webb. Richard Burdick, who jokingly referred to himself as the token male, was also inducted.

Poulsbo Rotary charter member Tom O’Hare said asking women to join was suggested at the club’s first meeting. They needed 25 to charter and a first gathering only turned up about eight prospective members. But O’Hare said they were told that since Rotary is an international organization, the club needed to abide by the worldwide membership rules.

“Rotary members were supposed to be able to walk into a Rotary meeting anywhere in the world and be welcomed,” O’Hare explained. “You can see how at the time, that could have been a problem in some of the world.”

A group called the Rotary Anns was formed to cater to the spouses of Poulsbo Rotary members. But O’Hare said his wife refused to join the Anns and was upset that he joined a civic organization that excluded women.

“It was properly offensive to many people, including me,” O’Hare commented.

But 11 years later, the bid to find its first female members also proved a struggle.

Stephenson, Kitsap County Treasurer, said she knew about Rotary’s good deeds in the community. But she was also aware the inclusion of women was partially spurred by a change in IRS tax laws and the Poulsbo group’s desire to be the first in the county.

“Frankly, I told them, ‘If you are looking for a token minority then I’m not interested. But if you’re looking for a (darn) good Rotarian then I would like to join your group,’” Stephenson recalled. “They were very clear that, ‘No, no, no. This is something we sincerely think is a good idea.’ So I was honored to join.”

Barbara Webb, the former owner of Gateway Travel, recalled feelings of trepidation over being asked to join. One day, friend and client Ernie Conrad asked her out to lunch to tell her two things; First, the Poulsbo Rotary wanted to admit her; but second, the induction of the first women was not going to be without controversy. At first, she declined.

“I said, ‘I’m in business in town. I can’t afford to have half the town mad at me for joining Rotary,’” Webb recounted. “And he said, ‘That’s why I’m out at lunch with you.’ And that I thought that was just so nice of him.”

Both Stephenson and Webb also recalled there being some hard feelings among a few Rotarians over women joining. A handful of members dropped out or changed clubs. Even among those who stayed, some were uncomfortable with the transition but eventually adapted.

“The men accepted the women and we have had some great women in the club,” Webb said.

Stephenson tells a story about a few years after her induction, when she became a member of the Rotary board. Members were encouraged to attend a meeting in Nanaimo, British Columbia but Canada’s clubs had not yet admitted women.

“I’ll never forget this one older guy looking down his nose at me and saying, ‘Oh, you’re one of those,’” she recalled. “And the guys in my club were really cool about it. They were offended that it seemed to be such a difficult thing for some of these guys to accept. That made me feel even more accepted.”

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