A conversation with Barbara Travis on women in Rotary

Honoring the women who blazed the trail for future female Rotarians is a major goal of the Women in Rotary Committee, which is chaired by Barbara Travis. Travis, a marketing and public relations consultant, is former governor of the Rotary District 6820, which encompasses 45 clubs in 34 Mississippi counties. She recently spoke with the Northside Sun about her position and the committee’s role to honor women.

Tell us about the committee.

“I have six to eight ladies and one gentleman. Specifically, what we do is look at the membership across the district and we talk about ways to highlight women who have been in Rotary for a long time, including when it was difficult to be a female in Rotary. I was one of those women. We highlight some of the torchbearers and the things they overcame. We give awards and give the Pat Fordice Award, for humanitarian and community service efforts. The other awards for champions of change. The first award we gave was to Nancy King, the owner of Nandy’s Candy. She was the first female member of the Downtown Rotary Club. We’ve also given an award to Lee Jenkins Moss, who is currently the executive director of the Mississippi Brain Injury Association and was the first female Rotarian in our district.”

When do you give these awards?

“Awards are presented at the annual ‘Women in Rotary’ luncheon in March. Invitations are issued to all Rotarians in our District, area women’s professional groups and anyone who may be interested. You don’t have to be a Rotarian to attend. Our hope is that attendees will be entertained, educated and motivated by what our clubs do, the leadership opportunities and encouraged to consider membership.”

How many female members are there in your district today?

“Internationally, membership is probably 22 to 23 percent women. That pretty much matches our district. Our goal is for 25 percent of our membership to be female. One of the international goals is to focus not only on diversity but on growing the number of women in the club, which is a long way from where we were when the Supreme Court said Rotary couldn’t keep women out.”

How many members does your district have overall?

“We have about 2,100 to 2,200 men and women Rotarians.”

When did Rotary International allow women to join?

“It was in 1987 when the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling, but it was in 1989 when Rotary International changed the bylaws to accept women for membership. Women have always been involved in the club. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, we had ‘Rotary Anns.’ We’ve always been there to support the club, but we just couldn’t join as members.”

Why did it take two years for the club to change its bylaws after the court handed down its decision?

Rotary’s governing body only meets every two years, so it was two years (after the ruling) when they met to change the bylaws.”

What prompted the supreme court to take up this case?

“It started in a small club in Duarte, Cal. It was all men and they wanted to increase their membership. They had several women in the community who were leaders, including Dr. Sylvia Whitlock, a respected educational leader. They invited three ladies that were leaders in the community to become members. These women were delighted and said, ‘absolutely.’ For some reason, there was a meeting where the Duarte club invited members of Rotary International to come. These Rotary International representatives came and they soon found out these women were members. They went back to Chicago, contacted the club and reminded them of the bylaws, which said the club was male only. The Duarte club said, ‘no,’ so Rotary said, ‘we’ll take your charter.’  The men decided this was not right and took it to the courts. The California (Court of Appeals) ruled in favor of Rotary International, and it progressed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Duarte club and that Rotary couldn’t keep women out.”

When did you join?

“I think it was 24 years ago. After a year, I had to go on a leave of absence because of a job. It’s been 20-something years, a long time. It’s been a lot of fun to see the changes in the club and I’m very fortunate to have served on a lot of different committees. The very first female district governor was Kay Steed, of the Madison-Ridgeland Club. Twelve years after that, I was the next governor. Now, there have been several female district governors.”

What club are you a member of today?

“I am now and have always been a member of the Rankin County Rotary Club. I’ve been asked to join other clubs. My theory is I started over here and you need to stay at the dance with who brought you. One of the benefits of membership is I can visit any club at any time.”

Were you the first woman in your club?

“I was not; I was probably the third. The first was Ellen Dabbs, an accountant in Rankin County.”   

What was the reaction of members when women were allowed to join?

“One member was opposed to women joining at first, but he became one of the strongest supporters of women in the club … When he got older and was homebound, I went to visit him and we talked about planning his funeral. He (joked) about having all female Rotarians be his pall bearers.”

What do you think changed some members’ perceptions on allowing women to join over time?

“Simply getting to know each other. When you to go meetings together, learn about each other’s professional interests, do service projects together, and attend social functions together, everything else melts away. The more you know about each other, the more you learn you have in common. A desire to serve others was and remains our common denominator.”

You mentioned the luncheon earlier. When is the next one? 

“It’s March 17 and will be at the Country Club of Jackson. It will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Our keynote speaker is Col. Samantha Weeks, commander at Columbus Air Force Base. Her message is for women to be bold. You have to stick your neck out to get somewhere. I can’t give out the names of the award winners, because we haven’t notified them yet.”

For more information, email Travis at mktlynx@bellsouth.net.

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