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Kiwanis Vote Admitting Women Marks End Of Male-Only Major Service Groups

July 8, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The overwhelming vote by Kiwanis International to accept women as members marks the end of an era for the nation’s major service organizations, but don’t look for an overnight influx of Kiwanis club females.

″I think it’ll be gradual,″ incoming Kiwanis International president Tony Kaiser said Tuesday after the group, in its third try in three years, voted to end a 72-year tradition of limiting members to business and professional men.

″Many of our clubs and members are just so ... comfortable with the male membership that it will take them a little while to adjust their thinking,″ Kaiser explained.

The membership gave every indication of enthusiasm for the new rule, with well over two-thirds of the 5,636 delegates to the Kiwanis’ annual convention rising noisily to their feet when asked who supported the amendment. Cheers filled the Washington Convention Center when the result was announced and a paper balloting procedure was declared unnecessary.

″I was surprised,″ acknowledged outgoing Kiwanis president Frank DiNoto, who presided over the session. ″It was overwhelming.″

Only 47 percent of the delegates to last year’s convention in Houston supported the change, and that was twice as much backing as the proposal had received the year before in Toronto.

The Supreme Court ruled May 4 in a California case that states may force service organizations such as Rotary International to accept women as members. The Jaycees started admitting women three years ago after the court made a similar ruling against them in a Minnesota case. Lions International, another major service organization, voted last week to allow women to join.

DiNoto said recent Supreme Court decisions helped prod the organization, but the deciding factor was grass roots support for the change. ″There were more and more clubs that were admitting women to Kiwanis clubs anyway. It swelled from our membership,″ he said.

Before Tuesday’s vote, 40 clubs in 16 states already had admitted women as members, in violation of the Kiwanis constitution and by-laws. The revised rules permit qualified people of either sex to be invited to join the 8,200 Kiwanis clubs around the world. No club is required to invite women, but no woman invited to join a U.S. club can be barred on the basis of her sex.

Rex Derr, an Olympia, Wash., club member who offered the amendment, said it would ″open doors for clubs who choose different membership initiatives and guarantees continuity to clubs proud of where they now stand.″

Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, said in a statement that the Kiwanis vote ″sounds the death-knell for male-only economic organizations.″

A NOW spokeswoman, Jeanne Clark, said it is unclear whether the Supreme Court rulings would apply to fraternal organizations such as the Moose, the Elks and the Eagles.

The Kiwanis amendment to admit women was sponsored by clubs from Norway, Canada, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Alabama, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Minnesota.

The rule change was endorsed by the Kiwanis board of trustees and board of governors. While no one mounted a challenge, the delegates did have a lengthy discussion over whether the ban on women should be lifted for the 1,300 or so foreign clubs.

Some members contended it was unfair to impose U.S. law on other countries. But others said all Kiwanis clubs should operate under the same rules and a spokesman said there was support for the change in Scandinavia, New Zealand, Central America and elsewhere. The vote by paper ballot was 2,855 to 2,406 to permit women members internationally.

″I’m delighted and relieved,″ Kaiser said with a sigh after the rule change was adopted. ″It’s time to put this controversy behind us and get on with the real business of the service club movement.″

Kiwanis clubs, with 315,000 members worldwide, raised $73.5 million for service projects and donated over 22 million volunteer hours of community service last year. The group helps underprivileged children and is involved with the anti-drug abuse campaign led by first lady Nancy Reagan.

Kiwanis is an Indian word that means ″We have a good time - we make noise.″

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