Mayflower Society Rejects Loosening Membership Requirements With AM-Constitution Celebration Bjt

PLYMOUTH, Mass. (AP) _ Descendants of the first Pilgrims chose Wednesday the first woman governor general in the society's 90-year history.

The approximately 300 delegates at the 31st triennial congress of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants also defeated an attempt to relax stringent membership rules of their 21,000-member society, rejecting arguments that the organization's vitality was at stake.

The new governor general, Kay Lanham, has been assistant governor general for the past three years. She received 91 votes, compared with 10 for delegate John C. Miller of Oklahoma.

In a roll-call vote on membership rules earlier, delegates for 25 states turned away amendments to bylaws that one opponent argued would have turned the organization into a ''social club.''

Delegates from 18 states and Canada supported the proposals at the conclusion of sometimes emotional debate, with delegates for seven states absent or not voicing an opinion.

Members polled at random said there has been widespread dissatisfaction with Barbara Merrick, the society historian general. Critics charge that new membership applications have diminished to a trickle because of her strict enforcement of rules on who is eligible to join.

The historian general can reject membership applications after examining supporting documentation. The proposed amendements would have curtailed that power and returned to the practice of Mrs. Merrick's predecessors, who accepted secondary proof of one's claim that his or her ancestors were among the first Pilgrims to reach America on the Mayflower.

''We need a change in navigation,'' said Arizona Assistant General L. Bernard Schmidt Jr., whose delegation proposed the amendments. ''The society should not conduct business as if we have the gates of heaven here.''

For her part, Mrs. Merrick, who did not seek renomination for her office, said, ''I'm delighted with the way the vote went. It means we remain a hereditary society. That was my victory.''

The issue, she said earlier, is ''whether we want to remain a hereditary society or simply a social club.''

Mrs. Lanham's election was considered unusual because she was nominated spontaneously from the floor after the nominating committee had picked Miller as the official candidate.

Several delegates who spoke on condition of anonymity said the assistant governor general usually is the official nominee for the next term's governor general and that Mrs. Lanham had been snubbed by the nominating committee because she was a woman. But nominating comittee members denied sexism played a role in their choice.

Mrs. Lanham, of the Florida delegation, said she was honored to be the first woman in the top post.

She also suggested she would support some relaxation of rules for joining the society.

The voting on the amendments was among the last official orders of business at the convention, held at the historic First Parish Church, about two blocks from Plymouth Rock, where the Mayflower first docked.

In her report Monday, Mrs. Merrick, a Massachusetts member, condemned attempts to relax the rules and conceded the issue had split the society.

''An attempt is being made in favor of circumventing the problem and limiting the professional responsibility of the individual serving in the capacity of historian general,'' she said.

Schmidt said after the voting that the society had expanded by less than 100 people annually in the four years Mrs. Merrick had been in office, compared to the approximately 500 new members a year accepted before she was elected.

He condemned ''unreasonable requirements for documentation,'' in a pre-vote speech, saying 85 percent of present members secured acceptance on the basis of ''grandfathering.''

Eugene Stratton, the society's deputy governor general for Utah, disagreed.

Easing entry requirements ''will make us only a society of possible Mayflower descendants ... and throw genealogy out the window,'' he asserted.

Founded in 1897, the society claims members in 21 nations, including the United States.