Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Problem with Wives

OK, I’ll admit it. I used that headline to get your attention. This blog is about gender stereotypes in Rotary. And just to clarify, I actually don’t have any problem with wives (the spouses of husbands). I remain constantly impressed with my wife! My problem is with some of our words and actions, conscious or otherwise, that are doing us damage. The word “wives” has stubbornly remained in the Rotary vernacular, and here is why I can’t stand it.

A short Rotary history lesson for those of you weren’t involved in Rotary prior to 1989 (or have forgotten). Until then, our constitution and bylaws stated that Rotary club membership was for males only. We cannot argue that the decision to remove the “male only” part of these documents was the right decision, albeit long overdue. Women have actually been serving alongside of us blokes in Rotary since the organisation began, but for the first 84 years they couldn’t officially join our ranks and call themselves Rotarians.

There was this unofficial nickname "Rotary Anns" often applied to the wife of a Rotarian, and even Rotary Ann clubs. That's a story that started in San Francisco circa 1914. It was apparently a term of endearment at the time, but I still keep hearing it well after women have been able to join as members and can't help but roll my eyes every time.

Those first few years after 1989 were challenging for some clubs, and many men left the organisation in protest. "Don't let the door hit your backside on the way out", I say! I tip my hat to those first brave women who ventured into the all-male domain and changed the organisation for the better. But sadly, 27 years later, some within our ranks are still having trouble coming to terms with it. I’m not talking about the few remaining clubs in the world that remain all male (I’m actually at a loss for words), but the language many Rotarians use.

Back to my gripe with the word “wives”. Before 1989, when all Rotarians were men, it was commonplace to refer to our significant others as wives. Most Rotarians were married, and therefore the term “wives” made sense. But why oh why, when women have been in Rotary for 27 years, do we still use this term “wives”?

Newsflash - We don’t all have wives. Most of us have partners, but we don’t all have wives. What do you reckon goes through the head of the average female Rotarian when someone makes an announcement about some event on the weekend and asks everyone to bring their wives? Please, please, please; the word is partners. This is not about political correctness, it’s about laziness. It’s about including those people in our clubs who aren’t married men.

And if that’s not bad enough, how well do you reckon this goes down? My club does a lot of catering. Sometimes for our club’s social functions, but often as fundraising for other groups. And every time a seventy-something male Rotarian gets up to talk about these upcoming events, and asks if the ladies can bring salads or make slices, I just want to hide under the table. I will often stand up and ask if it’s OK for the men to make slices too.

Now I don’t want to boast, but my vanilla slice (pictured) is very well known in Rotary circles. Of course, most of these geezers come from an age where the man's job was to bring home the bacon and the wife's job was to cook it. Whether we like it or not, that’s predominantly the way it was. It was that way with my parents when I grew up.

But hey, guess what? Times have changed. Women can be Rotarians and men can make slices. I run a business from home primarily so my kids can have a parent around, and my wife has a good career and brings home more bacon. And I’m always happy to cook more bacon.

Before we can bring our organisation into the 21st century, we need to bring our mindset into the 21st century. Come on guys, it's been 27 years since the best thing we ever did. Surely it's time to lose our medieval thinking and treat our female members as equals. The blokey jokes, comments and attitudes have long passed their use-by date.


  1. I once did a makeup at an all male club that referred to their wives as their social secretaries! They also fined me for being the only Rotarian in the room qualified to wear a dress! But they became great mentors when needed. As a "first female club member" it was a daunting challenge some weeks to rock up to the dodgy blokes jokes and well meaning but negative elders. I suspect it still is out there, off putting to many women and even the younger men.