How CityClub's founding mothers made a better Seattle

At a time when gender barriers still had to be surmounted, eight women created better civic engagement with their personal strengths and social media tools, like contact lists written with pen on paper.

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Discussing CityClub's history: (left to right) Jean B. Rolfe, Kate B. Webster, Suzanne F. Lile Hunter, and Colleen S. Willoughby.

At a time when gender barriers still had to be surmounted, eight women created better civic engagement with their personal strengths and social media tools, like contact lists written with pen on paper.

It seems hard to believe today that just over 25 years ago, Seattle’s Rotary Club #4, the biggest club in the United States and one of Seattle’s most able civic organizations, did not allow women to be among its members. That fact, among others, prompted a group of eight women, for whom civic life was a clear and unadorned responsibility, to form their own organization, which would become Seattle's CityClub.

Over several months of breakfasts and lunches, they decided on the character of their organization, infused it with their personalities and experiences, exercised the social networking tools of the day — handwritten address books, food with discussion, the IBM Selectric typewriter — asked one of their children to create a logo, identified a hundred people and asked each for $100, filled out the papers for incorporation, and rented an office space in a downtown tower.

Thirty years ago, many things were the same as they are today. The women were able to get a good deal on the office because there was a sharp recession going on. There was a detour for people who lived on the West Seattle peninsula as a result of the old bridge being hit by a cargo vessel. Because of endless construction on the downtown bus tunnel, it sometimes took 40 minutes to get from one end of the downtown to the other. And, like always, the Seattle Mariners were expected to lose two-thirds of their games during the regular season (which proved largely true).

I recently interviewed four of the CityClub’s founding women at a board retreat of their 30-year old creation. While the interview was a practicum of what they did and how they did it, the great history of women's involvement in American civic life was very much in the room as the elegant women discussed how they went about producing an organization that would go on to recruit and train many thousands of young men and women into civic leaders.

They are travelling the same path of women’s self improvement clubs that gave significant numbers of women access to educational opportunities routinely denied them by their public institutions. They are inheritors of political movements like suffrage, temperance and settlement. 

Most of all, they are the skin and bones of the City Club Movement, a living connection to civic life of the reform ideas of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that resulted in the first City Club in Cleveland in 1912, and another in Portland in 1916. At the same time, women were pursuing a parallel civic reality in many different organizations like Junior League — started by Mary Harriman, daughter Union Pacific Railroad's E.H. Harriman — and helping settle a flood of immigrants flowing into the country at the turn of the 20th century.  A bit later, the American Women Suffrage Association morphed into the League of Women Voters with the role of educating and activating 20 million newly enfranchised voters.

At its beginning Rotary was silent about the role of women, but soon decided the issue in a way that would have long-term effects here and elsewhere. Rotary was started in Chicago in 1905 by a young attorney, Paul Harris, who yearned for a professional club that would capture the small town culture he remembered as a young man.  He began meeting with three other colleagues — a tailor, a mining engineer, and a coal broker — and they rotated hosting duties to the other offices of its rapidly growing list of members.

Early on, the club adopted the most revered of perceived smal- town virtues: service. An early Chicago Rotarian, Arthur Frederick Sheldon, coined a phrase that has, in various iterations, labeled the cause-marketing theme of Rotary clubs to this day: "The science of service is the science of business; he profits most who serves best."

In 1909, Seattle founded the fourth Rotary club, following Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland. The following year, the first national convention was held in Chicago and representatives of 16 clubs were there. Rotary's rise was viral and it had a particular appeal in the western U.S. Following San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle, Los Angeles was #5, Tacoma was #8 and Portland #15. In 1911, the Rotary convention came to the Rose City.  At the start of the convention, organizers announced that London had formed a club, as had Winnipeg and Dublin. Twenty years after that first meeting in Chicago, Rotary had 2,000 clubs and 108,000 members. Rotary was global. Today, 32,000 clubs with 1.2 million members meet in 200 countries.

Whether to allow women prompted a lively discussion at that 1911 Portland conference, though it was not resolved at the time, with the group largely ignoring the issue. It's interesting that a photograph of the Chicago delegation shows a woman who appears to be wearing the same credentials as the other members. She was Paul Harris' stenographer. That same year, women-only Rotary clubs formed in Minneapolis and Duluth and met for six years until the Americans entered the World War.  Women-only clubs were difficult in the Rotary model because categories of membership are based on professional occupations, most of which were denied women at the time. A doctor, a lawyer, and a chiropractor were the founders of the Duluth women's Rotary.

Faced with a letter seeking official status for women from some part of the globe at each annual meeting, the 1921 Rotary International Conference finally confronted the question, adopting a resolution that would add this sentence to Article 2 Section III of the group's constitution:

"A Rotary Club shall be composed of men."

Efforts were made to soften the snub with the creation of the "Inner Wheel," a kind of auxiliary for women, in 1923. Always problematic for the high civic tone of Rotary, the exclusion of women kept clanging off some of the fundamental pronouncements of the club, like the Four Way Test, published in 1932 and adopted in 1943:

Of the things we think, say or do

1. Is it the TRUTH?

2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?


4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

In 1950, a club in India proposed dropping the word "male" from the club constitution and later, in 1964, what is now Sri Lanka proposed the same resolution. Both were defeated. In 1977, a club in Duarte, California, located just north of Pasadena, admitted three women as members. In 1978, Duarte was booted out and proclaimed itself, to great new membership success, as the Not Rotary Club of Duarte, California.

After Duarte's club filed a suit against its dismissal, a California Superior Court agreed with Rotary but a state court of appeals reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court took the case and in May of 1986, sometime after the International District Rotary in Seattle voted to admit women members, the Supreme Court ruled for Duarte, which promptly began calling itself "the mouse that roared."

Within a year, 20,000 women became members of Rotary and today 200,000 women, one in six members, call themselves Rotarians.

All of this was noteworthy to the women who had started City Club five years earlier, but old news.  They had early on abandoned the idea of making their club a preserve for women and immediately recruited men to be a part of their leadership and, five years out, their club was cooking. 

Once too old for Junior League and too female for Rotary, these eight women found their own way to do their duty in the public square and to bring tens of thousands of others to join them there. They were really quite revolutionary on their own terms, echoing the words of the Portland Club: "No Mossbacks. No Drones."

Today, Anne Farrell (who became the first female president of Rotary Club), Colleen Willoughby, Kate Webster, Sue Lile Hunter, Jean Rolfe, Marilyn Ward, Barbara Hodgson and Nancy Nordhoff variously continue their service. Colleen Willoughby came up with the idea of pooling resources of professional women so that their collective philanthropy can have a more significant impact. The resulting Washington Woman’s Foundation has 500 members today who have collectively raised and given $11 million to the Seattle community and beyond.

Some of those who worked with Willoughby on the founding of City Club currently participate in the Foundation. Others have gone on to serve at the University of Washington Medical School, Children’s Hospital, YWCA, the Seattle Foundation, the University of Washington, Washington State University, St.  Mark’s Cathedral, Planned Parenthood, the Washington Women’s Bank, and nearly every significant organization in the community that takes its public responsibilities seriously. 

To that I say: Very nicely done, ladies.  And thank you.

This is adapted from the author's blog, The Cascadia Courier (


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