Sylvia Whitlock of Rotary International is greeted by a student at Piyali Learning Centre
India was a land of maharajas, thought Sylvia Whitlock who brought gender equality to Rotary International and became its first woman club president.
The typecast turned on its head after a visit to Calcutta in 2011 with Deepa Willingham, the founder of Piyali Learning Centre (PLC) for underprivileged girls.
Her tryst with Calcutta actually began two years before she landed in the city. American journalist-author Nicholas D. Kristof’s Half the Sky, a bestseller on trafficking and forced prostitution, gave her a glimpse of the real India, far removed from the maharaja fairytales.
“I was getting ready to become district governor (of Rotary) and… I happened to meet Deepa Willingham who had started PLC. I came to Calcutta with her for the first time for the national immunisation days (NIDs) polio inoculation. She took me to her school in the village, where the only thing of consequence was the water well,” the 87-year-old American told Metro on Monday at the end of her five-day trip to the city.
“Meeting the girls was so enduring that I thought I was going to go home and work on this school,” said Sylvia, who has made several trips to the city but remembers her first one the most.
“It was my first trip to India. I grew up in a Commonwealth country and the India I knew was one of maharajas and elephants which is what I was expecting to see!” So Sylvia returned home, she got Rotary to pledge $90,000 to the school. She has been hooked to the project since.
Currently the district governor for Rotary, a position she had earned after a long journey of service before self in a 108-year-old organisation that was a male-only club until 1987. Sylvia had to fight a long battle for the right of women to become Rotary members.
She was a schoolteacher in Duarte, California, which had a small Rotary club. The club had invited four women to join it “because they thought we were capable”.
“The district governor suggested that when our names are sent to the International, they just send the initials and that’s how we got in.” So the women came in and did what the men did until some International representatives spotted the women during a celebration.
“So we got reported to headquarters in Illinois who wrote to us asking the women to leave or we may not call ourselves a Rotary club. The men stood in support and said ‘these women are doing half the work’ and they wouldn’t ask us to leave,” she recalled.
Rotary took the Duarte club off its charter and Sylvia along with the other three women moved court.
After an 11-year legal battle supported by her local community that helped raise money through bake sales and barbecue, the US Supreme Court ruled in their favour in 1987: Rotary clubs must admit women.
“I thought they wouldn’t hear this case because it might be silly. But this was also a time when civil rights, especially of women, were on the front burner and we won,” she said.
“We never faced any harassment but after the (court) decision we did get a couple of interesting phone calls. ‘Is the food any better now that there are women in the Rotary?’ or ‘So is the next thing, getting Niggers into Rotary?’ So I said, no, we have a Nigger woman already!” said Sylvia, a Black woman born in New York, raised by her grandparents in Jamaica. She moved back to America at age 15 for her education and has been living there since.
Today, 50 per cent of Rotarians around the world are women. “If women hadn’t joined Rotary, the organisation wouldn’t have survived,” the globetrotting philanthropist said.