Is Inner Wheel the ladies equivalent to a men-only Rotary Club?

I have to admit that all through my Rotary career I have really struggled to come to terms with the concept that is Inner Wheel and it is unlikely that I ever will.

Having joined Rotary ‘post men-only’ and at the point where females were now being [mostly] welcomed into the organisation with open arms I could never really see the point for what many others viewed as ‘Ladies Rotary’. And even now I have to be honest and say I still don’t get where Inner Wheel sits in a modern society any more than those all-male Rotary clubs that refuse to admit ‘lady members’.

Now I realise that Inner Wheel is neither affiliated nor under the auspices of Rotary International. But any web-search for the background to Inner Wheel will undoubtedly mention Rotary within the first couple of paragraphs, therefore it seems they will remain inextricably linked by way of their history.


One of the ways to join Inner Wheel is having a ‘connection’ with a Rotarian. So is it right that Rotary is allowing itself to be used as a condition of joining a single-gender organisation?

Time-travelling back to the 15th November 1923 it was the meeting of a group of Rotarians’ wives in the Deansgate Turkish Baths (!!!) which effectively catalysed the organisation that would grow to become known as Inner Wheel.

As time has progressed and the Inner Wheel rolled on for the last 90 years, it has moved on to become an international organisation that is active in over 100 countries and attracting 100,000 members throughout its 3,900 clubs. In the RotaryGBI territory these figures are transposed to read 19,000 members over 730 clubs throughout the 29 Districts.

With these figures, there is no doubt that Inner Wheel is a membership organisation that is worth paying attention to in the sense that they have a large number of members who are actually all surely potential Rotarians are they not?

Despite what we may be told, my feeling is that back in 1923 Inner Wheel was set up by Rotarians’ wives on the basis that if their husbands had their own Club then so should they – and at the time…rightly so as times were different then. They set up their organisation with very similar humanitarian objectives to those of Rotary and have continued to retain them ever since. However they have also remained tenuously linked through their terms and conditions to Rotary International. One only has to look at Inner Wheel’s logo to see the Rotary roundels acting as the wedding rings that hold this marriage together.

Today, according to their website Inner Wheel welcomes members who have a connection with other Inner Wheel members or those who have a connection with a Rotarian. What exactly ‘a connection’ is remains to be seen, but I’m sure somebody knows. But hold on wait for this – they also welcome other women who have similar ideals providing that the new prospect receives the club’s consent. Is that not the most antiquated-Rotarian phrase you have ever heard…in effect – we’ll let you in if you’re one of us and the rest of us approve!

Now, I’ve been unable to find any information on the actual membership number of Inner Wheel; but anecdotally RotaryBlogger has heard that similar to Rotary, they are also struggling to maintain their membership numbers.

I appreciate the excellent work that the many Wheelies will have done across their communities and I expect them to continue to do so. Therefore, before I say what I am about to I accept their charitable position across the globe and all the humantiarian support they have offered – and I’m absolutely not knocking any of that.

However, is there still a place in the world for a ‘sister’ organisation to Rotary when there is no reason for them not to join their brothers and become part of the Rotary community?

Looking at the facts, difficult as it may be for some of my female colleagues to see past the old, grey and affluent public perceptions and actually sign up to Rotary; I would say that it would nigh-on impossible to get them to complete the application form to become an Inner Wheeler. With no offence I simply cannot imagine any contemporary, modern business-woman with a desire to become a Wheely.

Only a few weeks ago guest blogger Nisha Kotecha wrote about her membership organisation considerations when she turned 30 and left Rotaract and at no time throughout her post did she give any inclination or indication that she would want to join Inner Wheel. Was it even in her radar…I doubt it!

The fact is that in this day and age of the Equalities Act where generations of women have fought for the democratic right to be treated as equals with their male-counterparts. It would seem that society is saying there should be no place in a modern society for men-only Rotary Clubs therefor equally there should be no place for a female-only equivalent of the organisation.

And don’t forget the ironic contradiction in the fact that so much work has been done to ensure equality across Rotary throughout these islands and the rest of the world. Yet Rotary allows its name be one of the contractual obligation in an ‘all-lady’ organisation. Surely this cannot sit easily or correctly in terms of the organisation’s commitment to equality and gender balance? Has anyone actually thought about it this way? Or does anyone even care?

I’m sure I have taken my life-in-my-hands in presenting this post – but at a time when RotaryGBI is looking to attract new members wouldn’t one positive option be working with other similar organisation rather than competing with them for the same potential new recruits. And surely the one we appear to have a link with and the organisation apparently closest to us would be the easiest? So the big question would be: On the basis ‘ladies’ are now welcome in Rotary – what is the point of retaining an organisation that is publicly perceived as being the female-wing of Rotary when women have now been welcome to join the organisation for decades?

An additional 20,000 new Rotarians would all-of-a-sudden halt any actual or perceived decline throughout the organisation in these islands and be a welcome addition to many Clubs who could certainly do with some new members.

So while many of us [ included] criticise male-only Rotary Clubs then surely we cannot sit back and condone a link with an organisation which is equally and even more overtly gender-imbalanced.

Image by Sascha Grant by CC

19 thoughts on “Is Inner Wheel the ladies equivalent to a men-only Rotary Club?

  1. says:

    Love your blogs but i can’t agree with this one.
    The male ego is brittle.
    The theory that women are welcome and treated equally and with respect in Rotary is, in my opinion, a fallacy.
    The % of women members, the number of women presidents at club, district and Board levels might support my suggestion.
    My very limited experiences in Rotary painted a very clear picture that despite the supposed equality in membership, nothing could be further from the truth.
    As the “Global History Webmaster” of RGHF for 8 years, and the one responsible for creating a history of IIW, i did so because IIW is very much a part of Rotary despite any formal association.
    I saw some similarity with the creation of RIBI which in theory at least, had no logical reason to exist.
    I note that organisations like QUOTA remain ladies only, and in our world of insane political correctness has clung to their policy. Goodon’em i say. And good on IIW. If that’s what they are comfortable with and successful, why not?
    Do i detect sour grapes at the success of a women only club?
    There is no point in gaining “20,000 new Rotarians” if RI can’t even keep those it has.
    I have been very critical of the incompetence of RI’s marketing strategies – it doesn’t seem to have any.
    I have said before that the average Rotarian would be hard pressed to sell an ice block in hell, and the RI executives should be the first to learn what the word means.
    Now we see that Lions has exceeded Rotary in membership – any surprises there?
    So, if IIW can do the job as well or better, then let them.

  2. Andy MUCHALL says:

    I agree with much of this, RB, but there is a biological element to it all, and it is not just gender I am talking about.
    As Rotary Club age profiles skew towards 70 and 80 year olds in many clubs, so it does in their sister Inner Wheel clubs. It is a simple fact that women remain active and vibrant and, yes, alive, longer than men. This means that many Inner Wheel members see their own organisation as a better feistier option than a more moribund local Rotary Club.

  3. says:

    Greg Barlow it’s not political correctness gone mad Rotary signed up to following the law of the land on Equality and Diversity. Many other organisations including Inner Wheel have not. Forcing people to join/not join never works. I think the time has come to discuss a merger.

  4. David Sim says:

    I recently asked, if I didn’t feel I had the time for Rotary could I join the Inner Wheel? I was met by a nervous smile.

    The perceived need for an Inner Wheel covers a failing within clubs. We have been challenged by RI to ensure that barriers which prevent Rotary reflecting society should be removed. That can only be done locally, by making all members of society welcome. I’d like to introduce an additional, informal evening meeting to our lunchtime club to remove another barrier.

    There will always be a group of people who don’t have the time, money or inclination to join Rotary but are supporters and we do need to keep them on board. They’re a tremendous resource for the club and community. We have a number of “friends of Rotary” helping our club, and they’re both male and female.

    You’re right. Inner Wheel served a purpose. Now it needs to reinvent itself alongside Rotary if it is to be associated with Rotary values.

  5. I am sure that there are many worthy members of Inner Wheel but what you say is something that we just do not think about – so thanks for being controversial and making us think.

    I do however think that In all my Rotary life I have not met any “young” or recently joined Wheelies. The other aspect to consider is that the truth is many are wives of Rotarians and “their” men would not want them joining their club. Andy Muchall makes a good point!

    In all other organisations that could combine with Rotary (or vice-versa) you find there is a strong feeling of protecting their identity, whether it is IIW, Rotaract, Soroptomists, Quota or Ladybirds so the likelyhood of this occuring is nil. It is only if that organisation reached the death knoll can it happen.

    I had not thought about the implications of a single gender organisation having “conditions” relating to an organisation it is not part. so this is what is good about your Blogs James. It should not be allowed in this day of Equality and Diversity. It makes a mockery of clubs having to sign the new D&E policy document.

    Thank you James

  6. Chris Garner says:

    The hardest “gig” I did as a District Governor, was to speak at our District Inner Wheel Rally. The organisation does a lot of good and all of the points above are relevant. The information I wish to add is this: At that rally each IW club greeted their National President in the plenary session. The clubs bear the name of the corresponding Rotary club and it was eye opening to see how many of the strong IW clubs were related to RCs which had either ceased to exist or were struggling with their membership. I concluded that they were actively competing with Rotary, rather than collaborating with them.
    Like with some nationalities, this unpleasant aspect is not generally found in most individuals but somehow they collectively are stigmatised. So it is with IW.
    I think Rotary Blogger has raised some interesting issues here, but I don’t believe IW are the future of Rotary, they are part of our history.

  7. MAC PURCELL says:

    Well said RB, it is just another anachronism associated with Rotary. I have not been able to get a reasoned argument for its continuance from IW, especially when we Rotarians are striving to be truly dual gender.

    On the more important issues is about opportunities for women in Rotary, my District will be having its second women as DG this July, in as many years, with third coming in two years hence, plus we will have one of those as the second woman as President of RIBI soon. Our District has several women on the Executive and represented on the Service Committees. I will add, excuse me for stating the obvious, that our current RIBI General Secretary and her predecessor are women.

    With all the recent changes to make Rotary open, flexible and accessible to all, I cannot see the need for us to be associated with a single sex organisation, surely this is discriminatory?

    This is not a criticism of individuals in IW, I am sure they enjoy their activities and do good works, but more with the principle of IW
    being a single gender organisation associated with Rotary.

  8. Richard Cooper says:

    I agree. Now the change logjam is broken, RotaryGBI needs to move on to dealing with some of the more challenging diplomatic issues, such as taking E&D seriously.

    Currently RotaryGBI and Districts have a close special relationship / affliation with Inner Wheel, a single sex organisation.

    In my district, the Inner Wheel chair is invited to make a speech at the DG handover, and gets a slot at the District Conference. I assume this is reciprocated, and also replicated in other Districts and at RotaryGBI level. Such links imply an endorsement of the Inner Wheel single sex policy, and are sometimes used as a justification for the continued men-only status of some Rotary clubs.

    I would hope that a more modern RotaryGBI leadership would start to deal with the issue.

    However, should Inner Wheel want to stay single sex in the UK, then RotaryGBI and Districts should start to sever such anachronistic official links.

  9. Aled Owen says:

    Chris Mulford is right of course and the conversations I have had with members of IW have one thing in common. Each time I have been told ‘who would want to meet once a week for a meal?’

    I can understand that. Like single gender Rotary Clubs I believe that it is best to let IW be but put our effort into forming new Clubs where members can decide how they want to meet and operate and also how frequently. John Hewko has implied that we can throw out the rule book and do as we wish. We will have to wait and see whether that will come about.

  10. says:

    I love these debates. mostly semantic as little or nothing changes. I was at a membership seminar yesterday and whilst the facilitators were trying to offer or engender change, in essence they were doing it against the backdrop of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’.

    So to the contents of this Blog…yes there is a male organisation which is being dragged into the 21st century and not always willingly and a female organisation associated with the men’s organisation but separate from it and the suggestion or implication is that is it stock full of women married to Rotarians who the would prefer meet in their own gender company. Some advocate the merging of one with the other and the assumption from that is that IW members become rotary…would they be so keen if the outcome was the demise of Rotary and the new merged organisation was call Inner Wheelers, adopting their constitution, rules and methodology….uuuuuuuuuuuuum let’s see.

  11. You are right – I haven’t considered joining Inner Wheel!

    I personally don’t see the need for Inner Wheel – if they manage to attract new members and keep going then good for them, but I would be surprised if there are many clubs still around in the next 50 years or so.

  12. Ginnie Waddingham says:

    I agree with Nisha. The Inner Wheel at our club call themselves ‘Rotary Wives’ – to which ‘Rotary husbands’ and lady Rotarians are excluded to join their events. As Rotary is now inclusive this exclusion is offensive and divisory. Just join the WI for goodness sakes or get involved with Rotary properly! We should all be working together and not condoning ‘his and hers’ groups.

  13. Mark Stewart-Clarke says:

    I have to agree with Chris and say that attending area 4 for their rally is rather like walking on egg shells, having said that 1040 has a very good working relationship with IW, perhaps it is time to take it further. We could approach another all female group Soroptimist’s originally formed by Rotarians in the US for ladies in business to further the cause of oppressed women.

  14. I am always disappointed reading that the only solution on Rotary’s member problems is destroying IW questioning it’s right to existence and force the members in Rotary clubs.
    Just start with the 4 way test…
    Is it the truth?
    Is it fair to all concerned?
    Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
    Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
    You’ll fail as soon as the 1st one… but on the 2nd for sure.

  15. iain shaw says:

    A comment or two.
    I believe Inner Wheel was formed by a group of ladies in the Manchester area some 90 years ago at a time when Rotary was a male only organisation. Some 30 odd years after Rotary ‘opened its doors’ to women it could hardly be said to have universally embraced the idea or be welcoming of them. Perhaps we should put our own house in order before we get on our high horse and point our finger at others.
    Wives of Rotarians formed Inner Wheel partly because they saw needs in their community which were not being addressed by Rotary. At the same time they were more than willing to support their husbands’ clubs activities. They continue to do so. Can we fault them for that?
    As with Rotary there have been attempts by men to join which I understand have been successful though I don’t believe there are presently any male members.
    Also like Rotary it is an international organisation and has around 100,000 members.
    Ìt is growing swiftly in Asian countries particularly where, because it is only for women, it is one of the few organisations that they may join. Their culture is very different from ‘western’ culture and an ability to join any organisation is I think something we should encourage. Don’t seek to destroy it. Perhaps it might be considered a first step towards emancipation.

    P.s. I hear that your DG’s speech went down very well this afternoon.

  16. Gloria M. Shepherd says:

    Inner Wheel was formed to help the local communities. In the days when Rotarians were very much male only. Have you ever thought that ladies in IW may NOT want to join Rotary. I certainly wouldn’t, why when we have an excellent working Association throughout the world. As members of IW we work alongside Rotarians’ within our communities, for local and international charities. Note alongside, we are of the opinion that we are as good as any Rotarian. If IW closed tomorrow I wouldn’t want to join Rotary. What you might find interesting a Rotary Club I know of nearly 70 years old has just lost three females members. One elderly of over ten years membership, two young women, 38-42 years old, one of whom has just completed a year ad club president. THROUGH!;;; sexism by males members. So no thank you to your view that their is a potential large membership of IW members that could swell the numbers for Rotary, we are doing very well ad we are, thank you very much, and we do not hang onto the coat tails if Rotary to obtain recognition. We are a world wide women’s organisation, raising awareness in all areas of the world, of neglect, suffering, disease, famine, disasters, attending, aiding and working to help the less fortunate in this world of ours. Your comments were extremely condescending and highlights a lit of ignorance regarding. INNER WHEEL, albeit in GB & I or INTERNATIONAL INNER WHEEL.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment on the blog Gloria – and your comments are all very well respected. I thank you for committing to writing a fact that many have been loathe to and that is that female members leave Rotary Clubs due to sexism as you have outlined in your comment. You are exactly spot-on in terms of the question, why would anyone want to join such a club? That is an issue for the District and RotaryGBI to pick up. If you read the blog you’ll see that I have picked up on all the amazing work that Wheelies do at home and internationally – the purpose of the blog is simply posing the question as to why, if there has been such a big issue in Rotary as to gender balance the organisation would allow itself to be associated with an organisation that is overtly single-gender? Sorry if you felt my views were condescending or lacking in knowledge…I guess I should line up alone with the many, many others who either share a similar view or I could join the group who frankly couldn’t care less what the future of the Wheelies turns out to be…?!? Thanks again, for looking in…

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