In 2013, Nan McCreadie became the First Woman to be elected president of Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland, the umbrella organization of all Rotary Clubs in Great Britain and Ireland, since Rotary’s inception in 1905. Rotary is now an international organisation which is of service to and fundraises for worthy causes, promoting peace and humanitarian action both for local communities and large overseas programs alike. During her year in office, Nan led over 53,000 Rotarians in Great Britain and Ireland – less than 25 years after a U.S. Supreme Court ruled to even allow women membership to Rotary proper. An inspiring and passionate woman and speaker, Nan talks to First Women about how it’s ok to use strong emotions positively in an organisation that is dedicated to peace – and how even the smallest steps can make a massive humanitarian difference.
Rotary is a huge group
We are talking 1.2 million members worldwide, composed of people who are interested in bettering things for others. We focus on lots of areas: maternal and child health, water and sanitation, literacy, environment and for the last 30 years we have been involved with trying to end polio. One can contribute in a local way to the Rotary community (as part of what are called ‘Districts’), or – like I do – as part of the larger community involved in International issues. Rotary is everywhere doing good works from China to Cuba.
My journey with Rotary began in about 1996
I got a letter from a local club. I was invited to visit and went back twice as I enjoyed it so much – but I was told I had to pay for my own supper the second time [laughs]. I got on well with the people there and eventually became the attendance officer, which was a good way to meet the members. Then in 2000/1 was elected Club President and started to learn more about the District, not just the local club.
I was then approached by the incoming District Governor to become an Assistant Governor – and became the first woman in that role. My job then was to go out to meet local clubs in the area which were all fairly local but there was about 14 of them! I became District Governor elect and then District Governor in 2005/6 – the first woman in the District where the Feltham club was situated.
I applied to be president but didn’t think they would go for a woman
After I was made chairperson of a committee, I checked out the other people standing for the president’s role and thought, ‘hang on, I could do a better job than them!’ So I went for it. I assumed I wouldn’t get it because I never thought they would go for a female president not least because of the whole misogynist piece. There was a lot of, ‘well you’re not coming to my club’ which of course would make me turn up at their club anyway because it delighted me just to annoy them [laughs].
So to my surprise not only did I get the presidency, but I got the majority vote first time. I think I was in the right place at the right time and because I was well-known, had contributed a lot and a very social person, my face was recognised and I was voted in.
People ask me, ‘why are you holding a goat in your portrait?’
Rotary clubs in Great Britain and Ireland have this thing called ‘Kids Out.’ This project takes disabled and disadvantaged children to parks and zoos and theme parks like Alton Towers. The local Rotary clubs in Hampshire set up their own event on a local army training ground and they get a fairground to come in and organise races, food, all sorts. And it was here that Anita came to photograph me. There was a petting area and the goat was a play on words for ‘Kids’ Out’ – which is why I am holding a baby goat. It was Anita’s idea, I might add!
It took a ruling by the United Sates Supreme Court to allow women to join Rotary
And that didn’t happen until 1989! Prior to this, male Rotarians were offered the chance for their wives to join the female arm of Rotary, which in this country is called the Inner Wheel. But women could not join Rotary itself – as it was not allowed to be a mixed organisation. Over-turning this tradition met with a lot of opposition. I think for the men it was a sense of threat; they were worried that they would be overrun with women and not be able to do what they wanted any more, tell risqué jokes, or this or that. And the women opposed it too because they were concerned that their husbands would be mixing with other women for two hours week! I mean come on – doesn’t your husband go to work? Aren’t there other women there?!’
The first woman joined Rotary in America in the 1970s
And can you believe, the club was thrown out of Rotary for letting a woman join? They didn’t realise at first that a woman had joined, as she was a doctor. All they saw was ‘Doctor Whitlock’ until she went to a convention and they were like – ‘oh, hang on…’ But as I say, it was 1989 before the Supreme Court ruled that Rotary must accept women, and there are still problems in some parts of the world such as Bangladesh and Pakistan where men and women do not mix in certain areas. You still get some clubs that are all men – and on the other side, you get some clubs that are all women as well – particularly out in the Philippines.
Rotarians are very dedicated
One of the things that has been encouraged in the last few years is that clubs should work together: the bigger the input, the better the outcome. If it is something local, like ‘Kids’ Out’, you would have three or four clubs working together, funding and organising the whole thing With global work, there is a big pot available for funding but it requires a good number of international clubs to come together and apply. Even then, Rotarians fund their own travel and accommodation. Members are very dedicated. One colleague I know runs a Rotary club who are re-building a school in Costa Rica. And he will go there and paint, or labour, or build. This is what some of the Rotarians do – they are so moved and motivated by something that they feel urgently needs to happen. Not everyone gets their hands that dirty of course – they might donate funding instead. I have just donated to a project in Sierra Leone to build a toilet block in a boys’ school because right now they have nothing. The sort of money that you or I would spend on a night out – say, £50 – that is worth so much more in those countries.
I grew up in a family that shared
My mother was one of seven children and my father one of five, so there was always family all around. If any problems arose, everyone gathered and helped each other. Also, we lived in a small village with community spirit. I know it sounds trite, but my intentions are not so much driven by humanitarianism but by the fact that I simply try and do what I think is right. I was very influenced by JFK and Martin Luther King. I lived thought those times. I remember the assassination of both of them and those things stay with you. I remember thinking; ‘why is this happening? Why can’t the world live together and get on?’ I was also inspired by the first woman to join Rotary and – I have to say – I was very recently inspired by Captain Tom.
One of the other areas of Rotary focus is peace and conflict resolution
Pre-Covid, I would go into a school once a week and listen to children who needed extra support reading aloud. And if they started fighting I would say to them – ‘why are you doing that? Can you explain it to me?’ And they could never tell me why. These ten year olds couldn’t say why they were upset, or having a go. I think we need to try and support other people to express themselves in a way that others can understand that isn’t just throwing fists around or stabbing people or whatever. Meeting aggression with, ‘ I don’t think that’s the right way to go about that but can we talk about it?’ Is a good start. I know that’s easy to say and very challenging when someone is stressed, aggressive or even has a knife. I have colleagues that run a project called ‘Peace Jam’ and they go into schools recruiting teenagers as ambassadors for peace, stepping in before problems escalate. And that is key: if you can identify a potentially inflammatory situation before it escalates you have a better chance of getting people to stop before it is too late and they have stabbed somebody in the chest. You need to understand why someone is doing what they are doing. They might have good reason for doing it! So understanding the heart of the problem and trying to find the solution there is a good start.
Western Privilege means we could do more – but we should look to our own shores too
Although we are privileged, there are very, very bad poverty pockets in the West. I’m not a communist – I am not trying to spread everything everywhere – but yes, I do think we should be kinder and do a lot more than we do at home. I don’t go out and protest either – I just get on with doing what needs doing. You know, just do it because it’s the right thing!
It’s my opinion that from the 1960s some parents started to abdicate responsibility; adopting a ‘me first and never mind the children’ attitude. And now it is worse because the kids are simply parked in front of technology and there is no beneficial social interaction. You see parents engrossed on their phone, pushing kids around in a pram and you think, ‘for heaven’s sake, if you did not want to look after this child, why did you have it?!’ I do get irate. I suppose that shows my age. Not being able to communicate what you need and what you are feeling as a ten-year-old means you grow into an adult who cannot communicate either. And it usually stems from a parent who hasn’t communicated skillfully with that child in the first place. Unless we break the cycle, this will continue to be a problem.
When things get difficult – I try and stay calm. Or I laugh.
I have experienced conflict in Rotary. Once, I remember someone shouting the odds and I calmly said, ‘woah, hang on a moment – why are you doing this?’ I try and stop it in its tracks. Sometimes I will laugh because that also interrupts the conflict, as people are thrown by the unexpected and it can stop aggression mid-flow.
I believe in peace but I do not believe in peace at all costs.
Of course I get angry. There are times when anger is actually constructive because it can give the energy and drive to solve a problem that triggered the anger in the first place. Anger can also be a label put on another emotion – passion, frustration, grief. A good cry can help restore equilibrium and that can be as much tears of anger as of being upset – it is a release valve. What I have certainly learnt is that if you ignore the anger and frustration it will come back and bite you. There is no-one in this world that is so well balanced that their equilibrium is never disturbed! I think it is Buddhists that say you shouldn’t be angry about anything? We can’t all be like that. It is not feasible. It’s not just a case of – well you are either for peace or you get angry. People are far more complex than that.
I have had mentors and been very, very grateful for them
I had a work mentor who was very supportive of women in the workplace – he was worldly-wise, he could see all sides of things, he was well-travelled and had worked with women before in the army. He also had a couple of daughters, and I think that helped. When I went into Rotary I had supporters more than mentors. Certain people shared information with me that I wouldn’t necessarily get from books and they suggested helpful things and approaches I could try. I have tried to pay that forward by offering tips and advice to those coming in.
Men’s resistance to women in Rotary has changed over the years
Originally, I belonged to an association where the chairman was the worst misogynist I have ever met in my life. At a meeting once, I got up to challenge something. He kept trying to put me down and I just stood there quaking but held my ground saying, ‘no, I am going to be heard, Mr Chairman, this is what I want you to look at.’ And he was furious. He even said to my business partner, ‘how do you put up with her?’ Early on, I had a lot of nervous anger: and anger can work to give you the impetus to keep forging ahead, but it has to be controlled because if it isn’t, it can either be dangerous or make you ill.
Now I am older, I deal with conflict differently. If I am in the wrong, I will sort it out as soon as I can and apologise. Or sometimes I say, ‘there are two sides to everything, but this is what I think.’ And if people aren’t open to that sometimes, the only thing one can do is walk away. It is about understanding yourself and then trying to put what you think is reasonable into action – as long as it doesn’t conflict with what someone else is doing.
It is a cliche, but no person is an island
If you want to improve your own life, improve others’ first. Knowing that you have is very gratifying. Don’t think it has to be a gigantic offering. Even just smiling at someone who is having a bad day. The small things soon mount up into big things – and your small act may inspire someone who has the means to do something on a large scale. But also be true to yourself; only do it if you want to. I remember once, we were away on holiday and saw a lady fall over. My husband I went to help and she was so shocked. Go out and get involved! Don’t worry about the size of the gesture. All you need to do is go to someone and say,’ can I help?’
Interview Deborah Willimott