Who was the First Woman in Utah Rotary

There has long been a question in District 5420 as to who was the first woman to join Utah Rotary?  The answer is correctly the first two women to join Utah Rotary were Maria VanDerHeyden and Joyce Anderson, both still active members of Murray Rotary Club.

Maria, who was born in Holland but moved to the U.S at age 16, still considers herself a global citizen … and, at age 82 remains a strong supporter of Rotary goals and values.

For three years, when Rotary was considering membership for women, Maria was on District Governor Ralph Montgomery’s “prospective member list” until she was inducted in August 1988.  This Utah milestone took place slightly more than a year after the U. S. Supreme Court ruled – on May 5, 1987 – Rotary International did not have a First Amendment right to exclude women based solely on gender (Google “Rotary International vs. Rotary Club of Duarte California” for more information on this historic decision).

Following the Supreme Court decision, PDG Montgomery kept in touch “almost daily” while the U. S. Congress considered a bill to remove the non-profit status of organizations who denied women as members … including Rotary.  “The day the bill was passed, Dr. Ralph called to say he intended to induct me on Monday.”

Of those early months as a Rotarian, Maria remembers “I knew them, they knew me and they knew my work as a community activist in local arts organizations including the Murray Symphony and the Utah Opera Company.  I was also affiliated for many years with American Field Services, a forerunner of Rotary Youth Exchange, so RYE chair was my first club assignment.  Still there were 8-10 very annoyed Rotarians who thought they could use intimidation tactics and I would just go away.  I tried very hard to blend into this all-male organization, but I still received a very cold reception from a few.”

Joyce Anderson, then on the Murray City School District board of education, was inducted in January 1989 and had much the same experience. One day, “after taking it just so long,” she stood up during a club meeting and asked, “how long do you need to get used to the idea?  We’re here … and we’re here to stay!”

Nine years later, Anderson experienced another 1st when she was elected to serve as the first female president of Murray Rotary Club.

In RY2022-23, Jennifer Jones is making history as Rotary International’s soon-to-be first woman president, but Utah Rotary has had many trailblazers. Penny Atkinson, who served for many years in a variety of ways, officially became a Rotarian in 1999 and eleven years later – RY2010-11 – served as District 5420’s first female Governor.  Beverly Christy, who first joined Sugar House Rotary in 1998, was the second woman to serve as Utah District Governor in RY2017-18.  In RY2020-21, Linda Sappington, inducted in 1993 as the first woman to join St. George Rotary Club, was the third woman to hold this position (forever to be known as the COVID Governor).  In RY2021-22, Judy Zone, who joined the Holladay Club in 2001 and later founded Millcreek Rotary (chartered in November 2011), now leads the district with distinction as Utah Rotary District 5420’s 4th female Governor.

Today, there are many, many Utah women who have made their mark as Rotarians in their club and their community, the district and the world … and many will do so in the future, each bringing their own brand of new ideas, new experiences and new cultures into Utah Rotary.

DG Ralph Montgomery (RY1988-89) always called bringing the first two women into Utah Rotary “perhaps my proudest moment as District Governor.”


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