When Paulette Attie wanted to take a steam bath, a sign went up 24 hours in advance inside the venerable Beverly Hills Friars Club.
The sign proclaimed: “Friar Paulette will be using the spa at 11 a.m. Wednesday.”
At the assigned time, the New York singer, one of about half a dozen women members admitted to the formerly all-male club in the last two years, strode past the dimly lit Sleep Room where men wrapped in white sheets napped. She passed through the Card Room, where more men played poker in a haze of cigar smoke, and, for the first time, stepped boldly into the Spa Room.
Man in a Towel
“There was a man there wearing only a towel, and as I went by he gave me a towel,” Attie recalled. “I said, ‘Thanks, you’re a good sport.’ He said, ‘So are you.’ ”
Armed with changing public attitudes, new laws and the occasional towel, hundreds of women like Attie are gaining membership to exclusive private clubs that they once could enter only as guests.
Yet while significant numbers of clubs have opened their memberships to women, the doors have hardly been flung wide. Membership lists are still overwhelmingly male, some clubs have tried to keep certain sections off-limits, and others--such as the most elite of clubs, the powerful Bohemian Club in San Francisco--continue to refuse admission to women despite social and legal pressures.
“Some might think that club membership is a trivial matter, but aside from the abortion rights issue, no other subject has generated the intensity of feelings that the club issue has,” said Lynn Hect Schafran, an attorney with the National Organization for Women’s Legal and Education Defense Fund.
“It’s because some of these men club members really fear that they are giving up and in to women and that their lives will be destroyed. You can see it in the testimony, comments about how women have high voices and they would ruin the tone of the clubs.”
Gaining entrance to private clubs has enormous significance for women and minorities because they have stood as a last barrier against joining the upper echelons of society and business. Traditionally all-male clubs--including the Cosmos Club in Washington, the California Club in Los Angeles, the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan and the Olympic Club in San Francisco--have for years been hideaways where business deals are cemented and blue-chip friendships are made in the most genteel of settings.
“When women are excluded from these informal centers of power, they are not seen as appropriate players in the formal centers of power,” Schafran said, paraphrasing an oft-repeated maxim about clubs.
As Richard M. Nixon, a longtime member of the Bohemian Club, said once: “Anyone can be President of the United States, but few have any hope of becoming president of the Bohemian Club.”
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court turned such clubs topsy-turvy, ruling that municipalities may force large private clubs to admit women and minorities. The justices said that clubs which serve meals and rent facilities to outsiders are more like business establishments than intimate social groups and therefore have no right to escape anti-discrimination laws.
The clubs argued that they were intimate and personal entities with a right to exclude others. But the skeptical court pointed out that the New York Athletic Club had more than 10,000 members.
The New York City ordinance was significant because it mirrored similar laws in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. The court had previously made a similar ruling regarding service clubs such as the Jaycees and Rotary Club. In California, the state civil rights act, which prevents businesses from discriminating, also applies.
The battle to open club memberships in California began in the early 1980s, when the California Women Lawyers group tried to enact anti-discrimination legislation. Their efforts failed and the bill was not even given a hearing.
It was the state Franchise Tax Board that finally made progress, forbidding individuals from taking business tax deductions for fees and expenses incurred at discriminatory private clubs. The Legislature then enacted similar constraints, and several local governments, including Los Angeles, followed.
Yet, two years later, some maverick clubs still defiantly turn away women, forgoing business tax deductions to remain all-male bastions. Still others have admitted women but deem certain areas of the club off-limits. As a result, discrimination suits are becoming as much a part of the club scene as golf tournaments and power lunches.
While many of the women members who have recently been accepted in these once all-male bastions say they have been treated politely, a few report that they have often been snubbed by other members and, in rare cases, even threatened.
The state Franchise Tax Board has a list of clubs it believes are discriminatory and plans to spot-audit the 1988 state tax returns of members to see if business deductions were illegally taken. However, the board has refused to make the list public, citing the confidentiality of taxpayer records.
“The battle isn’t over,” said Conway Collis, a member of the state Board of Equalization, who authored the tax deduction regulation. “The problem is now a few of the old clubs which are determined to be the last remaining dinosaurs.”
How many is hard to ascertain. In Los Angeles, the city attorney recently launched an advisory task force to check female and minority membership in private clubs. Hearings on the issue will begin this fall.
“Because they are managed so privately, there is still little known about these clubs, what their rules are, how many women and minority members they have,” acknowledged Chief Deputy City Atty. John Emerson. “And the issue still remains that these clubs have to recognize that exclusion of people based on sex and race has no place in society.”
Membership lists are so private that the city attorney, suing the Jonathan Club for allegedly refusing women entry into its grill, had to use the courts to obtain statistics.
Some clubs, such as the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Regency Club, have long welcomed women. But others, including the Friars Club, Jonathan Club and California Club, saw the handwriting on the wall and began admitting a few women only as the city ordinance was about to be passed. While the numbers have been less than overwhelming, officials say that with attrition, more women will be admitted.
Racial discrimination is no longer the issue it once was, but there are still holdouts among the private clubs. The California Club admitted its first black members in 1988. But while few once-shunned groups--mostly Jews, Latinos and Asians--are now members, their numbers are generally higher than those for women, officials say.
The Los Angeles city attorney last year settled a lawsuit with the Brentwood Country Club to further integrate its dining areas and golf course. And the city is suing the Jonathan Club to integrate its men-only bar and grill.
The club contends that while there is a “tradition” of preserving that area for men, women would not be turned away. But the club also filed a federal suit of its own against the city seeking to declare the city’s ordinance unconstitutional. (The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision left room for legal maneuvers in the area of right to private association under the First Amendment.)
Still, Southern California clubs are thought to have a better admittance record than those in San Francisco. There, the Olympic Club, Bohemian Club and Pacific Club, continue to discriminate in major ways, according to city and state officials.
Louise Renne, city attorney for San Francisco, who filed suit against that city’s 4,000-member all-male Olympic Club, said: “These men have failed to recognize that times have changed. They don’t like change.”
She adds, however, that limited resources have prevented her department from taking a closer look at the elitist 2,300-member Bohemian Club. Founded in 1872 , the club claims as members board chairmen and presidents of many of the country’s biggest corporations, as well as a host of powerful politicians. Members include President Bush, former President Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger. The “Bohos,” as they are nicknamed, are well known for their summer encampments where members cavort under the redwoods.
Bohemian Club officials contend that since the club does not accept money from outside businesses, it is not subject to the court ruling. Members say it is a place not for business, but rather for camaraderie and literary and musical revues.
Clubs that do admit women usually do not reveal just how many women members they have. Los Angeles city officials estimate that the 3,000-member Jonathan Club now has about 80 women members and that the 700-member Friars Club and the approximately 1,500-member California Club have about a dozen each.
“Most clubs are practicing tokenism,” said attorney Gloria Allred, who has filed suit on behalf of women at several golf and social clubs in Southern California.
Allred herself became the first dues-paying woman member of the Friars Club in 1987. Last year she filed a discrimination complaint with the state before she and other women members could use the club’s spa. She won similar concessions at the New York Friars Club after being ejected when she tried to dine there--even though that club has a reciprocal agreement with the one in Beverly Hills.
Allred also won entrance to the Friars Roast dinners, which feature jokes that the old guard deems “unfit for ladies.” Allred said of the experience: “The jokes were awful. It was like entering another world.”
While many women are now entering that other world, many do not have total access because of club techniques that critics say are designed to discourage them. “In general, you can’t walk into the office and pick up a membership application,” Allred explained. “You have to be sponsored by several club members. Many women don’t know who the members are.”
When Allred tried to get an application to the Bohemian Club, she was told she had to be sponsored by a member. “They didn’t tell me who any of the members are. That’s the old boy’s club.”
She asked former California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown for a membership application, but “I wouldn’t give her one,” Brown said.
“I believe women should be able to join men’s clubs if there is business involved, but there isn’t any at the Bohemian,” Brown said. “I think she’s a fine lawyer, but there are a lot of women’s clubs she could join where they talk about sewing and raising babies.”
Brown added: “I love women, but I do think that men should be able to gather periodically without women around. Women wouldn’t appreciate it, that we want to be able to pee on the redwood trees without walking a mile to a bathroom.”
No Business Deductions
Richard Arnold, spokesman for the Bohemian Club, said that the club maintains its male exclusivity by its policy of not allowing members to take business deductions for club dues and expenses. “Our club motto is ‘Weaving Spiders Come Not Here.’ We don’t do business at the club. It’s considered distasteful.”
Women have not been admitted because “it’s the general feeling among the membership that men be allowed to have their space,” Arnold said.
On the other hand, David Daar, membership chairman of the Friars Club--founded in 1947 by Milton Berle, Ronald Reagan and George Jessel among others--said they are seeking “suitable” women members.
“The evolution is slow,” Daar said. “So far the numbers of women are small, but we are moving into the 21st Century along with the rest of the clubs and are pretty excited about it.”
Like many clubs, prospective Friars must be sponsored by a member and approved by the Board of Directors. The membership committee consists of seven men who interview prospective members. Under law, such clubs can be selective but not discriminatory.
“We still search for the right people, those we will have pleasure in associating with, people who will help our club move into the future,” Daar said.
Membership in such clubs does not come cheap (some fees are more than $10,000). Some women who have been accepted say that they have been shortchanged in privileges. Others say they have had to pay more to join than men.
Jan Bradshaw, an interior designer, paid $14,000 to join the Yorba Linda Country Club last year, then found that women did not have equal access to golf tee times. The coveted early morning hours on weekends and holidays were reserved for men. Women were relegated to the afternoons, when it is hotter and gets dark earlier. Women were also denied membership on the club’s governing body.
After Bradshaw filed a discrimination suit, she was considered a pariah, even by other women members, most of whom have access to the club because their husbands are members.
“Only three women will play golf with me,” Bradshaw said. “People turn their backs on me, they’ve torn the head off my pictures in the clubroom, scratched out my name on the handicap lists and spread vicious and false comments about my personal life. I’ve received death threats on the phone and nasty, anonymous letters.”
The women’s association publicly denounced Bradshaw, saying that if she wanted to play golf during men’s hours, she should “find a man” to play with. “Men work during the week, and so we make the weekends more available to them,” said Gina Walthail, spokeswoman for the women’s association.
The club is owned by Santa Monica-based American Golf Corp., which runs 115 clubs. General counsel Loretta Singer said that Yorba Linda is the only club with such policies. The rules were part of the purchase agreement. “We have asked them to change, but they refused,” she said. George Atkinson II, a lawyer for the club members, said: “I don’t want to discuss it. Negotiations are ongoing.”
Such constraints are common. At the Riviera Country Club, women cannot play until after 2 p.m. on weekends. At the Santa Ana Country Club, women cannot play until afternoon on Saturday. The Los Angeles city attorney recently sued the Brentwood Country Club to force more flexible hours for women, settling when the club agreed to lengthen hours.
In February, 25 of the approximately 90 single women belonging to the Newport Beach Country Club sued the club alleging that they had to pay $8,500 more apiece for membership than single men. They also charge that single women must pay to bring male guests to play at the club, while male members often do not pay for guests.
“It was the chicken wings that finally got to me,” said Jackie Neal, one of those who filed the suit. “Men get free snacks in their locker room.”
Club officials refuse to discuss the issue. “There’s nothing to comment on,” club manager Jackie Morrissy said.
Regardless of all these problems, women who have negotiated the hurdles say that the memberships are well worth it. They view the clubs as key places for socializing, discussing business and making contacts.
Municipal Judge Lois Anderson Smaltz, who with aviator Brooke Knapp became the first female members of the Jonathan Club in 1987, said that she was royally welcomed.
“I suppose there were some old-timers who were upset and who have hard feelings,” she said. “But I haven’t run across it. People have gone out of the way to make me feel welcome.”
The dozen or so women who belong to the California Club say they feel at home there. Catherine Hagen, a partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, joined several months ago.
“I don’t play cribbage or poker, but I have the run of the whole building,” she said. “I’ve never been denied entrance to any area, except maybe the men’s room. I think now that the ice is broken and the men members see that it is beneficial to have women, the women membership will continue to grow.”
Attorney Marjorie Steinberg recently paid $4,000 to join the City Club on Bunker Hill, a new facility that welcomes both sexes. Former president of the California Women Lawyers Assn., she recalled when that group picketed the Jonathan Club 10 years ago.
“We were considered shrill, mad women. Since then we have built a respectability for our position.
“But now, some women are reluctant to join certain private clubs because of the history of discrimination. They think, why go where you weren’t welcome, and probably still won’t be? It’s going to take a long time for women to join in substantial numbers to make changes at those clubs.”