Over the years, while being trimmed, moussed and blow-dried, several of Clark Clementsen’s high society clients had encouraged him to join their prestigious charitable organization.
It didn’t seem to matter that the Junior League had only women members.
Surely, an exception could be made in Clementsen’s case. After all, he had exactly what the Junior League values so highly--a commitment to helping the needy. He was a longtime volunteer at a league-supported child advocacy center, did free make-overs for battered women at a league-sponsored shelter, bought tickets to the league’s fashion shows and even helped sort handbags for its rummage sales.
He never refused a request to donate his time and talents for one fund-raiser or another.
Besides, the once all-male Rotary Club had been admitting women for years. So why shouldn’t the Junior League follow suit and admit men?
Membership was imminent, he thought, when Sissy Fitzsimmons, a longtime client and past league president, submitted his name for consideration. Now, all he had to do was wait for the application to arrive in the mail.
Fall turned to winter. The form never came.
Clementsen soon realized it never would.
He was devastated--and said so: “It’s the height of discrimination. It’s unbelievable.”
These were harsh words for the generally mild-mannered, affable man. And some of his Junior League clients, who had expected Clementsen to accept the rejection gracefully, began to turn their backs on him. One client left him completely.
“The doo doo has hit the fan,” Clementsen said. “It’s ugly. It’s ugly. I have no support.”
For years, Clementsen, 45, had wanted to join the Junior League. While sitting comfortably in his swivel chair, his clientele often would gab about their charitable exploits, and his mother’s friends had talked of their volunteer league work while he was growing up in Connecticut.
Because he had to struggle to accept the fact that he was adopted, dedication to others is particularly important to him. That’s why he volunteered to be an advocate for abused, neglected and troubled children, dealing with the courts and foster parents on their behalf and taking them on outings.
“I needed to give back,” he said. “Just knowing you’re doing something is important.”
It was obvious that Junior Leaguers were dedicated, putting in numerous hours at homeless shelters, senior citizen homes and hospitals. They had been trained to be organized, articulate community leaders, and it showed.
For Clementsen, no men’s organization even came close.
He started seriously thinking about applying in 1987 when a client became one of the first women admitted into the San Jose Rotary Club--a move mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that women were being denied the business opportunities that arose at Rotary meetings.
If Beth Luna Mourning could be admitted to Rotary, why couldn’t Clark Clementsen be welcomed into the Junior League?
“I applaud him,” said Mourning. “The whole purpose of the Junior League is to be out in the community and be good volunteers. So what’s the issue? Men can’t be good volunteers? Is it a group of ladies or a group of people who care about their community?”
At the league’s international headquarters in New York, Executive Director Holly Sloan defended the no-men policy, saying that her organization is committed to developing the potential of women, not men.
The gender policy is not an issue of discrimination, she said, but of equality.
“Women have been excluded historically from the decision-making processes of our communities,” Sloan said. “Groups like the Junior League and others help to ensure that women’s voices are included.”
In fact, just last spring, all 293 league chapters voted on whether men should be admitted--and decided overwhelmingly against it. The results were closer at the San Jose chapter, which includes members from the tony suburb of Los Gatos, where Clementsen has his small, tidy shop. But those who voted to open the club aren’t coming to his aid.
Even Sissy Fitzsimmons, whom he once considered his strongest ally, appears to have abandoned him.
“I don’t want to get involved,” she told a reporter. “I’ve been a little disappointed in how this has all turned out.”
Clementsen, a slender man with receding blond hair, tortoise-shell glasses, leather loafers and cuffed khakis whose soft blue eyes match the color of his Ralph Lauren sweater, just shakes his head.
“Sissy is taking a tremendous amount of flak. Women can be pretty vicious,” he said.
Clementsen was crushed when another Junior League client canceled her three-hour appointment after he gave a reporter her phone number. She told him that she would never return to his shop.
“She said she had not been happy with my work in quite some time. But I think it was paying me back for what she perceived I had done to her--and she will never, never admit that’s the reason.
“It hurts even to think about it,” he added in a near whisper. “But it’s not going to stop me. They’ve pushed me to the point I have to speak out.”
Clementsen was vilified for accusing the league of discrimination just a few weeks before its charity figure-skating event; some members feared that the controversy could generate bad publicity and hurt ticket sales or upset corporate sponsors.
A member even called and scolded him for backing out on his promise to volunteer 30 hours of hairdressing at the skating event, he said. Clementsen had thought that he was making a statement--but under pressure, he agreed to help.
“I’m OK to volunteer at different events, but I’m not OK to join?” he said incredulously.
At the San Jose chapter’s headquarters--the historic Farrington House on prestigious Dry Creek Road--two members stapling agendas for that night’s meeting, surrounded by Louis XV furniture, Persian rugs and Chinese urns, declined to speak to a reporter.
But the local president, Faith Borges, was more forthcoming, saying that although she appreciates Clementsen’s volunteer work for the league, “I don’t know if now is the right time” for men to join.
A 1982 Supreme Court ruling, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, supports that position, league lawyer Christine Carty said. The court ruled that the Mississippi University for Women could remain all-women, as could other single-gender organizations, if the groups had been historically discriminated against and had active programs that lessen that discrimination.
Although men have inquired about joining the 95-year-old league in the past, no one ever has filed a legal challenge. Clementsen says he won’t either.
But in the tradition of women who fought for equal rights, he says that he is a pioneer for men.
“I’ve never been a pioneer. This is my first experience,” he said. “I feel good knowing that ultimately, even if there are only 10 men who join worldwide, that means there are 20 hands to help.”
He plans to continue to try to submit his name to the league each year, and he’ll paper his walls with any rejection letters he receives.
And supporter Beth Luna Mourning, who hasn’t had her hair done by Clementsen in years since she moved to a neighboring town, will now support him in another way.
“I’m going to have Clark cut my hair,” said Mourning, who joined the league a few years ago only to resign because she found it too cliquish. “He’s lost some clients? I’m going back.”