CLAREMONT — Every Tuesday at noon, when University Club President Earl L. Wenger sounds the traditional lunchtime gong, it's almost as if two different meetings were being called to order.
For some members of the prestigious men's club, the weekly luncheons are a chance to relax with their peers and engage in the time-honored rituals of male friendship.
"We're like a fraternal order," said Walton D. Clarke, 77, a Claremont resident and retired communications professor. "The only thing we do is meet on Tuesdays for lunch. It's social."
But for others, who view the club as more of a community forum than a brotherly retreat, the absence of women has become something of a public embarrassment.
"What is the relevance of sex to the intellectual and humanitarian goals of the University Club?" said Claremont attorney Stephen I. Zetterberg, 70, a member since 1953. "We've been limiting our horizons."
The issue will come to a head April 21 when the club's 425 members decide by mail-in ballot whether women should be admitted.
It will be the third attempt in the last decade to include women in the 63-year-old club, an autonomous association not affiliated with the six Claremont colleges or with other University Clubs, such as those in Pasadena and Los Angeles.
Composed mostly of retired professional men with an average age of 72, the club's membership narrowly defeated the proposal last year by a vote of 120 to 116.
This time, however, public support for the male-only policy has begun to erode in this civic-minded college town.
In the last year, the president of Pitzer College has resigned his membership in protest, the club has been barred from holding meetings in the Claremont colleges' Faculty House and several female civic leaders have criticized the club's exclusionary rule.
"This is simply another message that the struggle for an inclusive society is not yet won," said City Atty. Wynne S. Furth, adding that she has rejected offers to speak at the club because of its membership policy. "It's a pity, that's all."
Opponents of the change, however, citing their right to associate freely, say the club is a private organization and is under no obligation to reflect a cross-section of society.
"The club is not now, nor ever has been, representative of the social milieu," Clarke said at a debate on the issue last week at Griswold's Indian Hill banquet room in Claremont. ". . .We are predominantly a retirement club."
Other opponents were even more candid in their objection to women members.
"One of the pleasures you find here is you don't come with your wife," said one member. "I rather dislike the idea of belonging to another couples club."
Advocates, on the other hand, say the group has a moral responsibility to reflect the contributions women make to academic and civic life.
"Times have changed . . . and it's time we changed with them," said Claremont attorney John C. McCarthy, a member for 30 years. "(Women) are now the rule, not the exception."
Pitzer College President Frank L. Ellsworth, who resigned last year after the narrow defeat of the rule change, also condemned the club's policy.
"It's not appropriate for a club that supposedly reflects educational values to then discriminate against women," Ellsworth said. "I no longer wanted to be a part of that."
Founded in 1924 by a group of Pomona College faculty members, the club states in its bylaws that its purpose is "to foster education of the members by providing intellectually stimulating programs; to develop a relationship that will stir intellectual curiosity and foster a spirit of honest inquiry; to promote good relationships between the college and community."
A byproduct of these goals, it continues, is the "encouragement of stimulating conversation and the widening and deepening of friendships."
Unlike service clubs, the University Club of Claremont primarily limits its activities to a luncheon and guest speaker every Tuesday at Griswold's. The club donates about $15,000 a year in scholarships to local community groups, but members say the organization is mainly committed to stirring intellectual discussion.
Membership, which "shall be made available to men only without distinction as to race, creed or color," requires a college degree, although a provision in the bylaws allows for non-graduates to make up 15% of the club. Dues are $24 a year.
A 1955 history of the club said early initiatives to admit women were rejected because, "in view of the instinctive propensities of womankind to assume dominance in domestic affairs, the club should not incur the risk of having its quarters become an extension of family homes."
In 1975, the club defeated the first formal attempt to include women by a vote of 117 to 52.
Three years later, by a 21-vote margin, the club agreed to allow women to come as guests to the weekly luncheons.