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.