WESTERLY, R.I. (AP) — Taylor Swift has a home in this seaside community. But even one of the world’s most famous women wouldn’t be able to join the Westerly Yacht Club, which bestows full membership only on men.
A vote to change the policy at the nearly century-old club in the Ocean State, where the love of sailing runs deep, failed to reach a two-thirds majority last week. In a secret ballot, 207 men voted for the change and 171 men voted to keep it the way it is.
Wives can become associate members, and while they can run committees and organize parties at the club, they can’t vote. Single women and married lesbians are not admitted, even as associates, because they are not married to a man. Gay men may join, but their husbands may not become associates, a status reserved for wives.
Women, and many men, are not happy.
Several women connected to the club said it was ridiculous, in a year when Hillary Clinton is making a historic run for president, that they can’t join. Swift hasn’t asked, but if she wanted to would not be allowed, even though her beach house is in the same ZIP code.
“How do I explain this to my daughters? That you can be the president, but you can’t be a member of the Westerly Yacht Club?” associate member Danielle Hetu said.
Hetu and her husband, who sits on the club’s board, are among those who have been working for years to change the policy. Previous votes to admit women have won a majority but failed to win a two-thirds majority, as required by the club’s bylaws, members said.
One member who voted against the change said he believes many of the wives agree with him.
“They’re all happy with what they got. They don’t have to pay dues,” Bob Dionne said.
Annual dues are around $600, although others point out wives could continue to be non-voting, non-dues-paying associate members if they chose.
Jane Barstow, an associate member and retired professor of English and women’s studies, thinks the policy remains in part because of the “old guard” at the club that is resistant to change. She theorizes that there may be something of a backlash against Clinton’s historic run for president, and says there may be other reasons as well.
“I heard somebody say that some women had told their husbands to vote against it because they were afraid of their husbands interacting with single women,” she said. “That’s very sad.”
Others have theorized members do not want competition for their businesses from professional women who could join the club for the networking opportunities.
Many people in the community were shocked to learn of the policy.
Linda Lee stopped by last year to inquire about joining. Lee owns a financial advising firm in nearby Mystic, Connecticut, and thought it would be a nice place to socialize, have lunch with clients and network. She and her husband live nearby and own a 50-foot boat, which is in her name. But when she asked at the bar about membership, Lee could not believe what she heard.
“Well, you can’t join. You have to be a man. Your husband can join,” Lee said she was told. “I just said, ‘Forget it.’ And I walked out. These days, we are so past that.”
Julie Cardinal has the club in her blood. Her maternal grandfather died on his boat there. Her father was the club’s commodore, and she got married at the club. Her husband became a member. But when they divorced, she lost her status as associate member. Now, when she wants to go there, she needs her father or mother to sign her in.
No one has yet challenged the policy in court. The club’s commodore, Scott Howard, pushed to admit women, but said he also believes the policy is legal because it is a private club.
Several associate members and members said they think it violates the law. They think antidiscrimination laws apply because the club has over 600 members, holds a liquor license and rents out facilities to the general public.
Lynette Labinger, one of Rhode Island’s leading civil rights lawyers, said the policy is problematic. Rhode Island prohibits discrimination based on gender. While a small group for men such as a reading group might be OK, it’s less likely to be allowed when a club has many members and charges fees.
The Westerly Sun editorialized that the policy gave the town a black eye and suggested that if people withheld dues and stopped going to the bar, the club might change.
Cardinal said letting women join would not change much; it would just give women more of a voice.
“I still love it and enjoy it,” Cardinal said. “I just don’t think it’s correct.”
Reach Michelle R. Smith on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRSmithAP
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