PRESIDENT-ELECT RONALD REAGAN and several of the people he wants to bring into government belong to something called the Bohemian Club, which, according to news stories out of California, is so exclusive that it does not have any women.Minorities, yes, but no women.
Besides President-elect Reagan, the club numbers among its members such people as William French Smith, the attorney general-designate, Vice President-elect George Bush and Defense Secretary-designate Caspar Weinberger. So far, Smith and Reagan have said through spokesmen that they intend to continue their membership in the club.
It now appears that the club not only discriminates against women in its membership requirements but may well discriminate against them in employment. The state of California's Fair Employment and Housing Department has charged the club with sex discrimination, claiming it refuses to hire women at its Bohemian Grove camp -- don't laugh, wealthy male executives need summer camp, too -- and that it employs only a few women at the clubhouse. A spokesman for Reagan said that he was unaware of the discrimination charges being brought against the club and would decide whether to resign or not when they are resolved. A spokesman for Smith also said he was not aware of the charges.
The history on presidents and attorneys general and their clubs is brief but enlightening. Until the early '70s, it was part of the American presidential tradition for the president to attend the annual dinner given by the Gridiron Club, an organization of distinguished journalists in Washington which limited its membership to males. In 1970, journalists both male and female picketed the dinner to protest the professional organization's discrimination against women, and presidents stopped going to the dinners until the club invited women to join.
Clubs again became an issue in 1976 when Griffin Bell was forced to resign from the white-only clubs he belonged to in Georgia before being confirmed as attorney general. He has since rejoined the clubs, which suggests that his resignation had a lot more to do with political expediency than deep moral commitment. But it was at least a gesture.
Private individuals who go into public life are often forced to give up a lot, such as their privacy and their personal control over financial assets, and you could argue here that asking them to give up their clubs would be the final straw. All that top talent belonging to the Bohemian Club might say, no, the price of public service has just become too high, and if forced to choose between their country or their club, they would choose their club. And we certainly wouldn't want that to happen.
But let us, for the sake of argument, look at what it means when highly visible public officials belong to exclusionary clubs. What kind of signals are we getting from an attorney general who belongs to clubs that discriminate against blacks, Jews or women? With Griffin Bell, his membership told us that he didn't see anything wrong with a club that purposefully excluded an entire group of people from membership solely because of their race. If he doesn't see anything wrong with that, then just what can we expect from him when he is in charge of the department that enforces civil righs legislation?
With Smith and Reagan, the issue changes only slightly. They are members of a club that not only excludes people from membership solely on the basis of sex, which is not against the law, but also may well discriminate against women in hiring and promotion, which is against the law. Smith and Reagan are both saying they weren't aware of this, which tells us that they not only see nothing wrong with excludig women from the club but also are so unawre of this as a consideration that it never even crossed their minds that all those male bartenders and waiters and so forth might not be there solely because the club couldn't find any qualified female "help." What kind of enthusiasm and vigor will be brought to the task of enforcing existing equal rights legislation from men who, in their private lives, pay money to belong to a posh organization that excludes women?
Smith said he views his membership in the club as a "minor matter," and in and of itself, it certainly is. But we have arrived at a consensus in this country that we want to have equality before the law for women -- even though we are deeply divided about how to do it -- and Smith and Reagan are taking on jobs in which they are expected to be interested in such matters. By staying in the club, they are sending one kind of signal about their understanding of equal rights. By getting out, they could have sent another.
As Griffin Bell showed, it's the gesture that counts.