Question to Teddy Kennedy, Robert Strauss, Alexander Haig, Joseph Califano, Mark Hatfield, Howard Baker, George Bush, Sam Nunn, Barry Goldwater and, among many others, Jay Rockefeller, governor of West Virginia and husband of a dedicated feminist: Would you attend a dinner from which blacks were banned?
Would you go to one that banned Jews? How about Catholics? How about Protestants or Muslims or short people or Lithuanians or Poles or anyone on the basis of race or religion or ethnic group--on the basis, really, of birth? If the answer is no, why then is it all right to attend dinners where women are banned on the basis that they are, of all things, women?
This is what happened last Saturday night when all these gentlemen dressed formally and checked their social consciences at the door. They went to the once-a-year meeting of the Alfalfa Club, an organization which literally does nothing but throw a dinner once a year. Jokes are told, backs are slapped, people get to sort of congratulate each other just for being important enough for being there, and, of course, women are banned.
Why? Does Jay Rockefeller think he represents just the men of West Virginia? Does Sam Nunn think that there are no women in Georgia? Does Teddy Kennedy think his credential as the last liberal gives him dispensation to participate in an event that is discriminatory? Does Alexander Haig think . . . ? Let's stop right there.
Back a while ago, William French Smith took some flak for his membership in the Bohemian Club, an organization of the California economic and social elite that also bans women. The club meets once a year in the woods, a place called the Bohemian Grove, where the men occasionally relieve themselves al fresco and put on a show in which they sometimes dress as women. For this reason, the club maintains that it can not admit women.
At any rate, the Bohemian Club, like most clubs, is also a place where business is done. At the very least, connections are made that later result in business deals, and from this women are excluded. This is the argument women sometimes use against these clubs, and I suppose they have a point.
But the larger point really has to do with discrimination itself. With the Alfafa, instead of the leaders of American society making a statement that sexism will not be tolerated, they chose to endorse it. To them, sexual discrimination is some sort of joke and they are likely to make some crack about how they are going to catch hell from their wives when they get home. The implication is always that their wives are unreasonable (You know how women are), and not that they have spent lifetimes suffering the effects of sexism.
But discrimination on the basis of sex is not a thing of the past. It is a fact of life for countless women. It is with us today in the form of lower wages for women, fewer opportunities for women and laws that continue to treat women as second-class citizens. Even the relatively innocuous Equal Rights Amendment got the stuffings knocked out of it because it insists that women be treated equally before the law.
Originally, of course, clubs like the Alfalfa excluded women because their members held a quaint Victorian view of what women were all about. They felt, as evidently some men still do, that the ears of women would fall off if men talked the way men sometimes do. Or they felt that women, being largely housewives and preoccupied with the more mundane pursuits, would not make interesting company.
But there is a difference between a stag dinner and one in which spouses are not invited. Spouses, after all, can be men as well as women. There must be women who by dint of intellect or whatever are as qualified to be either members or guests of the Alfalfa Club as, say, presidential aide Edwin Meese III or, to make it real easy, Chief Justice Warren Burger. Sandra Day O'Connor leaps to mind.
The Alfalfas obviously thought otherwise. You could say it was their loss, but it was the nation's as well. For the fact remains that our leaders, given an opportunity to fight sexism in practice as well as in rhetoric, chose to limit their commitment to rhetoric. They proved that boys will be boys. Men have the courage of their convictions.