Every year we get a call from the Jaycees soliciting support for a worthy cause. Every year we send a check, and that is the sum and substance of the amount of thought I give to the Jaycees each year. I have, however, just finished reading an article in this month's issue of Savvy magazine, and my relationship with the Jaycees has changed forever.
The checks stop here.
The article, written by Vin McLellan, begins this way: "The president of the United States Jaycees, a hefty man of 34 . . . strode to the microphone. When the enthusiastic applause died down, J. Terryl Bechtol grabbed his belt with both hands, hoisted his pants, and announced: 'Would the woman please leave. I can't teach leadership to a woman.'
"There was a moment of expectant stillness among the nearly hundred Jaycee executives" assembled in the room. Then, Kathy Murray, president of the Pittsburgh Jaycees, "quietly stood among her fellow Jaycee chapter presidents" and left. She told McLellan: "It was the kind of thing where you have to walk out and keep saying: 'He wasn't talking to me personally . . . . He wasn't talking to me personally . . . . He wasn't talking to me . . . ! ' "
This scene, which occurred during Bechtol's 1979-80 term, is a public relations man's nightmare, but Bill Babb, spokesman for the U.S. Jaycees in Tulsa, says yes, it really did happen. "I don't know of any other way to answer that. I wish I could think of one. I would just hope the readers would not hold the entire organization accountable for the actions or words of one individual."
What brought this all about, according to the article and Babb, was a decision made in 1975 to allow four states to let chapters admit women during a three-year pilot project to see whether co-ed Jaycees worked and whether the chapters that tried it could persuade other chapters that they liked it. "Many found success with it, and many did not," says Babb, although he doesn't know why some did not.
Then in 1978, according to Babb, the Jaycees voted overwhelmingly not to change their bylaws to admit women to full membership. That vote, coupled with the fact that the time had run out on the pilot project, spelled the end of full membership privileges for women in the Jaycees, according to Babb. Chapters were informed by letter that they would be in violation of the bylaws if they continued to let women vote and hold elective office. "The edict," wrote McLellan, "ordered all chapters that had admitted women as full members during the premissive years. . . to impeach female officers and directors, and demote all women Jaycees to nonvoting 'associate status' -- or lose their charters and all claim to the Jaycee name."
"This," writes McLellan, "was a fierce and humiliating way to repress the Jaycee women. All the more so because these were not women who had forced the gates -- these were women who had individually been invited, recruited into the local Jaycee chapters."
The trouble with the whole business, says Babb, is that the women were not informed initially that they were being recruited for a trial period. "Because of their failures to inform people of the rules . . . we had a little bit of a problem on our hands." In four states and the District of the Columbia the problem blew up in the form of lawsuits, most of which are still in court.
Closed-membership organizations exist in part, I submit, to make people on the inside feel superior to people on the outside, which is not a particularly commendable way of treating one's fellow human beings. And while there are reasons for having membership standards in some organizations, barring people on the basis of their sex is about as relevant a qualification in most as barring them on the basis of their race or religion. Keeping people out on the basis of sex is bad enough; throwing them out on the basis of sex is even worse.
The Jaycees is primarily a leadership training organization and Bechtol, who went on automatically become chairman of the board last year, is now running for Congress from the Pensacola area of Florida. Babb appeals to the public's sense of fair play not to hold the Jaycees responsible for the behavior of one individual. But the Jaycees elected that person to be president; they must have had some idea of what they were getting. And when he threw Murray out of the meeting, the other Jaycee executives remained silent, which tells you even more about the organization than the actions of one man.
The Jaycees may do good deeds, but if these are the kind of people they are training to be tomorrow's leaders, they don't deserve support.