A running gag in comic books of the 1950s centered around boys' clubhouses. In a typical scene, several boys would nail together old boards to make a backyard hideaway. Then in large, crooked letters they would scrawl stern messages on the outside: ``No girlz allowed'' and ``Girls keep out.'' Any plans the boys made, any secrets they shared inside those walls were off-limits to girls. Today those comic-book scenarios still parallel real-life situations. The operative word now is ``women'' instead of ``girls,'' but the unwritten motto over the door of many men's clubs is the same: No females allowed.
Increasingly, the validity of these male-only restrictions continues to be challenged by courts and women's groups across the country. The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Rotary Clubs and other comparable private groups have a right to exclude women under the freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment. Already, a superior court justice in Massachusetts has found a rod and gun club guilty of discriminating against a woman seeking membership.
The debate has become especially heated in New York City, where a local law, upheld earlier this week by the State Supreme Court, forbids discrimination in clubs that are not ``distinctly private.'' By definition that includes clubs that have more than 400 members, offer regular meal service, and receive payment from nonmembers. Some members of three clubs named in complaints by the New York City Commission on Human Rights - the Century Association, the University Club, and the Union League Club - say they are not against admitting women but object to the city interfering with the membership policy of private clubs.
The key question may be: When is a club more than just a club?
Women, standing on the outside looking in, claim their exclusion denies them the opportunity for informal relationships away from work that are often crucial to business advancement. These clubs, they charge, masquerade as social organizations, even though members may be reimbursed by their employers for dues or take tax deductions for them.
At the same time men, comfortably settled inside in paneled libraries, ornate dining rooms, and smoky lounges, argue that they don't join to advance their careers. Rather, as one member of the Century Association stated in a recent letter to the New York Times, they join for a ``simple, ineluctable fact: it is an enjoyable place to eat, drink, talk, have nonchattering comfort and good cheer.''
Sometimes that ``good cheer'' can take a nasty turn. Recently, during the annual dinner meeting of the all-male Alfalfa Club in Washington, D.C., Senator Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico made a joke about newly elected Senator Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland that she considered ``outrageous'' and ``insulting.'' Although he later apologized to her, some women see this kind of humor as symptomatic of deep-seated hostility toward women and resistance to their presence in business and politics.
Whatever the real or ostensible reasons for maintaining exclusivity, the male-only restrictions clearly raise complicated emotional as well as legal questions. A recent study, ``Managing Sexual Tension in the Workplace,'' conducted by Catalyst, a non-profit research organization in New York, notes the confusion that still surrounds changing roles for men and women.
What is lacking, the report says, is ``a comfort level in men's and women's interactions at work.... Many men's - and women's - gut-level feelings about sex roles in the home and the workplace can raise barriers that impede women's productivity and advancement - and also create uncertainty and discomfort for men.''
Elsewhere, writing about the ``mixed signals, embarrassment, [and] confusion'' that often characterize male-female business relationships, Judy Rosener, assistant dean of the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine, says, ``In corporations all over the nation, sexual static clouds the air, like snow on a television screen, interfering with communication between men and women...''
It will take more than equal access to clubs to eliminate this ``sexual tension'' and ``sexual static.'' Legislating equality remains an elusive ideal. Some women hope that in time the barriers to membership will fall away naturally as younger men, more accustomed to seeing women in professional roles, become members themselves. Others argue that sexual discrimination in the '80s is as unconscionable as racial discrimination was in the '50s - and requires the same fundamental reeducation in attitudes.
``We need to create a new model for men that will enable them to view women as friends and colleagues,'' a male consultant on gender-related issues says in the Catalyst report. Men, he adds, need a better understanding of their assumptions about women's roles and men's roles.
In the meantime, the all-male club remains a signal to women, saying thus far and no farther. Although women hold more than a third of managerial positions in the US, many find themselves bumping up against what has been called a glass ceiling, unable to rise to the ranks of senior management. Some believe their careers have been stalled by subtle, even unconscious discrimination on the part of male superiors. Others blame a lack of access to ``informal networks'' of power that men take for granted - the sort of bonding symbolized by clubs.
For some women, the answer has been to join a club of their own. But one of these, the five-year-old Georgetown Women's Club in Washington, D.C., recently closed its doors permanently, its owners citing debt and declining membership as reasons for bankruptcy.
Beyond the club's own internal problems, one member points out that the declining membership also stems in part from the lack of time professional women can devote to leisure activities away from home.
This second explanation suggests that today's women, doubling as homemakers and mothers, have all they can do to stay competitive on an unlevel playing field without being banned from the clubhouse as well.