On clubs and gender

WHEN social clubs are compelled - by changing circumstances, declining memberships, or legal fiat - to alter their exclusivity, their ``sociability'' may appear threatened. This goes for groups which choose members based on wealth, ethnic origin, gender, even profession. Men's organizations have come under most scrutiny recently. Exclusivity is clung to tightly. Members of the Century Club in New York, an all-male club, reportedly have begun to view the admission of women more favorably - some 71 percent favor admitting women, according to a new straw poll of members, compared with 55 percent two years ago. This shift may reflect more a yielding to the inevitable than any change of heart; there is no evidence that men as a group have altered their attitudes on the subject.

Women's groups also continue to operate on the basis of gender exclusivity. Two culinary organizations in Boston, for example, are for women only. As in the food profession where the ranks of chefs were a long time for men only, women have had to organize separately.

Many ethnic-based clubs began similarly as way stations for groups working their way into a larger society. For young people, clubs are often a place to shed the awkwardnesses of youth. And so forth.

It can be difficult to tell a social club from a business or professional organization. In such cases, the courts have begun to compel groups like Kiwanis clubs to admit the excluded. More recently, the excluded have been women, who contend their professional progress is impeded. Formerly the most contested winnowings of membership were by religion, race, and ethnic background - prejudices which persist.

In a world where work responsibilities are more and more equally shared by women and men, and where work and social activities are increasingly intertwined, gender-based exclusion - male as well as female - must be put behind.

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