Elks Lodges Vote on Whether to Admit Women

The way Gloria Freshour figured it, she'd worked on every major function the Brookings, Ore., Elks Lodge had put on in 17 years, so she might as well become a member. So she crossed out the word ''male'' on the application and wrote in ''female.'' She submitted it on the Fourth of July.

''I was being very poetic about it,'' Ms. Freshour explains.

But even with her years of volunteer work and the support of her husband, who is a member, the lodge turned her down.

In fact, no woman in the 127-year history of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has ever worn the figurative antlers of an Elk.

That could change very soon.

Beset by declining membership and pressure from women seeking to join, the Elks' national legislative body voted in July to delete the word ''male'' from the membership requirements. That sent the matter to the 2,230 lodges for a final vote, which should be tallied by the weekend.

The vote on whether to admit women will be weighted according to the size of each lodge. If a lodge has 500 members, and a majority of those casting ballots vote yes, the outcome is counted as 500 votes in favor.

The move is a recognition that the Elks have evolved away from the kind of organization where ''you smoke, and you drink, and it's a sort of male-bonding thing,'' says Robert Grafton, chairman of the Elks' advisory committee and a past grand exalted ruler, as the nation's top Elk is known.

The Chicago-based organization has spent more than $1 million fighting lawsuits filed by women who want to join the Elks, most prominently Sharon Schellenberg of Rochester, Mich., who first locked horns with her local lodge in 1988.

Her lawyer, Michael Curhan, says the Rochester lodge turned her down on the suspicion she intended to use her membership to help her real estate business. Ms. Schellenberg won in lower Michigan courts, but the case is on appeal, and the Elks haven't been ordered to accept her in the meantime.

As an organization, the Elks hold various social and charitable functions.

Nationwide, the Elks gave out $134 million last year to various causes, including college scholarships and a drug- awareness program for youngsters. Membership, however, has slid to about 1.3 million men from an all-time high of 1.6 million in 1980.

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