The Westerly Yacht Club, located in Rhode Island, has been part of the community for generations. Despite the changing times, the club has failed to change its policy to give both men and women full membership, regardless of their marital status.
Last week, there was a secret ballot where 207 men voted for the change but 171 men voted to keep the policy. A two-thirds majority wasn’t met, meaning men are the only people eligible for full memberships.
The rules are absurd. Wives can become associate members with limited rights, which of course include the ability to organize parties and run committees, but do not allow them to vote. Single women and lesbian married couples are prohibited from joining; a woman can only be admitted if she’s married to a man. Gay men may join but their husbands cannot, not even as associates because that position is only for wives.
Both men and women are disappointed.
Women with a connection to the almost century-old club think that in a year where Hillary Clinton has become a large part of the Presidential election, it’s ridiculous they aren’t given full rights or join at all.
Associate member Danielle Hetu said, “How do I explain this to my daughters? That you can be the president, but you can’t be a member of the Westerly Yacht Club?”
Hetu and her husband, who is part of the club’s board, are individuals working with others to have the policy change. There have been other votes to admit women and although the majority was achieved, it still failed to gain two-thirds majority, which is necessary by the club’s bylaws, said members.
A member who voted against the policy change said there are many wives who agree with him. Bob Dionne said, “They’re all happy with what they got. They don’t have to pay dues.” Annual dues are about $600 but others point out that there’s the option of continuing to be an associate member with no dues and no voting rights.
Associate members, like Jane Barstow, have theorized why the policy change hasn’t been possible. Barstow is a retired English and women’s studies professor and believes it’s because of the club’s “old guard” that resists change. She also thinks that it might be a backlash against Clinton’s historic presidential run.
“I heard somebody say that some women had told their husbands to vote against it because they were afraid of their husbands interacting with single women,” Barstow said. “That’s very sad.”
Other members think the lack of policy change has to do with the fear of competition. Allowing all women to have full membership would mean that professional women could join for networking opportunities. This would also mean competition from businesses by these potential new members.
Many community members, like Linda Lee, were shocked to learn about the policy. Lee, an owner of a financial advising firm in Mystic, Connecticut, stopped by the club to inquire about joining and was less speechless. Although she lived close by with her husband and she owned a 50-foot boat in her name, she was rejected.
“Well, you can’t join. You have to be a man. Your husband can join,” Lee was told. “I just said, ‘Forget it.’ And I walked out. These days, we are so past that.”
It’s difficult to deny the deep roots the club has in the community. Julie Cardinal is an example of this. Cardinal’s maternal grandfather died on his boat at the club. Her father was club’s commodore which is a high position and she even got married at the club. Of course, her husband became a full member but when their divorce happened, she was no longer to be an associate member. Now, when Cardinal wants to visit the club, one of her parents need to sign her in.
The policy hasn’t been challenged in court yet. The legality of the policy is up for debate amongst club members like the club’s commodore, Scott Howard. He has pushed for the admission of women but still believes the policy may be legal since the club is private.
Other members and associate members think its illegal. With over 600 members, anti-discrimination laws may apply. The club also holds a liquor license and rents out facilities to the public.
A leading civil rights lawyer in Rhode Island, Lynette Labinger, agrees the policy is an issue. Rhode Island doesn’t allow any discrimination based on gender. She believes a small reading group made up of men may be alright, it’s less acceptable for a large club with charge fees.
The Westerly Sun wrote that the club’s policy gives the town a “black eye by association.” Instead of raising a white flag, the editorial suggests disappointed members to stop paying dues and bar tabs. Maybe this might help bring change to the “antiquated” policy.
Although Cardinal agrees that there needs to be a policy change, she believes it wouldn’t advance anything at the club. It would only give women a better voice.
“I still love it and enjoy it,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s correct.”