PHOENIX — When the men of the Phoenix Country Club saw their feeding ways in peril, they did not tarry. Some sent nasty e-mail messages, hectored players on the fairway and, for good measure, urinated on a fellow club member’s pecan tree.
The targets of their ire were the women, and some men, who have dared to speak up against the club’s policy of forbidding women in the men’s grill room, a center of power dining in Phoenix.
Barbara Van Sittert, one of those women, said her husband, Logan, 73, has been heckled while playing golf and once found his locker defaced.
“They hooted and hollered at him and called his wife a whore,” said Mrs. Van Sittert, 72, a petite, quiet woman with an elegant white bob. “It was not warm and fuzzy.”
Charges of sexism against private golf clubs are not uncommon; the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, where the Masters is held each year, does not permit women to be members.
But here in Arizona, where the governor, secretary of state, chief justice and Senate minority leader are women, it has rankled more than a few women that nonmember men have more rights than paying female members at the Phoenix Country Club, a century-old fixture in the city’s social and business life where it costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to belong.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, is not a member of the club, but Dennis Burke, her chief of staff, is. Mr. Burke has publicly opposed the separated dining rooms, and in an interview called them “indefensible.” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, does not belong to the club but has spoken there. (The McCain presidential campaign declined to comment on the separate dining rooms.) According to a 2007 club directory, Mr. McCain’s son, Andrew, is a member, along with scores of other notable Phoenix residents, including the rocker Alice Cooper. Women at the club are not permitted to have lunch in the men’s grill room with their husbands after a round of golf; they have been barred from trophy ceremonies after tournaments, even ones they have sponsored, and may not participate in one of the most sacred rituals of the men’s grill room — sealing a deal over a beer with a client.
“If at three in the afternoon I wanted to have a business cocktail, there wasn’t any place to go,” said Vicki King, whose husband recently resigned from the club. Ms. King had privileges at the club as the spouse of a member.
As teenage boys saunter into the sumptuously appointed men’s grill room, their mothers are relegated to the ladies’ grill, down the hall with a hot plate, some card tables and no bar. The club also has a formal dining room, where men and women are welcome, but it is closed between meals and is not a spot to get a drink.
“The ladies’ grill is a very small room where a bunch of little old ladies gather to play cards,” said Wanda Diethelm, a health care executive. “And if you make any noise, they shush you.”
Grumbling about the disparity has gone on for years. But the casus belli was when the Van Sitterts, club members for 30 years, decided two years ago that they wanted to partake in some eggs together in the morning. They appealed to the board of the club to change its policies so they could eat together in the men’s grill room, but were rebuffed.
The couple filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the Arizona attorney general’s office, arguing that although the club is private and not inherently subject to the state’s antidiscrimination laws, it is the equivalent of a public accommodation because it receives much of its revenue from nonmembers, in speeches, tournaments, Rotary Club meetings and the like.
Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office agreed with the couple, issuing an advisory legal opinion that the club needed to comply with the state’s antidiscrimination laws.
The office’s investigation, according to a copy of its findings, noted the inadequacy of the women’s facility, while listing the lopsided benefits of the men’s: three high-definition televisions, a buffet and a bar, and gorgeous views of the course. (The office would not comment; parties in a civil rights determination have 30 days to work out their differences privately.)
Lawyers for the country club did not return calls. A reporter stopped by the club, which is under renovation and partially closed, and found the general manager, Pasquale J. LaRocca, riding around the property on a golf cart.
Mr. LaRocca said that the attorney general’s findings were “not binding” and that he hoped “it would not come” to a lawsuit. The renovated club will have the same formal dining room now used by men and women, and separate male and female grill rooms but with “equivalent accommodations,” he added.
The club’s board has not found the attention or legal proceedings enchanting. First, it amended its bylaws to state that any member who makes “derogatory or otherwise injurious comments in the media” is subject to suspension and legal fees, and ditto for those who sue. It also warned that spouses of dead members would no longer automatically maintain their privileges.
“You get into very difficult family issues,” said one woman who wanted to speak about the policy, but feared expulsion. “It becomes, ‘Mommy got Daddy kicked out of the club.’ “
Russell Brown, a member, said in remarks at the Arizona Women Lawyers Association luncheon this past winter that he thought the men’s grill “disadvantaged women professionals.” Mr. Brown said in an interview that he was subsequently called before the club’s governing board to “explain my actions.”
Next came anonymous e-mail messages, sent to some female members of the club, deriding Mr. Brown and the Van Sitterts, and suggesting, among other things, “you and your type needs to go,” and a Web site was set up with some members’ names and phone numbers under the title “Femi Nazis here in Phoenix,” according to a complaint filed by Mr. Brown in the matter.
At one point, Ms. Diethelm, who lives with her husband near the 18th tee, was surprised by a rash of men whom she recognized from the club hopping off their carts to “urinate on my pecan tree,” she said. When her complaints to the club went unheeded, she bought a security camera. (Mr. LaRocca acknowledged the bathroom breaks, but said the culprits could not be identified.)
“Most men are indifferent to the policy or are against it,” Mr. Brown said. “But you become a leader of the club by being visible and you become visible by being seen in the men’s grill and the way the men’s grill is set up suits those men.”
Mrs. Van Sittert said she still treasured her country club.
“We welcome the attorney general’s decision,” she said, “and look at it as a wonderful opportunity for the club we love to move forward.”
Read more in the New York Times