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My roommate, Ailsa Hopper, was just trying to find out something about her family history.
Part Czech and part Dutch, she remembered that in the living room where she grew up, there was a plaque with something about the "Holland Society of New York." It belonged to her great-grandfather.
Working odd hours, and with some time on her hands, Ailsa surfed around and found the Society's website. Locating her surname on a list of popular Dutch names at the site, she was encouraged, thinking she might be able to learn a lot about her past.
There was a problem, however: The Society kept very restricted hours, which didn't fit her work schedule very well. It would be tough to get there during the day.
But that problem paled next to another one she soon discovered: She'd never get to experience fully the offerings of the Holland Society of New York for an odd reason.
She is a woman.
Since its founding in 1885, the Holland Society of New York has never allowed women to become members. Men can join, but only if they are over 18 and can trace their lineage—on the male side—directly to the early New Netherland community before 1675 (with documentation, of course).
Those without the proper documentation, or sexual organs, can interact with the Society as a "friend" or associate member—a new rule adopted about 15 years ago.
Ailsa found it hard to believe that a private New York club, in the year 2010, was still excluding women, so she called, just to be sure. She says she was told she could come to the Society's facility to research her family history, but membership was out of the question.
New York has an illustrious history of male-only clubs established in previous centuries: The Century Association, the Union League Club, and the University Club were all famous amalgamations that once prohibited membership—and even access—to women, in luxurious settings that are now landmarks on the Upper East Side.
But that exclusivity was largely eradicated when a city law enacted in 1984 was upheld in court in 1987. The law prohibited clubs not deemed "distinctly private" from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, or religion if they had more than 400 members, regularly served meals, and accepted payment from non-members for business or trade transactions.
One by one, the famous clubs lowered their bars to women. The last to go was the New York Athletic Club, succumbing to the law in February 1989, after 121 years of male-only towel-snapping.
But a few have still managed to keep the old ways. As long as a club can keep its membership to under 400, and remains distinctly private, it is exempt from the city ordinance.
Besides the Holland Society, we found two others still keeping the distaff out: the Brook Club and the New York Racquet and Tennis Club.
The Brook Club (also simply called "The Brook") is located on East 54th Street. A 1903 New York Times story suggests that even the hint of an invitation to join the club would set the entire town a-twitter: "To belong to the Brook, a man must receive an invitation, offered voluntarily and without any knowledge on his part that his name has ever been considered. Since rumors concerning the club have been circulating and some of its members' identity has been guessed, many men have waited in vain for an invitation."
The New York Racquet and Tennis Club was founded in 1876 and is housed in a historic landmark building on Park Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd streets. It bills itself as one of only nine clubs in North America with facilities for playing the ancient sport of court tennis. In 1987, Evelyn David—said to be ranked in the top 10 of female court tennis players in the country—was denied access to practice for the Women's World Championship at the Racquet Club, even though she lived only a few blocks away. David was relegated to boarding a bus and taking a 70-minute trip to Tuxedo, New York, to practice.
Things have come a long way, baby—women can enter both the Brook and the Racquet Club facilities today, but they are only allowed access for special events, and they must be accompanied by men who are members. No tours of either historic building can be had without a male guest booking the reservation. There certainly isn't any splashing around in the Racquet Club's swimming pool—reportedly, the after-work, male-only skinny-dipping is a popular activity. (When he decided to run for mayor, Michael Bloomberg quietly resigned his memberships at both the Brook Club and the Racquet and Tennis Club in 2001.)
Outside the Racquet and Tennis Club, one dark-haired, polo-shirt-clad gentleman departing the premises speculated that there was nothing wrong with having an all-male facility, as it builds camaraderie. "It's sort of nice just to have some place to go," said the man, who requested anonymity. He would only identify himself as being in his mid-30s and employed by a financial services firm. "There are women's clubs around this city as well. I mean, women can go to the nail salon or spa with the comfort of knowing there probably won't be any men in there, so they can be themselves and have uninhibited conversations with other women about cheating husbands and The Real Housewives and whatever. It's just nice for men to have a similar place to go."