A Few Private New York Clubs Still Bar Women

And no one seems very upset about it

The Racquet Club's general manager, Bob Gressler, reached by telephone, said, "There's nothing that we want to say to people that aren't already members." Then he hung up on us.

The Holland Society is located on the fifth floor of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen building on 44th Street, a storied lane that also houses such monuments to New York aristocracy as the Algonquin Hotel, the New York Bar Association, and private Ivy clubs that once kept women out: the Harvard and Penn clubs.

The stone-and-concrete building showcases a plaque declaring the Mechanics and Tradesmen founding. Inside, the building resembles a schoolhouse: rooms with long desks and Bunsen burners, and bathrooms that look like the ones you used in middle school, graffiti-tagged stalls and all.

The Brook's emblem—is that a beaver with an X through it?
The Brook's emblem—is that a beaver with an X through it?

The Holland Society's suite, adjacent to the Huguenot Society of America, is a large, all-white single room lined with bookshelves that also hold items like replicas of military helmets and old maps of New York.

"We're at our 125th year. It all came about when there were very active societies for other immigrant groups," we were told by Colin Lazier, the Holland Society's president, who agreed to see us. "They banded together, and all of a sudden, these Dutch descendants found themselves working on the same court case, including the judge. So they realized they should have an organization that preserves the memory of the Dutch colonial experience in America." Lazier, a gray-haired lawyer and native Canadian, joined the organization 20 years ago after reading about it in an Ontario genealogical magazine in which a published list of family names displayed some variations of his own, arousing his curiosity. "It's sort of exciting to see your last name last through history for that long. We retain the surnames of people from 350 years ago. That's really fascinating."

In recent books, such as Russell Shorto's excellent The Island at the Center of the World, the Dutch heritage in New York is getting more attention than ever—particularly for Holland's legendary history of tolerance and equality.

With that in mind, isn't the Holland Society keeping women out sort of un-Dutch?

"It's long and involved, and I won't go into it. We decided that's just what it is," Lazier says.

He adds, however, that although the Holland Society doesn't allow women to be full members, it hasn't kept women from being active participants—whether historians or other roles in academia—in the society's mission. "We've looked, a number of times, at changing that, and we have decided not to change it. There are such things as women's organizations, and they do good work. This just happens to be a men's organization."

When Ailsa Hopper, my roommate, inquired about membership, she was sent an e-mail from the Society suggesting that she look into another group, based in Baltimore: the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames.

She didn't take it well: "Do I look like a fucking 'Holland Dame' to you?" she asked.

Mary Park, the Directress General (or President) of the Holland Dames, insists that her organization has "the same goals as the Holland Society, and we have been around just as long as they have. Our ancestors go back 11 or 12 generations. We are a society where you also have to prove your ancestry, but you can prove ancestry on either side of your family, not just the direct male line."

The Holland Dames, whose membership is only a quarter of that of the Holland Society, doesn't have its own facility, doesn't maintain a library or scholarly magazine, and doesn't have affiliated branches like its male counterpart. It does sell commemorative Henry Hudson scarves, however.

The venerable Holland Society of New York voted, once again, to keep women out just within the past year or two. But if it isn't going to allow women, it still needs to do something, soon, to inject some new life into its member roster.

"Now, it's just old people," says David Voorhees, a trustee emeritus and Dutch historian who also edits the society's scholarly quarterly magazine, de Halve Maen. Restricting membership, he says, simply made good sense, genealogically: "The idea behind all of this is about maintaining the surnames of the Dutch settlers. Traditionally, when women marry, they take on their husband's surnames. So basically, it's open only to men," he says.

A native of New Jersey, Voorhees found great interest in his Dutch heritage at an early age. He sat down with us at the Holland Society's headquarters and recounted how, in his youth, he was "somewhat of a hippie"—he decided to take some time off from college in South Carolina and go traveling through Europe. He found himself in the Netherlands, and it made him want to understand his history a bit better. Next thing he knew, he says, he was researching Dutch history and became a leading expert on the topic. He is now working on a project with NYU about Jacob Leisler, a key figure in the transition from Dutch to English culture in New York and New Jersey.

But as for allowing women into the Society? Voorhees says he just doesn't see anyone getting very excited about it. "I don't know of any women who are banging the doors down trying to get in," he says. "If women really cared, they'd have an all-female organization. They get to go to the parties, and they get to participate and be on committees, and they get to be totally involved anyway. Perhaps in the days of ultra-feminism, women were much more up-in-arms about it."

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