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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."
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 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."
One of the academics who works with the society, Joyce Goodfriend, a professor of history at the University of Denver, doesn't, in fact, sound very up-in-arms at all: "The values of the late 19th century, when they were founded, were pretty patriarchal, obviously," she says. "I accept them because, historically, their origins are valid. Whether they are ever going to broaden their membership or not, that's not up to me. But I'm clearly in support of women, especially having started my career in the 1970s. I really have no issue with them, or them maintaining their historical traditions." Two other women who are research fellows (but not members) at the Society, Firth Fabend and Ruth Piwonka, also shared the sentiment that the policy was "no big deal."
Susan Van Dyne, chair of the Study of Women and Gender program at the all-women's Smith College in Massachusetts, doesn't actually sound very upset, either: "I think that because women have broken through most of the glass ceilings set for them, and that men have to work with women together in the workplace every day, there is probably some remaining wish that there can be a place where boys can still get together, uninhibitedly," she says. "It's a place for men to be completely uncensored, and that's probably the goal of keeping things all-male. It's tradition. It just shows you how difficult it is to reconfigure cultural expectations. . . . I, like many women, am sort of momentarily annoyed, but then you realize it's not the most important issue, so we just get over it and move on, which probably does create a state of complacency in fighting for gender equality."
Voorhees puts it more bluntly: "This is a safe space where men can go. It's a lot better than men going to a whorehouse."