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Dear Gentleman Scholar,
Last year, my boyfriend was invited to join a storied gentlemen's social club. He had not sought out this opportunity, and he does not come from high society or possess great wealth. It was therefore an unexpected invitation, but not unwelcome. My boyfriend joined the club and has enjoyed participating in its events and meeting its members.
Nonetheless, he is questioning the ethics of his choice, because he recognizes that elite clubs perpetuate the structural inequalities of society. This club is much less racially diverse than the city where we live, and it takes its "no women" rule very seriously. My boyfriend considers himself a feminist and a fighter for social justice and worries that his membership in this club makes him a hypocrite.
On the other hand, it's difficult to argue that anyone is directly harmed by my boyfriend's membership in the club. He recognizes that to quit in protest would be more a symbolic gesture than a means of creating real change. And perhaps his presence in the club is a good thing, preventing it from being the exclusive domain of plutocrats and patriarchs.
At the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw, I can't help but wonder: In the 21st century, is it still gentlemanly to join a gentlemen's club?
—Morally Conflicted Socialite
Thanks for your question, which directs our attention to institutions of the sort that most famously flourished on Pall Mall in London in the 1700s—places to eat grouse and play whist in congenial company.
Let’s begin by observing, Ms. Socialite, that you seem not terribly concerned by this club’s exclusion of women, and by supposing that this unconcern is indicative of a general trend. Since certain legal events in 1980s and ’90s—including a Supreme Court ruling (in New York State Club Association Inc. v. City Of New York Et Al.) affirming that the government’s compelling interest in eliminating sexual discrimination justifies laws restricting the constitutional right of association—no one has been able to get very worked up about all-male private clubs. There is sure to be a fuss if one of the relatively few such clubs that still exist is hosting a golf tournament; however, those fusses concern the sites of a public spectacle, and different standards apply. Feminist activists have bigger fish to fry than the octogenarians swimming laps in the nude at the New York Health & Racquet Club; anyone who objects to such organizations on the grounds that they systematically perpetuate the patriarchy must concede that they’re doing a pretty lousy job of it.
This last point constitutes a significant ethical out for persons hoping to construct an intellectually coherent defense for keeping women out of a social club: If it is essential to the character of an institution that it be all male, then it is necessary that nothing of greater importance than dudes-being-dudes be going on there. And because powerful men now feel it necessary to resign such memberships upon seeking elected office and landing other prominent societal roles, it is increasingly guaranteed that nothing will. I therefore find nothing inherently wrong with belonging to an exclusive organization that selects its members much as a men’s college selects its students, with a commitment to equal opportunity in all respects but one. Your boyfriend can assuage his conflicted feelings about the club’s anti-egalitarian bent by nominating worthy persons from atypical backgrounds for membership and by taking an active role in involving the club as a whole in the community at large.
But still there is the question of whether one should want to join any exclusive club. I am inclined to interpret the Groucho Rule as a joke about the absurdity of snob appeal: Any club that would have me is too common a place for high-falutin I. If one’s primary motive for membership in a club is to assert his social superiority, then one is being justly mocked by Mr. Marx. A gentleman does not need a posse.
It seems, moreover, that conscientious membership in a club involves mutual obligations: You are de facto representatives of one another, and some great spirits find such entanglements odious. “All my thinking life I have declined to ‘belong,’ ” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a letter declining his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His excuse was social awkwardness, but the terms in which he explained it—saying that to join would be a “betrayal of principle”—indicate his expansion of the Groucho Rule to a matter of philosophical conviction.
I recommend studying the Nabokov letter as a model of politely refusing (or resigning) a membership: “I am deeply touched and feel greatly honored by the distinction you propose to confer upon me, and the little rosette is perfectly charming but, alas, I must return it.” The rosette he refers to is the club’s pin, and his attitude toward it was far more gracious than that of a fellow non-joiner, the Californian poet George Sterling, who attached his to a cat: “I hope they’ll not demand their button back. ... The outraged animal has lost it.”
Dear Gentleman Scholar,
Early next year I will be attending a bachelor party of a dear friend. One of the stops will be a strip club. Help.
I hate the idea of strip clubs. It's exploitative. It's gross.
I consider myself an ally of modern feminist causes, and the thought of entering one of those factories is beyond off-putting. The groom in this particular wedding party and I share most of these views in the abstract, but strip clubs are where we diverge.
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