These are words I can’t believe I’m even writing, but here goes: the men’s grill.
At the exclusive Charles River Country Club in Newton, the membership brought back that vestige of a far more sexist era with a vengeance. This spring, the club completed an estimated $1 million-plus renovation of the men’s locker room that included a single-sex pub complete with food, booze, and a stone fireplace.
How do I know? Someone mailed me a copy of a complaint intended to be filed with the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission alleging that the private club is subject to public accommodation statutes because it hosts events such as weddings and public golf tournaments, including the Massachusetts Amateur Championship last week.
“I[t] was built with the full intent to return to the men only days of men’s grill,” according to the complaint. “The new men’s grill lounge has lunch and dinner service and staffed with a bartender. This is discrimination against women members, guests and any women employees. . . ”
The ABCC confirmed it received the complaint. The office of state Attorney General Maura Healey said it also received a complaint against the club, which is being reviewed by its civil rights division.
Unhappy club members did not want to speak on the record because they feared being ostracized by friends — or maybe by their husbands.
“They are operating like it’s the 1950s,” said one member.
“It is a special place in a lot of ways, but this is horrendous,” added another member, referring to the male-dominated culture and all-male executive board.
The club has about 300 memberships. Men hold all but a half dozen or so of the “A” memberships, which gives them voting rights and unrestricted tee times.
Nearly all the female members are “B” members, which means they cannot vote and can golf only at certain times. Each family decides who gets the A status, and perhaps out of tradition, it almost always goes to the man of the household.
Female members have their own locker room, and if they want something to eat or drink, there is a pub and other dining options that serve both men and women.
But the new grill still rankles many members. It reminds some of the men-only grill in place as recently as two decades ago.
Club president Ed Deveau, the retired Watertown police chief who was in charge when Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, would not get on the phone with me.
Instead, he referred me to PR pro Dot Joyce, the former longtime spokeswoman for the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino, whom some members brought in to handle my inquiries.
“There is no gender bias in membership,” said Joyce.
As to why men got a new bar, while the women did not, she explained that more men use the club.
“The services being used are driven by demand,” she said. “We would love more women to be full members. That is the best way to get more amenities.”
Joyce added that the club members were surveyed and town halls were held about the men’s locker room renovation. Deveau told her one of the most controversial aspects was the decision to ban smoking at the club.
As for a men-only grill, “he didn’t express to me there were voluminous complaints,” she said.
Cam Neely, who is president of the Bruins, said he has not heard about the brouhaha, noting that men could always drink in the locker room.
“My family and I have always enjoyed our membership at Charles River,” Neely wrote in an e-mail. “I have not heard anything regarding some members being unhappy. As long as I have been a member (’97), there has always been a bar in the men’s locker room.”
Most surprising about the Charles River’s club return to the past is that Massachusetts has been at the forefront of clamping down on gender discrimination at country clubs.
In the 1990s, female club members successfully waged high-profile gender discrimination cases at two clubs.
Marsha Kazarosian, the attorney who represented nine women who filed one of those suits, against the Haverhill Country Club, wondered how Charles River could legally operate a segregated grill.
“You can let all the women in the world into the club as a member, but as long as you have a locker room with a bar that only men can go into, those women are being deprived,” she said. “The only reason you put a bar in a men’s locker room is to have a bar where women are not allowed. If anyone believes that is fair, I would question that.”
Some of you might find it hard to feel bad for the well-to-do women of country clubs, a first-world problem of epic proportions.
But this is why what happens at the Charles River club matters to everyone. Male members of the club are civic and business leaders who would never dare to approve a men-only lunchroom in their workplaces. Yet in their privacy of their own clubs and social circles, it suddenly becomes OK to treat women as second-class citizens.
That’s not right.
Like everything else with the women’s movement, change has been slow to come at country clubs. Men historically wielded all the power because they were the breadwinners and paid for the memberships. As a result, men got the most privileges, including their own grill.
Today, women are not merely spouses, but they are breadwinners now, too, and contribute significantly to household incomes.
Sure, some progress has been made at the Charles River club.
It launched the River Cup, an invitational tournament that attracts top female golfers, and created another program to bring along the next generation of female golfers. Female members have sat on a variety of committees, and this year, for the first time, a woman will join the influential nominating committee, which shapes club leadership and is seen as a stepping stone to joining the governing board.
The women’s locker room received some upgrades this spring but nothing close to what the men got.
Sadly, the men-only grill remains a fixture at many country clubs. In a survey this spring of 400 club managers across the country done by a noted consultant, 89 percent said the men’s grill is an important feature. About half of those surveyed have retained the men-only grill, popular among serious male golfers.
Here’s the twist: Unhappy members I spoke to didn’t want the men’s bar shut down or even opened up to women. They have little desire to eat and drink in a locker room. They don’t want to leave the club either. They love the club. Instead they just want the women to be treated as equals and their voices heard as members.
Some things never change, whether you’re a member of a country club or not.