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Shirley Leung

Can a country club operate a men’s only bar? Yes, if it’s in the locker room

An aerial view of the Charles River Country Club in Newton.
An aerial view of the Charles River Country Club in Newton.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

Another year, another letter from my anonymous tipster complaining about the sexist culture at the Charles River Country Club.

“Despite the publicity in The Boston Globe, nothing was done,” according to a two-page letter sent to me earlier this month. “Now we are begging you to take action. . .  . In the #Metoo time it is even more discouraging to women.”

What got the exclusive Newton club in so much hot water last summer was a $1 million-plus renovation of the men’s locker room that brought back a single-sex pub complete with food, booze, and a stone fireplace.

Who knew the 1950s were back?

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Bad enough only men get to enjoy this new amenity, but worse was that the women’s locker room did not undergo a comparable upgrade. No wonder that set off an anonymous tipster who filed a complaint last July with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, a copy of which was shared with the Globe.

The allegation: The club is in violation of state antidiscrimination laws.

The office of Attorney General Maura Healey also received a complaint last year. A Healey spokeswoman said the office has been in touch with the club, and continues to monitor the situation and encourages others with concerns to reach out.

The ABCC began its investigation last July, visiting the club at least twice and interviewing male and female members. Investigators issued a five-page report in April and concluded the club did not violate any of the commission regulations. The rules allow for segregation of locker rooms and restrooms based on gender in places serving alcohol.

But congratulations are hardly in order because the report paints an unflattering portrait of a club where it’s a man’s world and women should never forget that.

How so? Let’s start with the all-male board. Then let’s go to the 308 members with voting rights — of which only five or six are women.

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Then there’s Mary Joe Clark, one of the female voting members, who told investigators she had no problem with a bar in the men’s locker room because other country clubs have them, too.

“She said golf culture, as a whole, is generally gear[ed] towards men. It is not an issue for her,” according to the commission’s report.

In my own reporting, I never found female members wanting a bar of their own, but they did take offense at getting a lesser locker room. The report confirms that sentiment, detailing how when the men’s locker room bar opened in April 2017, all members were offered a tour and that is when “it was clear the women’s locker room was not as high-quality so they made upgrades to the ladies’ room.”

I’m told the finishes in the women’s locker room are better than before but still not as high end as the men’s.

You may be wondering why anyone outside the Charles River Country Club should care. Here’s why: Male members of the club are business and civic leaders who would never dare to approve a men-only lunchroom in their workplaces. Yet in the privacy of their own clubs and social circles, it’s suddenly OK to treat women as second-class citizens.

That’s not OK. We all know what happens in the country club doesn’t stay in the country club.

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I reached out to new club president Terry Carleton — a former Hill Holliday executive and private wealth manager — who took over from Ed Deveau, the former Watertown police chief.

Like Deveau, Carleton wouldn’t get on the phone with me. Instead I heard from PR pro Dot Joyce, the longtime spokeswoman for the late Boston mayor Tom Menino, who was brought in again to handle my inquiries.

“Charles River has been operating as a private social club for close to 100 years and has a reputation as being a a special place for its members and their families,” according to a statement from Joyce. “The club takes great pride in their member experience because they know that if today’s families are not happy and treated well they won’t attract the members of tomorrow.”

The latest letter from the tipster continues to beat the drum that the club is in violation of state public accommodation law, which prohibits discrimination at public places. The tipster has argued the club is a public place because it hosts weddings for nonmembers and public golf tournaments.

“Sometimes discrimination could be so invidious it skirts the borders of the laws in such a way it is very difficult to bring an entity into compliance through the legal process,” said Barbara Anthony, who served as chief of the attorney general’s public protection bureau in the 1990s when the state successfully resolved gender discrimination cases against two country clubs.

“Some changes may have to come from within,” added Anthony, who later became the state’s consumer affairs chief. “Changing culture through the courts isn’t always a viable option.”

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The upshot is the club may be doing nothing illegal, but that doesn’t make it right.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.