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Historic El Paso Club Divided Over Admitting Women

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The El Paso Club (credit: elpasoclub.com)

The El Paso Club (credit: elpasoclub.com)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP)- The historic El Paso Club in Colorado Springs has played host to presidents and literary greats. Now the 134-year-old gentlemen’s club that was once the seat of power in central Colorado is debating a major change — admitting women.

Club members voted for the first time last month whether to admit female members. The (Colorado Springs) Gazette reports the proposal was defeated by nearly 70 percent.

“We can’t decimate a 130-year-old men’s club to let in a few women. It would be the end of the club,” said Randy Kilgore, a prominent insurance agent and longtime member.

But some club members say the club needs to admit women to reinvigorate the 1877 dining and billiards club that has lost a quarter of its members in the last decade and now counts fewer than 300 members.

Marvin Strait, an accountant and club member for 30 years, pushed for female integration and said the El Paso Club risks a “death spiral” if it doesn’t change.

The El Paso Club was founded in 1877 as an English-style aristocratic club where, according to an announcement in The Gazette at the time, “Congenial spirits from the east” could indulge in “billiard, card and reading rooms for the purposes of social enjoyment among its members.”

Gen. Ulysees S. Grant stopped by for a game of poker in 1880. Humorist Oscar Wilde, dressed in velvet, visited in 1882. Inventor Nikola Tesla feasted there in 1899.

Because of its influential membership, the club was pivotal in key decisions that made Colorado Springs what it is today. It was a war room for mine owners during the massive Cripple Creek labor strikes of 1894. Members are also credited for helping lure an Army base and the U.S. Air Force Academy to the region.

“In the 1970s all of the City Council and the mayor were members,” said Lindsay Fischer, a local attorney and member since 1972. “Council would have its meeting in the morning. If you did not like what was being said, they all had lunch at the club and you could bring it up there away from the hoi polloi without embarrassing yourself.”

However, most other blue-blooded gentleman’s clubs in the country, from Seattle’s Rainier Club to Boston’s Algonquin Club, now have female members.

Fischer, who voted to allow women, said the El Paso Club should have women members, too. A growing number of judges, doctors, lawyers and politicians are women who can’t join the club. And more and more men don’t join because they don’t want to be seen as being bigoted.

“The fact that we don’t let girls in has made us irrelevant,” Lindsay said.

In 1906, women were allowed into the downstairs dining room if accompanied by male members. But they could not get a drink in the men’s lounge nor go to the club’s upstairs rooms. That year Spencer Penrose’s wife, Julie, led an effort to get a women’s lounge, known as the Boudoir, added. The men relented, but women had to enter through a separate door.

In the intervening century, much has changed in the United States. But women are still not allowed upstairs at the El Paso Club.

“I have spoken to several women around here who make a big difference and they say, `Why would I want to belong to your club?”‘ Lindsay said.

Several influential local women agreed. While they would like to see the club open, they say it has lost its central role in the city.

“Why would I want to join?” said former Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, echoing the comments of many. “This is 2011, not the turn of the century. It just does not matter that much anymore.”

Defenders of the El Paso Club’s men-only rules are quick to point out that there are plenty of other single-sex organizations in the city from the all-women Artemis club to the all-male Cooking Club.

“It’s not fair to single us out as the bad guys,” Kilgore said.

In fact, he said, the club plans to start offering “corporate memberships” that will allow companies to use the club’s dining and meeting rooms.

“If an all-woman law firm wants to join, they can,” Kilgore said.

Of course, the women still won’t be able to vote or venture up to the club’s second floor.

“Why would women go for a second-class deal like that?” Fischer said.

He said proponents of integrating female members will keep trying.

“If we don’t do it relatively soon, the club is going to be history,” Fischer said.

Link: El Paso Club

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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