Member of the Club

Last week I put on my favorite Etienne Aigner heels and went out clubbing–that is, to the Minneapolis Woman’s Club. Housed in a handsome old red brick building near Loring Park at the edge of downtown, the club is one of my current home city’s most celebrated venues for weddings and concerts. I’m not a member. A few years earlier with my friend Lois Greiman to speak at an author luncheon. At that time I was struck by the facility’s elegance and the interesting ladies–mostly over the age of 70–who made the time to come out and listen to a couple of mystery authors yammer on. This time I didn’t want to be a performer; I wanted to go incognito with some women friends for fun. But was the word ‘fun’ congruous with an organization that had been started by the city’s female elite in 1907?  And the whole business of it being a Woman’s club (versus a women’s club, or a club that didn’t discriminate on account of gender) struck me as worth investigating.

To reach the club, I drove 5 minutes with my club member friend Janis in her harvest yellow PT Cruiser–a proverbial golden carriage to take us to the Woman’s Palace. Up the steps and into the softly lit foyer, we spotted another friend waiting on a chintz sofa. Within minutes, I’d sunk into a comfortable glow of polished wood, tapestry and Chardonnay. I was beginning to forget that we’d ever considered going to normal restaurant bar for our gathering. Why in the world? What pleasure this was–a room full of women of all ages, talking with each other, laughing, and not a single ‘Real Housewives’ cleavage in the room.

While social/charitable clubs are reputed to be on the wane, the Minneapolis Woman’s Club appeared to be thriving. Many professional women members, mostly in the 40s and above, were chatting with friends on comfortable couches. It was hard to break away from the lounge–where we were meeting old and new friends right and left. But after an hour, we drifted into the white-linen dining room, where we were given menus that were an update of club fare–lamb chops, salmon, and big dinner salads–but with charming side additions liked creamed celeraic and roasted brussel sprouts. You know–the vegetables that women always want to eat, but nobody else in the family does. I was stunned at how delicious the old-fashioned meal was, thanks to the club’s new chef (“from France!” Janis reported). We ended with excellent coffee and the ‘snowball,’ a vanilla ice cream sundae that apparently dates back many decades as a club favorite.

What do you need to join the Club? Two members to recommend you, an initiation fee that floats between $500 and &750, about $160 in monthly dues–and a commitment to spend $150 or more on food and beverage per quarter. It’s spendy, but probably a bit less than the athletic club I belong to. Though here all the heavy lifting at the Woman’s Club does not have cardiac benefits: just social and intellectual. However, it must be said that the club also donates tens of thousands a year on programs for women and children. I suppose the few all-male clubs that are left engage in similar philanthropy. But why does the idea of a men’s club–or a men’s club that will only grudgingly allow women–rankle me? I remember now how disturbing it felt to visit the Calcutta Club, for decades an all-male organization that now occasionally accepts women members, although  no female member or guest can ever set foot inside a famous upstairs bar.

I don’t have a problem with single sex education: for a lot of the childhood years, I think it’s better. But clubs are another kettle of fish; and I honestly can’t understand why I like the Minneapolis Woman’s Club so much and feel bad about the Calcutta Club.

But with any kind of social club, there is a deeper cost that many women my age cannot afford–the cost of leaving a busy family life. Participating in club life means going somewhere, maybe once a week, to spend time socializing–I don’t remember seeing any ladies scrolling their cell phones or chatting on them. Writers like me always have their laptops–they feel guilty when not writing. And for a mother in my shoes (Dansko clogs this time), how can I run away from the kids at the witching hour, when they need a ride back from their sports practice, homework help, not to mention dinner?

I’m not ready to transform into a clubwoman yet. But if you’re going next week, give me a call.