I recently wrote a column about racial discrimination in the past at Hawaii’s most exclusive private clubs to prohibit Asian-Americans from joining or from even setting foot in clubs such as the Outrigger Canoe Club.

That prompted emails from readers saying I should write more about the gender discrimination that continued in Oahu’s elite social and golf clubs even after the clubs admitted women as members.

Attorney Ellen Godbey Carson said sexist practices at the clubs included denying women members voting rights and preventing them from desirable tee times and entrance into bar and restaurant facilities enjoyed by male members.

The Oahu Country Club was one of the organizations challenged by Hawaii Women Lawyers to end gender discrimination. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

People would be outraged if a black person joined a club and paid the same dues as all other members but was told he was not welcome in certain club facilities where all the other members were fully welcome.  Carson says that was what was happening to women in the clubs, insidiously, under everybody’s nose.

The gender discrimination lasted until the 1990s — more than four decades after Mid Pacific Country Club in 1947 became the first major Oahu golf club to admit Asian-American members.

It may seem strange to bring this up now, but it’s helpful to look back in order to move forward with resolve to end all kinds of discrimination. Today, bigots discriminate against Muslims, gays, transgendered men and women, and depending where you are during the Trump Era, against other classes of people, even news reporters.

Ellen Godbey Carson 

Carson was president of Hawaii Women Lawyers in 1989, the year it challenged the Pacific Club, Oahu Country Club, Mid Pacific Country Club and Waialae Country Club to end their continuing barriers to women members.

The women lawyers’ key tactic was to enlist the Liquor Commission in October 1989 to threaten to revoke the clubs’ liquor licenses if they continued with men-only club bars and restaurants. The lawyers also urged the city to take away the club’s non-profit property tax breaks if they failed to treat all members fairly.

Liquor commission rules prohibit discrimination at licensed facilities.

Carson said the threat of being forced to shut down their alcohol-serving bars got the attention of the club’s male leaders.

She laughs today, “When you have got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” 

The next year, all four clubs adopted rules calling for full voting memberships and equal access to all club facilities and privileges for women. 

Ellen Godbey Carson posed for a country club photo that made the front page in 1989. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Carson said the major impetus behind the women lawyers’ crusade “wasn’t so much that women couldn’t join expensive private clubs but that community leaders, from government leaders to businesses and religious leaders, found it appropriate to belong and do business in clubs that didn’t recognize women as being equals.”

It also was embarrassing for women when they finally were admitted as club members and paying the same dues as men to find out they were prohibited from entering certain barroom grills and card rooms.

When they invited their clients to the clubs to do business, it was unsettling for the women’s sense of authority to have their business contacts and clients see them treated as second-class citizens.

Andrea Simpson, then vice president for corporate communications at Pacific Resources Inc., was the first woman admitted to the Pacific Club in 1983.

Simpson said when she attended her first Pacific Club meeting four days after she joined, “One of the men asked me to sit on his lap. I patted him on the head and told him I didn’t think his wife would like that.”

Phil Kinnicutt, one of Simpson’s sponsors for membership at the Pacific Club, said some members thought of every excuse they could to justify keeping women out.

Kinnicutt said one older man raised a “woman’s time of the month” as a reason to refuse females as members, saying, “‘Women can be unpleasant when they have their periods.’ It was totally absurd. I walked out of the meeting.”

Attorney Joyce Neeley followed Simpson as one of about 20 pioneering female members admitted to the Pacific Club.

These days, the sign on the door to the Pacific Club card room just prohibits nonmembers from entering. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Neeley and another female lawyer experienced an overtly sexist incident at the Pacific Club in May 1989 that captured the attention of the media and sparked support from powerful outsiders to demand gender equality in clubs.

 Neeley invited a woman to meet her for a drink at the Pacific Club on a Monday afternoon. When they arrived, they found the only place serving drinks was the card room. Neeley had never paid attention to the sign saying “Gentlemen’s Card Room,” thinking it was a vestige of the past.

 “When we walked in the room and went to the bar, there was silence. Dead silence. Men playing cards looked up at us and glared. The bartender told us he could not serve us because the room was for men only,” said Neeley. 

Neeley finally convinced the bartender to allow them to order on the condition that they take their drinks to a corridor outside the room.

“I was embarrassed and wondering what my guest must be thinking about me for belonging to such a club,” she said. 

Joyce Neeley 

Neeley was a partner then in the law firm Dinman, Nakamura, Elisha, Nakatani and Neeley.

She wrote a letter to the Pacific Club’s board of governors to say she was outraged and surprised by the discriminatory policy of the club. She told the board that she was reporting the incident to the American Bar Association, the Hawaii Bar Association and Hawaii Women Lawyers.

A few days later, Neeley said former Gov. William Quinn,  then the president of Pacific Club, called her at her office.

“He was not happy. He launched into a love it or leave it speech. He said, ‘If you don’t like the rules of the Pacific Club, you can always quit.’”

The controversy prompted criticism from the Hawaii Bar Association, the State Judicial Conference and the American Bar Association, which cancelled plans to use the Pacific Club for 12 events during the national conference it was hosting in Hawaii that same year.

Attorney Carol Mon Lee, the second female and first Asian woman to be admitted to the Pacific Club, said she also had not thought much about the men’s card room when she joined the club, saying that its segregated nature was not truly clear until Neeley was refused admittance.

“That triggered all of us. As lawyers we knew how to look for legal solutions,” said Lee. “We had the skills and tools to take action.”

Facing a challenge over gender discrimination, the Waialae Country Club started allowing memberships to passed down to daughters as well as male descendants. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

After the Neeley incident, the Hawaii Bar Association refused to hold events at the Pacific Club and the Judicial Conference said its members would not join any club that practiced discrimination. The women in Hawaii Women Lawyers urged their law firms to boycott the Pacific Club.

In January 1990, seven months after Neeley filed her complaint with the board, the Pacific Club opened the card room to all members. And soon after, Waialae Country Club voted to allow memberships to be passed down to daughters — until then, memberships could be bequeathed only to male descendants. 

Mid Pacific Country Club then allowed women to become “proprietary members,” giving them the right to vote and access to all golf and club activities. Oahu Country Club also gave women voting rights and the right to use facilities.

But Carson points out that even though the discriminatory policies officially ended in 1990, the men retained a kind of de facto segregation at some clubs by making women feel uncomfortable when they entered the former males-only grills and card rooms.

“So while women technically had the right to enter those areas, it appears in reality they were not welcomed there, so some rooms were not truly integrated until many years later,” Carson said.

Neeley admits that what the Hawaii Women Lawyers did to end discrimination was nothing of the magnitude of the resistance of famed civil rights activist  Rosa Parks, who refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.

But Neeley says pushing back against segregation even as seemingly small as keeping women out of a men’s card rooms is the right thing to do.

“Sometimes the little acts of discrimination slowly begin to have a larger effect,” said Neeley.

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