Ah, old boy's clubs: the Masons, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos, the Adventurer's Club of Los Angeles, the Stonecutters. While men-only clubs are generally agreed to be dated and embarrassing, they still exist—and, where they do, occasionally cause controversy.
I recently got pulled into a small flap over an annual dinner held by the St. Patrick's Society, a men's club in my hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick. Although it's existed in more or less its current form since 1928, I only learned about it when a friend mentioned plans to attend a dinner with a speech by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy. As a journalist, I'd heard of Kennedy, an outspoken advocate for improving court-media relations and a member of the Canadian Judicial Council's Public Information Committee.
"Cool," I said. "Where's that? I should come."
"You can't really do that. It's a men-only event," my friend said.
Youthfully incredulous that such things still existed, I read through the online event listings—but none of them mentioned the no-women rule. So I called Hugh Fitzpatrick, a septuagenarian who has belonged to the society for over 50 years, and asked if it was really true I couldn't get a ticket.
"You'd better tell me who you're buying them for," he said, when I asked about tickets. "It's a men's dinner. There are no women allowed. We are a society of gentlemen," Fitzpatrick said.
"You really don't allow women?" I asked.
"I'm no chauvinist, but the only thing better than an Irish woman is an Irish man," he said.
"Uh. Well. OK, then."
The conversation petered out lamely. Frankly, I'd never been so unapologetically dismissed on the grounds of being a woman. I did what any reasonable person would do: I tweeted about the weird situation. Within a few hours, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) called; someone had seen the tweets and wanted me to do an interview on the evening news, then on a regional call-in program. Suddenly, the St. Patrick's Society Dinner, of which most of the world was blissfully unaware for the entirety of its 87-year history, was the subject of a miniature media storm. I was suddenly obligated to check this thing out.
The thing was, I wasn't the first woman to attend the St. Patrick's Society Dinner. Former Saint John Mayor Elsie Wayne made a recurring gag out of crashing the event, on one occasion disguising herself as a server, on another reportedly dressing as a giant potato (a.k.a. the official ceremonial dress of New Brunswick.) I wasn't even the only female journalist ever to attend; former Telegraph-Journal photojournalist Kâté Braydon and probably many other female photogs got assigned to the event numerous times, and Braydon says she was always welcomed. Although "I always remember feeling very embarrassed and sad for the guest speaker," she adds. "The crowd doesn't pay attention. They don't stop talking, yelling, laughing." From other sources, I had heard rumors of sauced revelers lobbing salt and pepper shakers and dinner rolls across the room, as well as fistfights. All the more reason to go, I reasoned.
Word travels fast in a city the size of Saint John. It took only a brief email exchange with lawyer and former St. Patrick's Society president John Barry before I found myself in the graciously-appointed Victorian dining room at the Union Club—itself men-only until 1936—with St. Patrick's Society President Tom Gribbons, Secretary Chris Herrington, and Bob Kane, a past president, all explaining to me that they are decidedly not a bunch of raging misogynists. They told me that the Colleen Dinner, the corresponding, women-only corollary to the men's dinner, simply got disorganized and hadn't happened for a few years. While the men's dinners date back to 1840, Gribbons said, basically zero women other than Mayor Wayne, and now me, had ever actually wanted to come.
"You can't defend the fact that it's men-only," he said. "We've just never really felt a huge hue and cry from the outside that it should be changed. It's not like we're doing anything that we'd be ashamed of our wives and daughters seeing. We talk about our Irish heritage and have a speaker who comes in, have a few drinks, sing songs. You could do the same thing if it were a mixed dinner."
Fair enough. So why not just open it up? "Sometimes traditions take a long time to change," he said.
"Don't worry, we'll bring you a flak jacket," one of the gentlemen joked. They handed me a ticket.
After our lunch at the old boy's club, I opted to wear a dress shirt, blazer, and tie to dinner—if I didn't have the right genitalia, I could at least adhere to the "black tie or business suit" dress code. In the meantime, hordes of CBC commenters demanded to know why a "female journalist" was bothering with all this.
"Why would any woman actually want to go to a stuffy rubber-chicken dinner with a bunch of old dudes?"
That, as I learned, is a very, very good question.
By the time I arrived at the Trade and Convention Center, I was feeling more ridiculous about the media attention than worried about how I'd be received. Among the first people I ran into was Fitzpatrick, the guy who'd first refused to sell me a ticket. I asked him how he felt about my getting in, and he was as much fun as he'd been on the phone.
"It could've been worse, but I don't know how," he said. "There could've been two of you!" As for the decision to let me in, Fitzpatrick said, "I was overruled."
Of course he was. The men were all professionals, after all, not a bunch of neanderthals. Opera singer Paul Bustin performed a beautiful rendition of "O Danny Boy," pointedly dedicated to "lady and gentlemen." Other than that, the event felt like innumerable other convention center dinners I've covered over the years, only with the addition of tacky, green plastic hats, a little more booze flowing than usual, toasts to various "sister societies" (of fellow men's groups), and plenty of kilts and presidential chains of office. Many told me how glad they were I'd come. Some offered business cards. Others moved in to chat really, really close and draped their arms around my shoulders lingeringly. I got invited to the upcoming Robbie Burns Night hosted by the St. Andrew's Society, another male-only organization.
It was an unremarkable, if schmoozy, intergenerational gathering of lawyers, architects, engineers, and politicians, including Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long. He said he's been coming for the past 15 years, and (unsurprisingly, for any savvy politician) says he would be totally cool with a co-ed event.
"For me, I'm all for having women at the same dinner. It's not a big deal to me. It's never occurred to me that a men's only dinner would be discriminatory," said Long.
Trade and Convention Center server Joanne Martin, decked out as a leprechaun in a red wig with glitter shamrock tattoos on her cheeks, told me she'd worked the St. Patrick's Day dinner since 1988.
"I've done this so many years that I think I'd find it a little odd if the wives were here. It's kind of like their night out to have fun. They can't have fun the same way with their wives here. And a lot of them are getting older now, so they're not as wild as they used to be."
She wasn't wrong. The dad jokes from the podium weren't exactly comedian status, and there weren't any rolls or salt shakers being thrown that I could see. When CBC arrived—significantly, with a female cameraperson—looking for another interview, I struggled to say anything that would make for a compelling news hit. There had been no sneers, no ass-grabbing, no frogmarch to the door by angry Irishmen. The sea of suits actually felt pretty normal, which says a lot about how skewed the gender ratio usually is within this genre of old-school business-type dinners. My evening was also a fair representation what young women often get when they force their way into traditional, male milieus: Almost everyone is sweet and professional—to your face. Beneath that, there are less-savory notes of condescension, thwarted desire, and surprise you bothered coming at all.
An infinitesimal win for women's rights—such as they were ever truly jeopardized by this event—may have occurred at the end of the speech by Chief Justice Joseph P. Kennedy.
"My Associate Chief Justice [the Honorable Deborah K. Smith], who is an accomplished woman, told me an unflattering photo of me was on the CBC website," said the Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice. "My mother told me it's not polite to insult the host, but, gentlemen, it's 2016. This is Saint John, NB, not Saudi Arabia. Isn't it time you did the right thing?"
Fitzpatrick still got in a few parting jabs. "Honestly, I wouldn't have let you in. The reason why this has been good for so long is because there's no women. And honestly, it would've been just as good without you."
A progressive gesture. Some disses. Whatever. Really, no one was paying attention. A room full of grey heads bowed, focusing intently on buttering the rolls which had just come out. The gents tipped back beers, clapped to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." In short, the old boy's club turned out to be a typical senior business set soirée—not much worth the fuss. And, typically, the unrequested young woman wasn't terribly missed when she took her leave.
Follow Julia Wright on Twitter.