‘I’m not a pushy broad,’ says a foe, ‘but times have changed’
Nearly everyone would agree that the Jaycees have come a long way, baby, since the young men’s organization was founded in St. Louis in 1910: It was then dedicated to the preservation of the waltz and the two-step. Now boasting 9,000 chapters nationwide and 380,-000 members, the Jaycees support civic projects from orphanages to urban renewal and boost their communities whenever they can. Lately, though, the organization has come within shell range of a vanguard of feminists, who accuse the Jaycees of discrimination on the basis of sex.
The Jaycees don’t deny it but say, in effect, so what. “This is not a male-female issue,” insists the group’s president, Barry Kennedy, a Vietnam combat veteran and father of two. “What’s at stake here is the right to be a private organization. Perhaps we do discriminate against women, but we also discriminate against men not in the age bracket covered by our bylaws. [Jaycees must be 18 to 35.] Just about every organization discriminates against something.”
The women, understandably, are not mollified by such reasoning. At their urging, the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination recently ordered the Jaycees to drop their membership bias, and the case will eventually be resolved in the courts. Class-action lawsuits have also been filed in Alaska and Washington, D.C., while courts in several states have blocked attempts by the national organization to revoke the charters of local chapters that have admitted women. Explains Sally Funk, one of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case: “I’m not a pushy broad. I don’t want to destroy this organization. But we need to show the national leadership that times have changed.”
In fact, some Jaycees got that message years ago. A few chapters began admitting women as early as 1972, though the new members’ identities were usually concealed by listing them by last name and first initial only. Then, in 1975, at the national Jaycee convention, delegates rejected a proposal that would have openly admitted women to membership. The proposal was reintroduced three years later and defeated again, though by a lesser margin. Bucking the tide, a Jaycee commission in 1975 initiated a so-called “pilot program” that allowed women to become members in Massachusetts, Alaska and Washington, D.C. Kennedy, however, put an end to the experiment when he took office at Tulsa headquarters last summer. “The membership has spoken clearly on the issue,” says the 32-year-old livestock buyer, “and counsel has advised me that if we continue to violate our own bylaws, the courts may say we have to give them up. That’s a principle that’s too precious to lose—the right to decide what we want to be.”
Boston attorney Danielle deBenedictis, a former Jaycee herself, suspects there are other reasons for the leadership’s adamancy. One, she says, is that wives of male Jaycees fear their husbands might get too chummy with women members; another is male jealousy of the women’s success. “A lot of women have put a great deal into the Jaycees,” she says, “and now the national says they have to get out. Some of them owe their jobs and their advancement to the contacts they made in the Jaycees. What’s supposed to happen to them now?”
Sally Funk, a former president of the Boston Jaycee chapter who is now media director for a local advertising agency, couldn’t agree more. Under her leadership, she says, membership in the Boston chapter doubled to 350, making it one of the largest in the country. Furthermore, she points out, she was chosen the outstanding first-year Jaycee in Massachusetts and was selected as one of the state’s five top chapter presidents. “It bothers me to have to go through the courts to have them order a private organization to change,” she says, but vows to go to the Supreme Court if necessary. “I’m not militant, but now our backs are against the wall.”