Judging from a sample of gender discrimination cases, the half-life of private-club hostility is roughly that of uranium 238. The courts are still gnawing on The People of the State of New York v. Forman, a sometimes violent brouhaha that dates back to the summer of 1988. That's when Lee and Sy Lowell, a former art teacher and her physicist-author husband, joined the Cedar Brook Golf and Tennis Club in Old Brookville, N.Y. According to the Lowells, a club employee, a woman, assured Lee that women could play on weekend mornings no later than nine. "If it had been otherwise, I simply would have found a different club," says Lee. "We were shown the policy on tee times in the rule book, which said simply that the women followed the men on weekends."
When Lee teed off one Saturday around noon, she says she soon found herself encircled by male golfers in electric carts, some of them calling her "bitch" and "whore." She broke free and found other holes to play, but Ron Forman, a member of the club's golf committee, pursued her, kicking her ball off a tee and threatening her. Another man, she claims, took out his penis in front of her and urinated under a tree. ("If they had tried to murder me, I probably would have stupidly let them," she says, "because I knew I was in the right.") After about 12 holes Lowell fled to a rest room on the course, where she cried. "And then," she says, "I went out to the next hole."
The posse finally disappeared, and after being assured by the club manager and the starter that it was safe to continue, Lowell finished her round. That evening she and her husband filed a harassment complaint at the Old Brookville police station. The police notified Cedar Brook of the incident. The club manager acted quickly—suspending Lee Lowell for three weeks for playing without permission.
"They took away my pride and dignity and tried to make me feel like I was nothing, like I was a dog," she says. Members who were privately sympathetic, she adds, refused to stand up for her. "The most disappointing thing to me was the weakness of all the other women at the club. I asked one of them, 'Would you urinate on your couch just to keep your Mercedes?' And she said yes."
Shunned by other members, the Lowells played Cedar Brook on weekdays until their membership came up for renewal—or, as in their case, nonrenewal. Forman was acquitted of harassment charges in November 1989. The district court judge, in a nine-page decision, criticized the club for its "invidious discrimination against women" but said the prosecution had not proved that Forman acted with criminal intent. Dissatisfied with that result Lowell filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights. Years later the case came up for arbitration. When the club and the Lowells could not reach a settlement, the arbitrator passed the case on for trial. There is still no court date. "The delay is in the system," says Lowell's attorney, Alan Boockvar. "They have a large caseload."
If the case ever reaches the courtroom, it should be a crowd-pleaser. Two years ago the Lowells ran into Forman again, this time by the starter's shed at their new club, the Wycliffe Golf and Country Club in Lake Worth, Fla. Lee says Forman, who was the guest of another member, called her "a c—-." Forman says Lee spit at him. Whatever happened, everyone agrees that an enraged Sy Lowell tried to grab Forman by the throat. "It took five people to pull me off," says the bookworm husband, still awed by his caveman response. "I got a letter of reprimand," he says.
Lee insists that she never sought to be a martyr for a political cause—not at Cedar Brook and certainly not at Wycliffe, where she socializes freely and plays golf at times of her choosing, sometimes scoring in the 70s. "If a place is truly private," she adds, "they have every right to discriminate."
Cedar Brook, meanwhile, now allows women access to prime tee times on weekends and advertises itself as one of the few women-friendly clubs on Long Island.
Although the major battles are over, some combatants are unable to give up the fight. A decade-old quarrel divides the Haverhill Golf and Country Club of Haverhill, Mass., an unpretentious burg 40 miles north of Boston. Both sides claim to be gender neutral and accuse the other of bias. Furthermore, both sides agree that in the not-so-distant past their club discriminated against women. "Before 1990 the club had separate categories for men and women," says Anthony Kilbridge, an attorney who had worked at Lane Altman & Owens, the club's outside counsel. "Women did not have access to all the facilities of the club."
Specifically, women had limited playing privileges, no voting rights and were barred from an upstairs card room and the 19th Hole, a bar area. (To get a drink or a snack, a woman had to knock on the window and ask a man to pass something out.) In 1989 several Haverhill women and the Massachusetts attorney general filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. As a result of those complaints, the club adopted gender-neutral policies. Memberships were no longer defined as male or female, but as primary and limited, with primary members paying a higher fee in return for voting rights and other privileges.