I live in a retirement community where those of us in our 70s are youngsters. We have a dizzying array of activities available to us including groups that focus on national and international concerns, history videos, assorted discussion groups, music programs, health and wellness programs, art lectures, the list just goes on and on. One regular monthly program is “The Men’s Group.”
Last Sunday, I brazenly asked a group I was having brunch with why we have a men’s group. A friend challenged me to explain why we shouldn’t have a men’s group, so I’ve been thinking on this important matter since. She thought that if men want to meet without women to discuss whatever they want to discuss, that just isn’t a problem; women, she said, have many opportunities to meet with each other. I think The Men’s Group is problematic, but I had trouble instantly offering a good reason for my thinking.
Everyone in my retirement community grew up at a time when men ran the world. Women my age who married could no longer get a credit card in their own name. A husband’s signature was needed on the application, and the account was in his name. I still remember the sting of learning this fact when I was 31 and my husband was out of town. I was actually the person with the paycheck and benefits; my husband was self-employed and his income was erratic. Yet he was credit-worthy and I was not.
Women my age remember when the Supreme Court, any President’s Cabinet, and many professions were all male. I joined Group Health Cooperative after visiting its emergency room in the early 70s and being treated by a female physician, so unexpected was this at the time. I welcome the increase in women’s participation in many professions.
Does this history have anything to do with The Men’s Group at my retirement home? See, I also remember my dad’s membership in The Elk’s Club, but one of many men’s fraternal organizations. There were also the golf clubs, the Rotary Club, the Lion’s Club, and, in Seattle, the Rainier Club. All of these (formerly) exclusionary organizations created and fostered “the old boy’s club,” the network of connections that enabled men to maintain their control over positions of power. If there was an opportunity somewhere, men knew men who were (perhaps) qualified and ready to fill the position. Many openings were never made public and were simply never offered to women.
I think it’s my memory of these various “social groups” that make me cringe whenever I see notices for meetings of “The Men’s Group.” Clearly, these men do not wield much power today, or at least not here. I also learned that when The Men’s Group formed a few years ago, there was a companion Women’s Group. (Remember the various women’s “Auxiliaries,” and Eastern Star, the female version of the Masons?) Our Women’s Group apparently faded after a couple of years for lack of demand, but The Men’s Group continues to fill some sort of need.
Still, I can’t think of any other public activity here where one chunk of residents is forbidden due to a factor beyond their control. Or course people can invite people of their choosing to their own apartments, or arrange to eat with an exclusive group of friends who might be all female, or all Asian, or all whatever. But these events are not sponsored by our community, not led by staff, nor are notices posted about these private events. We do still have the right to share the company of people we enjoy.
Perhaps, if I had lived here during the early days of The Men’s Group when there was also a Women’s Group, I would not even question this practice. I suspect I would have been irked even then.
We have a list of 68 committees and activities that people can sign up for. These 68 options fall under the purview of our Residents’ Council. Many of them receive funding for supplies or expenses. The Men’s Group is not to be found on this list. Rather it is an offering of our Spiritual Care department, an artifact of our history. I suspect that anyone could approach our Spiritual Care staff and ask for a program to serve some specific need. Currently, they offer a “Care Partners” group for caregivers in addition to The Men’s Group.
I sometimes find analogies helpful in thinking things through. For example, we have separate services for various religious groups and notices are posted for these. But remember that religion is a choice, so that doesn’t seem comparable. Would we be comfortable with a (pick a race) group? Would the Spiritual Care staff lead such a group? They might, but would it be a good idea? A chapter of the League of Women Voters meets here and notices are posted, but the LWV has long welcomed all supporters.
Is The Men’s Group even an issue for anyone but me? Seems not, as any time I’ve mentioned it, people ask why I care. I guess I care because it’s not open to me for no fault of my own. Here’s the statement offered by the Spiritual Care staff regarding their purpose:
“Horizon House has a historic relationship with the United Church of Christ. As an open and affirming tradition this heritage reflects a philosophy that persons of all faith traditions and no faith tradition are welcomed as cherished members of the community.
Our mission is to offer care for the inner wellbeing of residents and families that contributes to wholeness using means that generate healing, meaning, hope, emotional comfort and peace of mind or spirit. This is done through individual listening presence, inter-generative groups, and spirit based events including worship in various traditions.”
This doesn’t actually clarify anything for me. Maybe sex segregation is such a long-standing tradition in religious circles that staff hosting an exclusionary group don’t even feel odd about it. Maybe the fact that it started out in a “separate but equal” format makes it OK for some. Maybe it’s actually a therapy group where men can discuss sex based concerns more openly. (If so, perhaps notices should go only to those who’ve indicated a need for this service rather than posting signs saying “You, there, you women, you can’t attend.”)
The joy of blogging is that I get to say what’s on my mind. In this case, writing about this concern is all I plan to do. I’m not sufficiently riled up that I want to start protesting. But at least now, I know why I’m irked by The Men’s Group.