Jenice Armstrong: At Union League, first woman president

Posted: December 14, 2010

THAT LOUD crashing sound you hear is Joan Carter breaking through the glass ceiling at one of the most venerable institutions in the city, the Union League of Philadelphia.

That's right.

The most famous and hardest to crack old boys' network in the City of Brotherly Love will induct its first female president today.

Somebody, grab the sherry.

This is huge, considering that the institution, founded in 1862, didn't allow female visitors inside the place for more than a century.

The Union League, which is where the city's top movers and shakers gather, has a history of being (ahem) selective. For instance, even though the league says it was founded to support the policies of President Lincoln, it didn't accept its first black male for membership until 1972.

What's more puzzling is that the formerly all-male membership took even longer to allow their wives, sisters and daughters to gain access to the same exclusive rights and privileges that they, no doubt, took for granted. From today's perspective, this seems downright ludicrous, not to mention sexist.

For most years of the club's existence, women weren't even permitted across the threshold. And if the wife of a member wanted to have lunch on the premises with girlfriends, the only place she was allowed to do so was in the ladies' dining room.

That didn't change until the late 1970s, when women finally were allowed to visit the rest of the facilities - provided they were accompanied by a member.

I know times were different back then, but it's hard to believe that such an important gathering spot was so backward and that people still wanted to join. According to Jim Mundy, the league's archivist, the League never even got around to voting on female membership until 1983 and, once it finally did, the idea was knocked down.

After a slew of negative newspaper editorials, political pressure and arm-twisting from the National Organization of Women, the league revisited the matter three years later, and that time around decided to open its doors to women. Carter, who along with her husband owns a private-equity investment firm, was in the very first class of female members.

"We were sort of regarded as a novelty," Carter told me of those early years. "There were only five of us. When we would go to lunch, the guys would kind of stare. Not unkindly. It was just sort of, 'Hey, look at that.' It was a big shift for them. For 125 years, this had been a place where only men went.

"At first, we felt like women members and now we just feel like members," added Carter, president and co-founder of UM Holdings Ltd.

Looking back, she never dreamed that she'd be at the organization's helm. Carter was the only choice of the nominating committee and ran unopposed.

"It's sort of the last bastion. That's the way it appears to the outside," she said. "I felt as much a part of the Union League as anyone."

In 2011, the league, which has a $3,600 initiation fee and annual dues of $4,000, plans to celebrate its 25-year anniversary of female admission.

"I remember advancing mayoral candidate Wilson Goode at the Union League back in 1983," said Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political-science professor at La Salle University who teaches courses on women and politics. "I also remember thinking that I wouldn't be able to get in there without him. I'm happy to see a woman become president of the Union League. I just hope that it's not political symbolism, and she gets real authority and support from the board."

As for why this shift has taken so long, Balchunis referenced how "women are still in the single digits as CEOs . . . Look at Pennsylvania. Both of our U.S. senators are male. Our congressional delegation is overwhelmingly male. The heads of businesses are overwhelmingly male."

Who knows? Maybe having Carter as president of the Union League will change some stubborn mindsets that are clinging to that hoopskirt era.

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