Since 1957, members of the Willow Oaks Country Club, on the southern end of the Powhite Parkway, have enjoyed a commanding view of the James River, a sprawling golf course meandering among majestic hardwood trees and a laid-back atmosphere.
But there seems to be trouble inside the Williamsburg-style club buildings.
Members will decide later this month whether to go forward with a $2.7 million renovation. Included in the makeover is a male-only “card room,” with 42 seats and direct bar access that will be larger than what will be available for female members.
“It’s sort of the perpetuation of an idea of separate privileges for men that women can’t have,” says male club member Kelly O’Keefe, a professor and managing director of the VCU Brandcenter.
O’Keefe says there’s been plenty of debate about whether Willow Oaks’ renovation plans encourage unequal services. For years, private country clubs had men’s grills or special rooms that pushed exclusivity beyond the locker rooms.
In 1990, the exclusive Congressional Country Club, located in Potomac, Maryland, turned its men’s eating area into a section for adults to comply with new anti-discrimination laws in the state.
The issue at Willow Oaks is how to play fair while moving into the future. For years, the choice bar space overlooking the river was called the Men’s Grill. While it wasn’t specifically segregated by gender, it was in practice. The plans call for that area to become a bar area open to all called Savor 60.
So to satisfy some of the male members who enjoy tippling by themselves, the plan calls for a 42-seat, men-only lounge as an extension of the men’s locker room.
Women members have their own smaller lounge with a table and some sofas. But the issue is whether to expand their lounge into something separate but equal.
Willow Oaks manager Chris Welles says there have been different views, but the exclusive part of the men-only section will be an area to play cards and relax.
Club board member Albin Hwang says that “there’s currently a men’s card room and the plan renovates it and moves it to a different location.”
Some female members see no conflict. “Personally, I don’t think there’s any issue,” Patty Wilkerson says.
“It’s basically an extension of the outdoor area,” Ann Rawls says, adding that there seemed to be no issues raised when the renovation plan was presented. “There is a very small room where men can get something to drink,” she says. “This club has to appeal to many age groups. It’s OK.”
But a “significant portion” of the club’s female members is skeptical, O’Keefe says. “They should receive equal treatment in a club they help pay for.”