SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) 30 years ago a woman walked through the front door of Utah’s most prestigious social club, The Alta Club in downtown Salt Lake.
Young people reading this may be saying ‘so what, that’s no big deal.’ But 30 years ago it was, especially for the all male bastion that included many of the most influential power brokers in Utah. The woman who shattered the glass ceiling led the way for hundreds of other women.
The posh club at the corner of State Street and South Temple was founded in 1883 before Utah even became a state. Many of those early members had made a fortune here in mining and they wanted a private place where they could gather.
They built it much like the clubs they had back east. The trappings included all dark leather furniture adorned by brass. Elaborate wood molding and fireplaces could be seen in most of the rooms.
The men could join other men in the dining room, bar, card room, pool room or library. It reeked of “men” and cigar smoke and it was male members only.
Men could bring their female partners to dinner, but women couldn’t be members, so meeting a male companion became quite the chore.
THE INFAMOUS SIDE DOOR
Unaccompanied women had to come in a special side door on State Street. Then they had to climb several flights of stairs to a room that had more feminine furnishings, not the leather and brass on the floors below. There they would wait for their man to come and get them. And it stayed like that for 104 years.
Then came the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s. Hippies, flower power, anti-war protests. Society was changing and pressure began to mount, both economically and politically, for the Alta Club to respond.
Finally in 1987, it did. The all male members voted to allow women to join.
A young geologist named Genevieve Atwood became the first female member. The Salt Lake Tribune carried a picture of her walking through the front door for the first time and she still walks through that door today. She vividly remembers 30 years ago.
“It was denigrating and it has not been forgiven or forgotten. It was a place that reeked of, I mean it’s such a great building, it’s just so stable and so kind of male and all those biases. It just smelled of power where women came in the side door.”
She is now on the board of directors, a board that is now half women. The men have totally accepted female membership. They even did 30 years ago, sort of:
“The guys would come up to me, meaning the old men down here,” says Atwood looking back. “They’d say if it had to be a woman, glad it was you.” No bitter feelings from Atwood who says “I love these guys.”
And the club loves its female members. This year they are celebrating ‘the year of the woman.’ President Mike Homer says of women “I think they are essential to the club and the club is going to be stronger and stronger the more women we have, and the more women participate in leadership of the club.”
Homer is planning events the rest of the year to recognize the contributions from the gender that used to come in that side door. “We are celebrating because the club is better now than it has ever been before.”
The women’s door is never used now. They don’t have to climb all those stairs. They are equal.
The first female member is proud of what she did, but she’s not done. “The men of the Alta Club changed,” says Genevieve Atwood looking back. “They wanted women in. The economics changed. It became very advantageous to have women in. And society really changed, but we still have a ways to go.”
YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY BABY!