(This story is by freelance writer Darren Marcy.)
Mendon Fish & Game Club members voted this month to drop their 70-year ban on female members.
The group was the last of the roughly 50 members of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs to bar women from its rolls.
“There are no other clubs that have a men-only edict,” said Chris Bradley, president of the federation. “I’m pleased to hear that Mendon has looked at this issue. I think it’s a solid step in the right direction.”
The measure had to pass by a two-thirds margin of the members present in order to change the club’s bylaws. With the room cleared of nonmembers, 87 votes were cast at the April 5 meeting. The measure passed 61-26 in a secret ballot.
The club, which formed in 1947, had never let women join, despite several previous attempts to allow them. Longtime members couldn’t remember for sure if this was the third or fourth attempt to change the bylaws to allow women.
Club President Don Howe said the vote went smoothly and he was proud of the members and how they conducted themselves in the face of a contentious and emotional vote.
“I was very impressed with how the membership handled this,” Howe said. “We kept this discussion civil. The way it went last time, I was very impressed.”
The “way it went last time,” Howe said, wasn’t so smooth. Or civil.
Nearly a decade ago, a proposal to admit women was overwhelmingly voted down. But, Howe said, six to eight members quit for even considering the idea. A lot of feelings were hurt and friendships damaged.
Howe stressed that the Mendon Fish & Game Club is a private organization. It doesn’t accept any government money and is not tax-exempt.
“We’ve always been a men-only club,” Howe said. “Women have always been welcome to come and participate in any of our activities as a guest. They have just never been allowed to be a voting member. There’s no reason, in this day and age, we couldn’t have women members.”
Several supporters of keeping the club’s bylaws unchanged declined to speak on the record but spoke of having a place where they didn’t have to worry about offending a woman.
One who said he voted against the proposal was John Mazzariello, a 44-year member who has served on the club’s board of trustees and as vice president.
Mazzariello said he voted against the measure not so much to keep women out, but because he’s afraid it will change a club that, next to his marriage, is one of the longest relationships in his life.
“This place means a lot to me,” said Mazzariello, who is one of 12 current members to have the honor of “lifetime member” bestowed on him for his service to the club.
“It’s not that I’m against women being in the club,” Mazzariello said. “We’ve been protected in a sense without women in there. I just wanted everybody to understand that the dynamics are going to change and it’s going to change greatly.”
Now that it’s been decided, he said he hopes that years down the road someone will come up to him and tell him, “I told you so,” because that will mean there’s been no impact.
And, he said, there will be one other change.
“The place will look better and it’ll damn sure smell better,” he said, laughing.
Someone left a sheet of paper on every table the night of the vote that listed reasons why the club members should vote no.
Among the reasons were the potential for litigation as well as allegations of discrimination, hostile environment and harassment.
It was signed “Mister No.” Members who said they knew the author didn’t want to identify the person.
“The club has flourished for 70 years with a male only membership,” the sheet read. “The club is a ‘man cave’ per se for many existing members, and I for one prefer to keep it that way.”
That didn’t go over well with Justin Lindholm, who was one of the loudest voices in support of allowing women into the club.
“There has always been some of us who didn’t like the idea of excluding women,” Lindholm said. “This is the first time in 70 years that this club has allowed women to join, and I’m damned happy that it passed.”
Lindholm said he’s been a member for 20 years, has served on the board of trustees and was president for two years.
He believed so strongly in the matter that he took a signed letter of resignation with him and was prepared to hand it in if the vote failed.
“I’m not going to teach women and girls the wonders of the outdoors and then turn around and tell them, ‘You’re not good enough to join our club,’” Lindholm said.
Lindholm recently completed a six-year term on the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board and saw three women appointed to the 14-member board during his tenure.
“Ladies are well embedded in our sporting arena now, and we need their help,” he said. “We want them to be part of what we’re doing.”
Nationally, more women are involved in shooting sports and hunting than a decade ago.
According to a National Sporting Goods Association study, from 2001 to 2013, participation by women in target shooting grew 60 percent and participation in hunting grew 85 percent.
Rutland businessman John Cragin, owner of Cragin’s Gun Shop, can attest to that. “I sell an awful lot of firearms to women,” Cragin said. “It’s about time. We’re ready.”
He said about 40 percent of his customers are women. They come in looking for self-defense firearms as well as hunting guns.
Cragin said that as a club member and local businessman, he didn’t want to make anybody mad, but he supported the measure.
“I’ve got customers on both sides,” he said. “It’s destined to happen, and it’s not a bad thing. I’m all for having women in the club.”
With the vote to change the bylaws, women can now be accepted as members, but Howe said they will have to go through the same process as anybody else, which means no women are likely to become members for a year or more.
Howe said the club’s membership is capped at 125.
“We’re not going to increase our membership, and we’ve always had a waiting list,” Howe said.
With an average of about five to seven openings a year, Howe said the typical wait for a prospective member is usually about a year and they’re taken in the order they’re received.
They have to be sponsored by a current member, undergo a background check, be interviewed and express willingness to participate in club activities. Once that’s all complete, they are voted on by the general membership.