I am sitting in the gallery of the racquets court at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York. It is enormous and starkly beautiful, the floor and walls lined with thick slate that is a deep heavy gray, almost but not quite black. The service boxes and cut lines are painted a gleaming red. In fact, squint your eyes, and you could be inside a Josef Albers painting.
But it’s the space inside the court and the air rising all the way to the massive steel and glass skylight above that is most impressive. At this moment on a Sunday morning, the light filtering through the glass above and drifting down to the dark court, it feels like a chapel. A chapel for men.
Racquet and Tennis does not allow women to join, nor do they let them play on its courts. I didn’t realize how rigid this rule was until I expressed interest in hitting a few balls on the doubles squash court. A friend shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no, you can’t do that,” he said, “you’d never be let in again.” His eyes grew wide. “And neither would whoever let you on the court.” I decided not to tell him that it would only be me who let myself in… (dear reader, I did not.)
I was at Racquet and Tennis to watch a doubles match, part of the U.S. Century Doubles Championships. It had been an incredibly fun weekend—my first doubles tournament ever and, uh, my first real doubles match ever. (I wouldn’t have had the gall to sign up with so little experience, but I was begged to . . . well, strongly persuaded.) After winning my first match with a partner whom I met five minutes before we went on court, we lost gracefully—or maybe graciously?—the next day in the second round. While it would’ve been fun to get some more games in, I focused on my next goal for the weekend, visiting some of the other clubs in the tournament.
Walking into the University Club is like walking back in time—perhaps into 1920’s New York City, when everyone dressed to go out to their club (if you had one). You’ve probably walked by the UClub—as it is sometimes called—as it’s on 5th Avenue and shares a cross-street with the Museum of Modern Art. The first floor windows facing Fifth Ave. are about as big as the floor of my entire apartment—probably bigger. And walking in, you might feel like Cinderella on the way to the ball—a little out of place, but excited to be there. There’s quite a bit of marble, plenty of dark varnished wood, and a lot of space. I may not have the money to walk in here everyday, but am I happy that places like this exist for me to gawp at? Definitely.
As sometimes happens in clubs like this, the squash courts are not nearly as impressive as the rest of the club. Up on the tenth floor, the ceilings are lower, the halls narrower, the light dimmer. I had initially been disappointed to play my first tournament match at CityView in Long Island City since I’m there a few times a week, but its doubles court puts UClub’s to shame. The yellow-lit box at UClub feels like it’s in a basement, in contrast to the airy loftiness of CityView’s court which really does have a city view. I had no idea that I was so spoiled. But I hear that the library rocks at UClub; whereas CityView only has a few magazines lying around….
The courts are in a different league altogether, however, at Racquet and Tennis. It’s as if they are built for the squash gods—or in honor of them. Watching from the hardwood benches in the gallery high above the back wall of the doubles court, I feel both elated to be there and a little pissed that I am not allowed to step on court and hit the ball under that lovely natural light. Below me, I watch guys I know play; like me, they aren’t members, but they can put on their squash whites and win or lose a match and I cannot do either.
Here’s the thing. I’m not really angry about this, but I am conflicted. I went to an all women’s college. Men aren’t accepted as matriculating students. They can’t graduate with an undergrad degree. But, they can take classes there. They can use the library, the gym, the cafeteria, even sleep in a dorm room…if invited. Ah, and they can even play on the squash courts!
I know about private clubs. I know they’re allowed to accept and deny whomever they want if they play by the rules of city law. And I even kind of get the appeal of a boys club. It’s probably not unlike how I felt with my college friends when we ran around our dorm in our underwear, not caring who the hell saw us. Not that I think that mature men are running around the halls of Racquet and Tennis in their tighty whiteys, but the point is that they could. Heck, they could play squash in their birthday suits—though I think that would be a mite uncomfortable. More likely, they’re doing what guys do in clubs that do allow women, workout and talk about business, sports, and, well, women, of course.
If this were fifty years ago and co-ed clubs where women could play squash were few and far between, I might truly and rightly be upset about Racquet and Tennis (and, back then, Union League Club, University Club, NYAC, etc., etc.). But I guess I feel about Racquet and Tennis in a similar way as I do about UClub. I can’t belong to UClub for financial reasons and I can’t belong to Racquet and Tennis for gender ones. But I still have lots of choices and I belong to a club I love . . . and sometimes feeling a little conflicted can be an interesting thing.
For another entry on R&T and other NYC clubs, see Doubles for Mere Mortals.
Tracy- when I was playing in the Century Doubles matches( my partner and I lost in the Cnsolation finals) I didn’t know women could watch any matches at the R & T.Sorry I missed being inside that bastion of male exclusivity. Actually I knew of one female who many years ago, lept into one of the squash courts and was summarily escorted out onto Park Avenue!!
The challenge for most non-private club players is finding eno white outfits to play in, even totally white sneakers!
What an adventure you must have had! DDay
Very thoughtful! As a man, I really enjoy playing mixed squash doubles. There’s a bit more “cat and mouse” compared to the usual “bang and bash” with the boys, and I love playing both. However, one of the big issues is that it is not always possible to maintain the choreography of squash doubles in perfect step with your partner and opponents. So – would you rather “dance” with a man drenched in sweat or a lady that merely glows? I’m glad I have that choice at my club.
This is insane! In NYC??
I really enjoyed this post — I like learning about all of the places in the city where people are playing squash, and you do a good job of describing the clubs. Their exclusivity feels so anachronistic that I have a hard time being offended by it. A bunch of class-conscious men tottering around the court in their starched whites is the stuff of farce.
One thing the men at R&T can’t do is talk business! That was one of the criteria used in the equal opportunity lawsuit against private clubs. If the men talked business, they unfairly excluded women in business. Hence, at R&T all members are required to check their briefcases at the coat check. This happened even at a wedding I went to, which was clearly not a men-only event!
Thanks Tracy, love reading your posts.
Small steps: in the 90s the female league chair had to get special dispensation to merely watch a league final at the R&T.
Just wondering: Do women still have to use the service elevator?
My father would never join a club where his daughter and wife were second class members. How do current R&T members justify their memberships to their spouses and daughters?
Great post, Tracy and thanks again for a great game on Sunday!! I totally agree with you about doubles tournaments. One of the bonuses of playing in the US Doubles Champs is that many US cities have these old clubs and playing in the tournaments gives you a great opportunity to being part of them, even if just for the weekend! Thank you for sharing this with me. I am going to pass it along!
Just 10 blocks down Park Avenue is the equally magnificent all-female Colony Club that you fail to mention in the article or comments. In reality, some men and women choose to be at single-sex clubs. There really is nothing to debate……other than your literary technique of fabricating injustice to promote a social agenda.
hmmmm….I honestly wasn’t aware of the Colony Club when I wrote this article. And I agree, some men and women prefer single sex clubs. I understand that; I loved going to an all women’s college. I really don’t think I was debating whether or not there should be single-sex clubs, but more trying to get at how I felt as a woman in a club that wouldn’t allow me to play squash there, even as a guest. The club allows women to watch tournaments and I have friends who have been to social functions there, so why not let them on the court as a guest of a member, as most other private clubs do? As a woman, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable by this rule of exclusion. If the Colony Club has similar rules, then I would feel equally uncomfortable.
Your last sentence gave me pause, as I didn’t feel anything as strongly as ‘injustice’ when I wrote the article. Times, fortunately, have changed since most private clubs excluded women and I have a plethora of choices (for squash and otherwise) that women didn’t have many years ago. If women (and men) didn’t have a social agenda years ago, however, then I fear I wouldn’t have these choices…