News & Politics

Change or Die: How People Cling to Outdated Traditions That Will Hurt Them in The Long Run

A debate within a gentlemen's club reveals how some men cling to outdated sexist traditions that may come back to haunt them.

I can still remember sitting at the kitchen table in my childhood home and reading my dad’s words, typed by his hard candy-wielding secretary, Helen, onto a piece of official law firm letter head. “I will not belong to a club that would one day admit my son, but would never admit my daughter.”

At just 12 years old, I was suddenly awash in a sense of my own importance. Now, nearly 20 years after I first read those bold words, this very same bastion of outdated tradition is starting to see the writing on the walls.

The El Paso Club, a 134 year old “gentlemen’s club” in downtown Colorado Springs—once a haven for local businessmen to have a drink and block out the discomfiting progress of the outside world—has finally had to consider the future. Some members have suggested letting women in, arguing that the club is on “a death spiral” if they continue the male-only tradition; others feel that allowing women to be members would be tantamount to death itself. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, Randy Kilgore, an insurance agent, declared, “We can’t decimate a 130-year old men’s club to let in a few women. It would be the end of the club.”

This is the silver lining of an otherwise ugly recession. It destabilizes us. It makes us uncomfortable. It forces even the most incurious of us to question long-held beliefs. A report from the Population Reference Bureau last year showed that more than 70 percent of Americans age 40 and over felt they had been affected by the Great Recession, and no doubt, many more would join the majority after the release of this week’s disappointing job numbers. We’re facing hardship, but we’re also facing ourselves. Or as poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

Signs of outdated traditions’ rapid decay—particularly among the middle class—are everywhere. Men who have lost their jobs are picking up the slack at home—upending gendered family roles in exciting new ways, even as it’s under unexciting circumstances. Our interdependence has become undeniable, once again, forcing cloistered individuals and families out into their neighborhoods to community meetings, farmer’s markets, or just to play in local parks rather than fancy summer camps or pricey movies. Conspicuous consumption is increasingly being replaced by collaborative consumption; companies like Zipcar and Netflix let people share their resources rather than contributing to the ever-growing pile of debt and stuff. There’s potential for a renaissance in more egalitarian and robust public life.

My dad was willing to resign from the most prestigious business club in town back in 1992 because of his own values—seeded in the 60s during the rise of the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements. Having a daughter with lots of questions about the world and big dreams for her own future helped force him to walk his talk. While I wish that the remaining members of the El Paso Club were questioning their male-only policy out of a surge of long-neglected principles, they’re not. They’re questioning it because they won’t survive if they don’t. Turns out that it sometimes takes an apocalypse—often of the meteorological or economic variety—for some people to change.

Famed psychologist Jean Piaget, argued that what motivates learning is a gap between what we know and what we need to know. Seen for this vantage, the most recent recession has forced so many Americans to reckon with what they don’t know, to experience the “disequilibrium”—in Piaget’s parlance—of learning and change. As painful as this may be, it’s also a good thing. We’re becoming a more mature nation. We’re letting go of rituals, rules, and roles that don’t serve us anymore.

With one palpable exception, of course. While the majority of us are experiencing disequilibrium, the rich have largely remained shielded from discomfort. Wall Street is still getting its big bonuses, despite undeniable documentation of corruption and recklessness. Which is why those at the very top tiers of our increasingly class-cleaved society won’t be shaking things up anytime soon. If anything, they’ll be hunkering down.

The men of the El Paso Club, as prestigious as they may feel, are not super rich and, therefore, are subject to the winds of change. Will they bend and survive or break and die?

So far, they’re dead-set on the latter. The membership voted 31 to 69 to remain a male-only club to the grave. When faced with the choice to change or die, some people will, in fact, choose to die.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and speaker living in Brooklyn. She is also the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women and Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. You can read more about her work at
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