Bocce Bawl

While thumbing through a recent issue of the Arizona American-Italian Club newsletter, would-be member Donna Guida had to laugh. In a recurring column titled "There's an Old Italian Proverb" appeared the maxim Profumo senza arrosto non mi va!

Translation? "The aroma without the roast is not for me."
And that's precisely Guida's beef with the organization: Although women pay the same membership fee as men, they have absolutely no say in major club policy and decision-making.

In February, Guida applied for membership in the club, wrote a check for $55 and waited to be notified about a swearing-in ceremony. When she still hadn't heard anything a month later, she phoned the club and inquired about the delay.

Dumbstruck by the explanation she received, Guida has since taken to calling the 40-year-old organization "the Un-American Italian Club."

"The lady who answered the phone told me that the reason I hadn't heard from them was because the women's auxiliary didn't meet in March," says Guida. "I explained that I wasn't interested in joining a women's auxiliary. I wanted to join the club, and, if I wanted, to be able to run for, say, treasurer."

Discovering that the club's bylaws not only prevent women from running for office, but actually forbid them from joining the main club, Guida became outraged.

"These are old country values," fumes Guida, whose rejected application was returned to her, along with her uncashed check. "These people think women are at a lower level, that we don't have the ability to do anything but cook. I don't think that's right, and that's why I want to make people aware of this."

A City of Phoenix landlord/tenant negotiator who'll retire in July, Guida had been looking forward to joining the club upon her retirement with the intention of offering her expertise on a volunteer basis. But those plans fell by the wayside when Guida feared that, as a member of the women's auxiliary, she'd probably be relegated to the status of a latter-day June Cleaver.

Those suspicions appear to be well-founded. According to longtime auxiliary member Stephanie Cunningham (she married an Irishman), typical auxiliary activities include bake sales, fashion luncheons and a recent redecoration project that involved installing new blinds, a mural and plastic grape-studded trellises in the club dining room.

"Every woman who joins the club knows that they're joining the auxiliary," says Cunningham, herself a former president of the women's group. "They know they're not joining the parent group."

Founded in the late Fifties, the club was initially established as a social club for men of Italian extraction. In addition to recreational activities--the clubhouse at 7509 North 12th Street includes a restaurant, bar, bingo hall, bocce-ball course and other amenities--club members also participate in various charitable projects, like scholarships and parties for abused children.

But while club bylaws allow female auxiliary members to help raise funds to make these philanthropic endeavors possible, those same rules prevent club women from having a voice in which charities the club sponsors or about the disbursement of club funds.

Not that auxiliary members seem to mind what appears to be their decidedly second-class status within the American-Italian Club world.

"We don't have anything to do with the men's club," says current auxiliary president Rosemary Kondusky. "We don't get into their affairs, we don't care how they spend their money, that's entirely up to them. We're just there to help them." (Club president Jim Parisella didn't return New Times calls.)

All evidence to the contrary, Kondusky still maintains that the club isn't segregated by gender.

"It's just separated in that the ladies meet in one room and the men meet in another," says Kondusky, a sales rep for a payroll company. "Those of us who've been in the club for [years] don't have a problem with that setup because the men are very fair to the women."

Donna Guida, meanwhile, contends that if the club's male members (a roster that includes Sheriff Joe Arpaio, KSAZ Channel 10 air personality Rick D'Amico and state senator Mark Spitzer) were really committed to fairness, they'd have revamped their sexist bylaws years ago.

"Sure, I can cook spaghetti--and probably do it better than any of those men can," says Guida. "But that's not the point. I don't want to cook to be in this club and I shouldn't have to. That kind of thinking is archaic."

While American-Italian Club members would probably argue that point, male-dominated social organizations definitely appear to be on the decline in the Valley: A random survey of a half-dozen private clubs listed in the Yellow Pages yielded few groups, including an American Legion post in Youngtown, that still maintained a women's auxiliary. Other private groups, like the Polish-American-themed Pulaski Club, have always allowed women to hold office. In fact, the club's current president is female.

The Arizona American-Italian Club can't even argue that it's simply following guidelines set by clubs sharing a similar cultural background. From its beginnings in 1905, female members of the misleadingly named Order Sons of Italy in America have shared equal footing with their male counterparts. Today, women serve in local, state and national offices in the 750-chapter Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Unfortunately for Guida, the Phoenix club is an independent organization with no ties to that national club.

Not that it'd make much difference from a legal standpoint. Although the issue is murky, courts have tended to rule that private clubs are not bound by the same laws that apply to commercial establishments.

But even private clubs can be found guilty of violating discrimination laws if a court rules that the club's focus is not narrowly enough defined.

"Sometimes private clubs are still subject to discrimination laws if they're also found to be a public accommodation," says Eleanor Eisenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union. "For instance, a [private] golf club which allows the public to use its restaurant or rent out space would arguably be a public accommodation which would prevent them from discriminating against people on the basis of race, religion or gender."

What the court might make of the multi-use Arizona American-Italian Club is anyone's guess. With its banquet rental facility, bingo hall, sexually segregated auxiliary, non-Italian "social" memberships and absorption of an offshoot of the defunct Phoenix German-American Club, the ostensibly Italian-themed club would appear to have all the exclusivity of the Disneyland attraction "It's a Small World."

Or, as Donna Guida sees it, a small mind. Still, Guida remains optimistic about joining the club and hopes that publicity about her cause will force the powers that be to rethink their "antiquated" bylaws without a court battle.

But some members claim that Guida is, in effect, grasping at vermicelli.
"Legally, she does not have a leg to stand on," counters auxiliary president Rosemary Kondusky. "If this lady wants to be an active, contributing member, it shouldn't matter [to her] whether it's through the men's club or through the ladies' auxiliary because we are basically one club."

Conceding that Guida isn't the first woman to challenge the club's male-dominated infrastructure, Kondusky adds, "I think what's bothering me about this is that she's being argumentative. If she indeed is a full-blooded Italian and can prove that, she can run for any office in the ladies auxiliary that she chooses to. That's the way it is. Tough. I'm sorry, but tough."

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: [email protected]

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Dewey Webb