Exactly 30 years ago, Genevieve Atwood made history just by walking through the front door of a building at the corner of State Street and South Temple.
How? Well, for 104 years, no woman had ever entered the Alta Club that way — at least officially. Female guests were expected to arrive through a side door meant for servants.
But, on Oct. 19, 1987, the venerable downtown gathering place for Salt Lake City’s movers and shakers welcomed Atwood, not as a guest, but as its first female member.
It represented the most earthshaking change since the club decided to allow Mormons to join a few years after its 1883 founding and stood as yet another marker in Utah women’s fight for equality.
The 1980s saw a strong feminist movement as women began taking their places in the upper echelons of business.
Lawsuits were filed around the country challenging such male-only bastions as Rotary International and Kiwanis International, which ended the patriarchal policy around the same time the Alta Club was feeling the heat from many of its own male members.
Two years before the Alta Club members voted to admit female members, the club opted to give up its beer license rather than allow equal status for women after a judge ruled it had to choose. For years, it even had a long-standing policy that barred women from entering and mingling until the male members had finished dining.
Economic pressures provided the final nudge toward female membership as influential companies and other institutions began boycotting the venue because of its male-only policy.
Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman resigned his membership in protest of the male-only policy.
Karen Shepherd, who became a state senator and then a congresswoman, put pressure on the club with articles in Network Magazine chiding the male-only policy.
“I was one of many women who organized a boycott of the Alta Club through our employers which were law firms, banks, CPA firms and the like,” recalled Jan Graham, who at the time was a board member of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough, one of the state’s oldest and most venerable law firms.
“The board had a long-standing tradition of meeting at the Alta Club. I was new and so grateful and honored, it was hard to ask those eight male partners of mine to change their meeting place, but I did so politely and said if they couldn’t make that change, I would sadly be unable to attend,” said Graham, who later would be elected as Utah’s first and only female attorney general. “They voted unanimously to move the meeting place. I still get teary thinking about it.”
The club’s younger male members forced the change over the reluctance of their older colleagues who tended to cling to tradition, said Atwood.
After the vote to admit women, Atwood was nominated by attorney Peter Billings Jr., who later was chairman of the state Democratic Party. She said she also had strong support from lawyers Pat Shea, a former Democratic Party state chairman and former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson.
At the time, Atwood was director of the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey and the official state geologist. She also had been a Republican member of the Utah House.
“Of all the things I’ve done, I will always be remembered as the first woman member of the Alta Club,” Atwood said. “It’s a symbol.”
She also said the fight over female membership left a stain on the Alta Club that hasn’t entirely disappeared.
“Rotary has been forgiven,” she said. “But, for some, the Alta Club hasn’t been.”
She said a male acquaintance recently sent her an email asking, “as a feminist, how can you [be involved] in the last bastion of patriarchy in Utah.”
Shortly after Atwood was admitted, Deedee Corradini, who would become Salt Lake City mayor, Annette Cumming, businesswoman and philanthropist, and Graham were inducted into the club.
The Alta Club now has 157 female members, roughly a quarter of the 616 total membership. Half the club’s 12-member board are women. Ceri Jones and Anne Palmer have served as club presidents.