SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An annual retreat in California put on by an elite club that has included powerful U.S. political and business leaders is facing scrutiny for excluding women after female county supervisors questioned whether they should continue allowing sheriff’s deputies to provide security for the event.
When the previously routine issue came up in a meeting last week, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane scribbled a note then read it out loud: “How can we contract tax-funded services with a club that openly discriminates against women?”
After 11 years on the board and in the third year of its female majority, Zane was finally inspired to speak up, though she said she has long questioned the exclusivity of the Bohemian Grove campouts that have been held at the private Sonoma County site for nearly all of the club’s 147-year history.
“Women’s rights are being shredded throughout the country, and we are kept out of decision-making,” Zane said. “This is another way it’s happening in our own backyard.”
The event from July 10-28 is for members of the Bohemian Club, headquartered in San Francisco. It maintains a confidential membership list and has long had a reputation for secrecy.
Founded by journalists and artists in 1872, the club grew to include presidents such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as well as various FBI and CIA directors and titans of business.
Women can enter the club’s headquarters, but they are barred from the annual July encampment where men reportedly relax, perform skits and take part in a ceremony called Cremation of Care, where they burn an effigy.
“You get up there in the redwoods ... you talk and you drink and you tell dirty stories,” club member and former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. told The Associated Press in 1987.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has approved the security contract for the retreat without fanfare for the past 14 years.
But last week, after Zane spoke up, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins also questioned the arrangement.
Hopkins is the first woman to represent her district, which includes Bohemian Grove, making her the first supervisor she knows of who has not attended the retreat.
“Bohemian Grove has always been a strange anachronism in my district,” she said. “It’s 2,700 acres of mystery I haven’t been allowed to set foot on.”
Supervisors asked county attorneys to study whether the event is discriminatory and postponed a decision on security until Tuesday.
“Just because we provide a law enforcement service for them is not an endorsement of what they do,” Sheriff Mark Essick said. “To put this on hold at the last second is really going to hamper my ability to deliver services.”
The contract for about $151,000 includes having the sheriff staff the entrance with two to six deputies to deal with protesters or trespassers and respond to any emergencies.
Protesters have gathered outside Bohemian Grove for years to rail against what they see as world-controlling elites and conspiracy theories. Less focus has been paid to the gender exclusivity of the event.
Without a county security contract, the Bohemian Club could pay a less expensive private company for the service, and the county would be obligated to provide emergency services if needed.