Last week we learned that there's some new pushback from the female-majority Sonoma County Board of Supervisors about providing County services, namely security by sheriff's deputies, to the male-only Bohemian Grove.
The annual, three-weekend retreat on a private compound in Monte Rio has been the stuff of legends — and conspiracy theories — for decades, and the event itself dates back to 1878. Planning for the Manhattan Project was said to have taken place there in 1942, and many ex-presidents and other statesmen have made appearances over the decades. But the fact that the Bohemian Club remains a men's club and this retreat doesn't allow women has always rubbed a couple current Sonoma supervisors the wrong way, with good reason. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins penned an open letter to the club's members and guests last week, pointing out, first of all, that all her male predecessors in the District 5 seat have been invited to the Grove, and for the first time, the supervisor of the district in which Monte Rio sits will not be allowed to attend.
But Hopkins goes on to rebut a number of popular talking points that have been raised to her regarding the Grove, not the least of which is when members try to downplay the bizarre, ritualistic nature of the activities at Bohemian Grove, which can be a bit more creepy than fratty.
Stop trying to convince me that the Grove is totally normal. It’s not. It’s weird. But here’s the thing — I don’t have a problem with weird. So just be honest with me and admit that it’s weird. Try, “hey, I like to hang out with a bunch of powerful dudes in the redwoods and pee on trees and listen to music and hear famous men speak and burn effigies in weird little tent cities.” Because that sounds like West County Burning Man, and I can understand the appeal.
She also says that she's heard too many times that the Grove is just like any other same-sex club retreat, and it's decidedly not. " Other men’s and women’s groups don’t have international leaders flying in on private jets and helicopters to a secretive 2,700-acre compound," she writes.
At issue is whether the county's Board of Supervisors will approve a $150,000 contract for the Sheriff's Department to provide gate security for the compound, something it has done for the past 15 years, with the Grove reimbursing the County for their services. Both Hopkins and her colleague Shirlee Zane voted to take a look at legal issues with the contract — namely wording that suggested deputies would have to enforce Grove rules and policies, which include sex discrimination — and the contract has already been revised. They say that they may approve it in order not to deprive the deputies of an extra paycheck, but that doesn't mean it will always be approved in the future.
Below, Hopkins' open letter in full. It's an amusing read.
**Open Letter to Members & Guests of the Bohemian Grove**
Dear Bohemian Club member,
Hi. I’m the local elected official who represents West County, which includes the 2,700 acres’ worth of Bohemian Grove that you come to play in. I’ve never set foot on your property. I know you’ve hung out with all of my 5th District Supervisor predecessors at the Grove — but unlike them, I’m a woman. So I can’t come to your camp, which makes this a little awkward.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t think you’re a bad man. In fact, all of the men I know who are affiliated with the Grove are *good* men. Community-minded men. Caring men. And there are a lot of men I didn’t know were affiliated with the Grove — powerful people, influential people — who’ve been reaching out to me and my colleagues over the past few days advocating on the Grove’s behalf.
In case you are thinking of talking to me or anyone else about the Grove, I would like to offer some constructive suggestions. These points are all based on things that have been said to me over the past few days. May I suggest, when defending Grove activities in the face of renewed public scrutiny, that you might consider the following strategies:
1) Stop trying to convince me that the Grove is totally normal. It’s not. It’s weird. But here’s the thing — I don’t have a problem with weird. So just be honest with me and admit that it’s weird. Try, “hey, I like to hang out with a bunch of powerful dudes in the redwoods and pee on trees and listen to music and hear famous men speak and burn effigies in weird little tent cities.” Because that sounds like West County Burning Man, and I can understand the appeal.
2) I recommend against making the argument that the Grove is the same as any other same-sex social group. Other men’s and women’s groups don’t have international leaders flying in on private jets and helicopters to a secretive 2,700-acre compound. The Club prides itself on being elite, and having powerful and influential members and visitors, from Presidents and Supreme Court justices to political commentators. Yet when Bohos talk to me, they tend to sweep this fact under the rug. Meanwhile the Grove’s own job postings (currently online) brag, “Our attendees consist of business and political leaders from around the globe and yeah we're also talking about world class rock and roll, country, jazz and classical musicians and entertainers. It's pretty cool.”
3) There are other ways in which the Grove isn’t like other same-sex social groups. Many men’s groups come together for same-sex company, but don’t have rules that entirely prohibit females from occupying their property overnight, or disallow women from ever entering certain buildings or rooms. (I will admit that this is where you veer away from being the West County Burning Man. This kind of weird is a little less “fun/quirky/free-peeing weird,” and a little more “creepy/witch-trial weird.”)
4) It doesn’t really help your case to explain how — although women can’t become members — you allow women to work at the Grove. I get where you’re trying to go with this. You’re saying “Hey! We don’t prohibit women from occupying the property entirely!” But just to be clear, this means that **the only way women are allowed to engage with the Grove is to serve men.** That’s a little odd, right? I mean, try using this pickup line at a bar and see how far it gets you: “You can’t hang out with me as an equal, but you’re welcome to serve me drinks or food, park my car, or clean up after my mess. I’ll pay you $14/hour.” My guess is that proposition won’t go over too well with most women.
5) If, even after reading my previous admonition, you still want to tout the Grove’s equal employment opportunities for your currently listed $14-$17/hour jobs, I want you to know I’m aware that the decision to employ women wasn’t actually made by the Club membership. Rather, that decision was made for you by a judge in the 1980s. And the anti-discrimination Fair Employment case was actually appealed by the Club all the way to the Supreme Court. The Club lost, so a judge *forced* you to allow women to work at the Grove. In other words, you don’t really get to take credit for employing women, because you didn’t do that voluntarily. You can take credit for following the law when you were ordered to do so by a judge.
6) Telling me that you have a mother, a wife, or a daughter doesn’t make me automatically relate to you, nor does it make me automatically appreciate the Grove. Biologically speaking, we all have mothers. Being related to a woman does not make you an ally of women, just as having a black or brown cousin or gay or trans uncle does not make you an ally of people of color or the LGBTQI+ community. Your actions do that. Not your marriage status or family ties.
You may have gathered that I’ve heard a lot about the Grove over the past few days. And as I’ve listened to various arguments, two words — both Greek in origin — come to mind. One word is “anachronism,” which literally means “backwards in time.” The other word is “hegemony,” a word with an ugly mouthfeel which comes from the Greek “hegemon,” which means the dominant city-state.
That’s what the Bohemian Grove seems like to me. It’s a flashback to an era when powerful men were the only dominant political paradigm, when only men could vote, when only men could have bank accounts and sign checks and pay bills. The Club has been around for 150 years. A lot has changed in that time. But the Club hasn’t. I think that’s what makes it so great for members, and so utterly incomprehensible to the rest of us.
I know, I know... by discussing issues of equality, I’m veering dangerously close to sounding like an “angry woman” in this letter. But I’m not anti-man. I respect your right to assemble. I don’t care if you enjoy weird things; quite frankly I don’t give a damn if you enjoy getting drunk and peeing on trees with other dudes. (I know I keep bringing up the peeing, but I do so because it’s one of the only Grove behaviors publicly confirmed in court record. The right to urinate freely out of sight of females was a hotly litigated part of the 1981 court case, and was presented as justification by the Grove not to hire female employees. So I can only conclude that peeing freely is important to you, and a critical reason for not including women.)
I find it extremely interesting that, even though the Grove is in my Supervisorial District, I’ve heard of more phone calls regarding the Grove being directed to male elected officials. Because, you know, it’s easier for a guy to talk to another guy about why the Grove is ok than it is to talk to a woman about it. Because there’s some comfort and ease in talking to someone of the same gender. It’s a little more challenging to talk about sensitive issues — particularly sexism — with someone of the opposite sex.
Which is exactly why it is so hard to get into politics as a woman. Because politics are still dominated by men, and women are less likely to be mentored by men, because we’re less likely to golf, hang out in men’s circles or be part of men’s clubs. We weren’t part of your frat. We’re not bros.
Which is also why the Grove has always bothered me. Because it IS the “hegemon,” and it ISN’T an “anachronism.” The Grove is how the world of politics continues to function today: a world of relationships that are more easily accessed by men. 150 years after the Grove was founded, we women can vote and own property and pay our own bills, but when it comes to politics, it’s still a man’s world. (Just ask the first female President of the United States, and the first female Governor of California.)
As I wrap up this letter, I want to be very direct with you. I don’t hate the Grove. I don’t want to shut it down. I do, however, wish the Grove were just a little bit more self-aware. I wish you would reach out to women leaders the way you reach out to male leaders, and that — if you are not in fact going to grant women the same opportunity to participate as men — that you consider supporting female empowerment in other ways. I wish the Club supported the lower Russian River community more. Sure, they donate to a few causes, but considering the wealth and influence of the 3,000+ attendees, it could be a lot more. (For instance, how about funding an additional Sheriff’s deputy for the lower River year-round to broadly enhance public safety? How about working with me to tackle homelessness in the lower River?) The Grove is part of a paradigm that has disempowered women for hundreds of years. The most powerful thing you can do is to acknowledge that fact — and as you continue to have your fun in the redwoods, try to do other things in your life to help out those who aren’t “lucky enough” (either anatomically or socially speaking) to be members of your precious Club.
On that note, Grove member, maybe we could get together sometime. The best way to break down boundaries is to shake hands. Maybe some day you’ll collectively decide that shaking a woman’s hand under the redwood trees isn’t so different from shaking a man’s.
PS — The Grove/Sheriff’s contract was pulled from our consent calendar on Tuesday due to legal questions that were initially raised by my colleague Shirlee Zane. And in fact, County Counsel has already recognized that the previous contract language was not appropriate because it required Sheriff’s deputies to enforce Bohemian Club rules and policies. *This means that Sheriff’s deputies technically could have been tasked with enforcing discrimination against women.* That is absolutely not acceptable. The contract has already been amended to clarify that the deputies are tasked with enforcing state and County laws, not Grove policy, and we are still awaiting additional legal review on other outstanding questions.