Last Chance

Donate by midnight to be automatically entered to with an iPhone 11 Pro and to give a meal to a person in need through Philabundance. Both offers end tonight!

Donate now

Denied a seat at the table after shattering the glass ceiling

Before Ilene Wasserman could order lunch at The Union League, somebody approached her in the empty dining room to tell her, “We will have to move you. Women are not allowed to sit at this particular table.”

Over its 150 years, the Union League of Philadelphia has seen a lot of change. Once called the “most famous and hardest to crack old boys’ network in the city,” the private club is now led by a president who was part of the first class of female members admitted in 1986.

This week, a group of diners at the prestigious establishment, had an unexpected experience.

The trouble started as Ilene Wasserman was sitting down for lunch at The Union League. The dining room was empty, Wasserman said, and the consulting group president and her group were told they could pick a table.

“We chose a table by the window. We sat down, we were given our drinks, we were given our menus. And as we were about to order, somebody came over and said, ‘We will have to move you. Women are not allowed to sit at this particular table.'”

The irony of the situation was not lost on Wasserman’s group — they had just come from a meeting of women leaders. She said they were in shock and actually thought it was a joke.

“It was explained to us that this particular table is a Crickets and Groundhogs table which is a club of the Union League — a sub-club — and the president of that club is adamant about women not sitting there,” Wasserman said

In a written statement, Union League President Joan Carter said the “club tables” let diners meet with like-minded members to share meals and interests. Some of the tables are gender specific.

She explained that club tables are reserved specifically for club table members … and that the server, the restaurant manager and the general manager have apologized for the seating mistake.

Wasserman said organizations that are committed to change must recognize that there are “hidden minefields that are left over from previous periods of time.”

“And isn’t it in some ways fortuitous that we happened on this landmine?” Wasserman said. “It’s an opportunity for the Union League to examine its written and unwritten policies, practices, procedures and traditions that fly in the face of what they are claiming to stand for around equality and social justice.”

Wasserman said she hopes the organization uses the seating flap as an opportunity prevent such situations.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.