One month ago, the Belizean Grove was a quiet group of powerful women whose main activity was taking annual vacations in South American countries.
Today, the New York-based club finds itself caught up in Supreme Court confirmation politics, with Republican lawmakers raising questions about the group’s most famous member.
Federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor joined the group a year ago and went on her first trip last year to Peru. Her membership went largely unnoticed until she listed it on a Senate questionnaire in preparation for her July 13 confirmation hearings.
Now Republican lawmakers are raising concerns that her membership in a “discriminatory” private club violates American Bar Association ethical guidelines for judges. Judge Sotomayor this week defended the club, saying that despite its membership, it does not discriminate against men.
With the group’s policies now in the national spotlight, two men asked Tuesday about joining the club, said Belizean Grove founder Susan Schiffer Stautberg.
Ms. Stautberg, who founded the private club nine years ago, said the group is a response to the all-male clubs that have long fostered business connections and policy links for powerful men.
“I think we all need support in our lives,” Ms. Stautberg said. “We need time to relax; we need time to think. We’re all being nibbled at constantly all day, by e-mail.”
Gender politics have proved a minefield for male Supreme Court nominees. The wife of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. broke down in tears after aggressive questions at his 2005 Senate confirmation hearings about his reported involvement in a Princeton alumni group that opposed affirmative action.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy quit all-male clubs when they were being considered for the Supreme Court in the late 1980s, and Justice Harry Blackmun resigned his membership in the exclusive Cosmos Club in 1988.
The only two women to have sat on the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, were members of the women’s networking group, the International Women’s Forum, but their memberships did not become a major issue in their confirmation hearings.
Ms. Stautberg started the Belizean Grove as a response to the Bohemian Club - an all-male group whose vast Bohemian Grove property in Northern California has hosted an annual midsummer gathering for presidents, politicians, corporate executives, writers and artists for 130 years.
“We do not seek attention nor do we want attention,” Ms. Stautberg said. “We’re just a group of women who want to be supportive of each other and help each other survive and thrive. We’re not trying to get bigger. Bigger is not better; better is better.”
Belizean Grove found plenty of attention after Republican senators challenged Judge Sotomayor about what they say is an incomplete questionnaire and pointedly requested more information about the club.
“You state that you are a member of an organization, the Belizean Grove, that discriminates on the basis of sex,” Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote in a letter to the White House last week.
Noting that the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits membership in organizations that “invidiously discriminate” on the basis of sex, race and national origin, the lawmakers wrote, “Please explain the basis for your belief that membership in an organization that discriminates on the basis of sex nonetheless conforms to the Code of Conduct.”