The New York City-based private literary club has elected Susan Morrison, an editor for The New Yorker magazine, as the first female President in the club’s 169-year history. The club began accepting women as members in 1988 after pressure from politicians and a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a city law requiring integration.
Last month, the members of the Century Association gathered in the reading room of their Renaissance-style clubhouse and, with little fanfare, made a bit of literary history, the New York Times reported.
For the first time, the Century—New York City’s pre-eminent private club of arts and letters—elected a woman as its president. It had only taken 169 years, the Times reported.
The distinction belongs to Susan Morrison, the articles editor of The New Yorker magazine and the longtime overseer of its Talk of the Town and Shouts and Murmurs sections. The quietude surrounding Morrison’s ascendancy, which has not been previously reported, belies the complicated question of gender at the Century, an enclave that prides itself as a sanctum for worldly conversation about the arts, the Times reported.
Yet the club began accepting women as members only in 1988, after pressure from politicians and, ultimately, the Supreme Court, which upheld a city law requiring integration. A mere five years ago, its membership was temporarily riven after a mostly male contingent protested the severing of ties with a single-sex London club, called the Garrick, that barred female
Centurions from entering alone, the Times reported.
By many accounts, Morrison’s new role is a natural byproduct of her devotion to the Century, where she sits on multiple committees and often organizes events. The milestone of her election, members say, has scarcely been discussed—“it happened without a peep,” one recalled. Several Centurions used the same word in describing the notion of a female president: “inevitable.”
“It never occurred to me that it would not happen,” said Helene L. Kaplan, a prominent lawyer and one of the original class of 20 women nominated to the Century in 1988, alongside Brooke Astor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Times reported.
“I really am delighted that things are much less pressured than they would have been years ago,” Kaplan added.
Still, vestiges of the Century’s past remain. Its ranks skew older, and more men than women roam its halls. Social register surnames are commonplace. Club bylaws rely on masculine pronouns to outline the role of the president, who leads a governing board and steers new policies. In an interview last week, one member, a prominent novelist, was asked about the fight over the all-male club in London. He recalled it as an instance where “the women got their knickers in a twist,” the Times reported.
But in conversations over the past week, two dozen Centurions said that many of their peers had sought to move on from past embarrassments, citing Morrison’s low-key election as a case in point. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid violating rules that ban public discussion of clubhouse affairs, the Times reported.
Catharine R. Stimpson, a former president of the Modern Language Association, said the election process was “very smooth,” and that the tensions of earlier years had faded.
“The vote to let women in meant there was going to be a loss, and the loss was of a very comfortable all-male world,” said Dr. Stimpson, who teaches at New York University. During the London episode, she said, “people felt like something was being taken away” by the “harridans of political correctness.”
The question of a female president, she added, is “absolutely different.”
“No man is losing,” Dr. Stimpson said. “What is winning is the principle of merit, and competency is shared by Centurions of all genders.”
Intentionally or not, her presidency marks a new era for an organization whose restrictions against women had long carried consequence. Max Frankel, the former executive editor of The Times, wrote in his memoir that he resigned from the Century in the 1970s after writing editorials that chastised others for belonging to discriminatory clubs, the Times reported.