The Elks Club in Skagway plays an important role in fundraising and community support. Now, for the first time in more than 100 years, the person leading all of that is a woman.
“And so we do our meetings in here, and people can rent this space,” Brittney Thomas walks through the hall where the Elks hold fundraisers. There’s — what else — a taxidermy elk head watching over the room.
Thomas became the first female ‘exalted ruler’ of the club in April.
Elks Lodge #431 is an institution in Skagway. It opened in 1899 and it’s still going strong after 115 years. It’s only in the past 10 or so years that women were allowed to join the Elks. It’s a traditionally all-male order. On a national level, the issue went to court. And for local chapters, it hasn’t always been an easy road.
“In the Elks, Kodiak was one of the last lodges in the state to allow women,” said Janet Johnson, a former exalted ruler of the Kodiak Elks chapter. She was also the first female president of the Alaska State Elks Association.
“Like whenever anybody changes anything, in the beginning it freaks people out,” she said.
Johnson says the ‘good old boys club’ mentality made it difficult in some Elks chapters for women to join. In some places, that mentality persists. So Johnson says the more women taking leadership roles the better. Like Thomas, in Skagway, who says she did not meet any resistance joining the order.
“It’s exciting to be the first, for sure,” Thomas said. “Every year since 1899 there’s been an exalted ruler. It’s basically the volunteer coordinator, help making sure everything is running in the lodge.”
Thomas is a massage therapist who decided to join the Elks so her bowling team would have access to its facilities. She says after she joined, she realized how much the Elks works to help the community. Here are some examples.
“During the winter months every Friday we do a burger feed, and each week it’s for a different school group.” Thomas said. “So every year we raise $35,000-$40,000 a year through that program. We give every graduating senior a $1,000 scholarship. And then we buy every senior citizen a rec center membership.”
Thomas says one night, they raised $25,000 to help with a neighbor’s medical bills.
“I love it. It’s just fun to be with a group of people who want to do good. We have fun with each other and also do things to help out the community, and that’s really nice.”
There’s also an active Emblem Club in Skagway. The Emblem Club was started as a sort of women’s version of the Elks. Thomas says just like women are joining the Elks, men are joining Emblem. But the Elks is still predominantly male.
“We’re getting more and more women joining all the time,” she said. “But it’s still probably one-fifth women. It may be even a little less than that, so there’s not a ton of us.”
Thomas has been a member for five years now. She says it’s changed her experience of Skagway.
“You feel closer to the community, it makes you feel like you’re more part of it.”
Thomas says although their numbers are fairly low, there are more female exalted rulers coming up. They rotate leaders among the chair members every year.
Johnson, the first female State Elks Association president, says most Elks members have realized – it’s not a man’s club anymore, it’s a community club.