Pam Del Duca, founder of DELSTAR Companies, is wearing a ceremonial red cape. As “chief” of the Scottsdale Charwomen – a group she formed 28 years ago – Del Duca passes a tomahawk to Jamie Drinkwater, daughter of the late Scottsdale Mayor Herb Drinkwater. Drinkwater is wearing a headpiece with dangling crystals that sparkle in the light of the fire.
As the tomahawk is passed, each woman secures a feather to the hatchet and voices a personal concern or problem; freeing their demons into the air so they mingle with the ashes and the magical atmosphere created by the countryside, the cocktails and the crazy costumes the women created for their annual ceremony.
The Scottsdale Charwomen come together twice a year. They include writers, politicians, doctors, geologists and other professionals who leave behind multimillion dollar companies and hectic households for a weekend spring trail ride and a fall reunion.
The group started in 1984, when Del Duca became president of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. Traditionally, the Scottsdale Charros, a men’s volunteer organization, would take the new president on horseback ride. But Del Duca was the first female president, and was not invited. Del Duca was undaunted. She gathered her girl pals, the late Florence “Snake Lady” Nelson and Pam “Swami” Hait, and churned out her own Charros group. “All the men in Scottsdale knew each other from boards and through the Charros,” says Del Duca. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a ride for women?”
Nelson, whose family developed much of the Pinnacle Peak area, named the group the Charwomen, not as a takeoff on the men’s moniker, but after an English colloquialism meaning “someone who gets things done.”
There were no bylaws, no dues and, of course, no men.
Members couldn’t bring their best friend or a bag of makeup. They had to at least try to ride a horse, and had to have a stake in Scottsdale. “And they couldn’t be a pain in the ass,” Del Duca adds.
Over the years the “stake in Scottsdale” was modified to include those who, at the least, have had a “steak in Scottsdale.”
The first year the group went to a ranch in New River. Since most had no riding experience, saddling up took nearly two hours. It was a hot day, and they got lost. A three-hour ride became five hours. As the hot horses went over the creek, each one rolled and the women all fell in the water. Del Duca passed out from dehydration. “Everything you could possibly think of happened,” said Hait. “It was legendary.”
But the women all returned the next year. Over the proceeding 28 years, nearly 200 well-connected women have participated in the ceremonies and the trail ride, including former Scottsdale City Manager Jan Dolan, former Scottsdale City Councilwoman Betty Drake, and philanthropist Joan Herberger.
The Charwomen say they value the connections to other high-profile women and wouldn’t trade their saddle seats for a chance to be in the Charros even if it was gender-neutral. Over the years, they’ve used their collective influence and political muscle to help elect Drake, former Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana and state Senator Carolyn Allen. The also helped create the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and lobbied to have the Florence Ely Nelson Desert Park named after their departed comrade.
That was one of the main purposes of the group, Del Duca, 65, explains, “to have the power to make things happen.”
If a Charwoman ever did want to become a Charro, she may not find a red carpet.
“The Charros were founded [in 1961] as an all-male service organization and remains one today,” says Margaret Leichtfuss, executive director of the Scottsdale Charros. “Just as the Arizona Foundation for Women and the Junior League of Phoenix are set up for women.”
Pam Del Duca was the first of five female presidents of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce and the first one not invited on the annual Charros trail ride. According to former president, Virginia Korte, none of the others were invited on the ride, but she was unfazed by the lack of an invite.
Valley attorney Jake Curtis says women would have a difficult legal discrimination case with the Scottsdale Charros just as IBM chief executive Virginia Rometty might have with the Augusta National Golf Club. Both made headlines this year when Augusta, which maintains an all-male membership and hosts the annual Masters Tournament in Georgia, declined to offer Rometty a membership. IBM is a long time sponsor of the Masters and the club has traditionally extended membership to CEO sponsors.
“It’s discrimination but not legal, actionable discrimination,” says Curtis. “People have a right to assemble and that includes the right to exclude people from the assembly.”
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