Madeira Feast committee and club now open to women

NEW BEDFORD — Women are now allowed to join the previously all-male club that puts on the city’s beloved Feast of the Blessed Sacrament — a win for women of Madeiran heritage who for years have been fighting for the right to serve alongside their male counterparts.

The club took up a vote to amend its by-laws on Sunday, which passed 116 to 21, according to several of the women and some members. Just last fall, the club failed to amend its by-laws to allow women to serve. Passage required support from 75% of members; the vote was split 50-50.

“We’re so excited, so emotional about it because it’s such a long time coming. I wasn’t certain, I wasn’t optimistic about today’s outcome, but I’m looking forward to moving forward from here with the club and being available to provide any assistance to them to implement this transition,” said Jane Gonsalves.  

“I’m excited that it passed and honored that this is finally going to happen and that not only myself but all of these amazing women are going to be able to serve together,” said Tara George. “The only thing that could come out of this is good. We are all a family. Every woman here is related to a man in that room. A vote to change the bylaws is a vote for your family.” 

The vote comes after the threat of a lawsuit. In March, seven women, including George and Gonsalves, alleged gender discrimination by the Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento, calling its rule precluding female members a “sexist ban.” 

The club’s by-laws, until today, prohibited women from serving as “festeiras,” or committee members for the feast — a prerequisite for becoming a full club member.

If the male requirement to serve was not removed, the women were set to file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and a lawsuit with the Bristol County Superior Court.

Tiffany Ilioff, who drove two hours from Connecticut on Sunday to bring her father, a member, to the meeting and await the outcome, said she’s been waiting more than 40 years for this. When her dad came out of the vote, they shared a tearful embrace.

The last time the club expanded its membership was in the late 1990s. At that time, it was limited to sons of fathers with Madeiran heritage, but sons of mothers with Madeiran heritage were then allowed to serve.

Since December, more than 30 women have applied to become festeiras, according to George.

According to the women, some will be allowed to serve on this year’s feast committee, but The Light has not yet been able to confirm next steps.  

Asked about the status of those feast committee applications now that the club has changed its laws, Timothy Rodrigues, president of the club, said he will not be commenting until after the club puts out a press release Sunday evening at the request of the general assembly. 

He confirmed that the vote passed. 

One of those women who applied is Allison Paiva, a New Bedford resident who last year joined the folk dance group that performs at the feast. On Sunday, she stood outside the feast grounds gates waiting for word of the vote, and shared why allowing women to participate is so important to her. 

“I lost my grandmother in 2014, and she was just the best person and completely full of life; the feast was something that we all got together and had this big party,” Paiva said. “It’s something that connects us to our past and it’s very important for my family … I have nieces now who are 2 and 1 [years old] and that’s something in the future I hope that they get to serve and they get to be a part of that culture.” 

“I’m excited to serve,” Paiva said, after the vote results came out. 

Nicole Peixoto, who was also waiting outside the club, says she will wait a few years until it’s her family’s turn to serve again on the feast committee. 

“I’m just excited to be able to work beside my family as an equal, not that they didn’t see it that way, but not everyone here did,” Peixoto said. “It’s like a new beginning to the feast for me after all these years.”

She hopes to not only serve alongside her dad and uncle, but now her grandmother.  

As other members exited the club, some shared congratulations, with one man exclaiming “welcome aboard.”

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at [email protected]

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