Women knocking on doors of Britain s old boys clubs

October 31, 2020 01:50 AM

Britain's elite private members' clubs have long been places where politicians, businessmen and other high-fliers have hobnobbed.

But revolt is brewing in the #MeToo era, as women are eager to join the old boys' clubs.

At The Garrick, founded in 1831, a quintessentially English charm prevails behind its imposing grey stone facade in the heart of central London's Covent Garden.

Members socialise in cosy and rarefied comfort, beneath an extraordinary collection of paintings adorning the walls of the solid wood library and hall filled with leather sofas.

This is exactly the kind of venue that Emily Bendell, the businesswoman who heads the Bluebella lingerie company, wants to infiltrate.

However, despite its more bohemian reputation stemming from its founding links to actors, she discovered the Garrick -- like a dozen other prestigious London clubs, such as White's and Boodle's -- is reserved exclusively for men.

"It'd be one thing if it was just a tiny club... but this is a institution in the middle of London, with our politicians, with our judges, as members, people at the top of their profession," the indignant Bendell told AFP.

"I found it really troubling that women were excluded from that space," she added, arguing "there is no doubt that women's progression has been inhibited" by the policy.

So Bendell instructed her lawyers to write to the club, outlining her intent to take legal action for discrimination under equality legislation.

- 'Specific purpose' -

They hope to rely on the distinction that in law, same-sex organisations are allowed but those offering services cannot restrict on this basis. 

Private members' clubs offer food, drink and often hotel services, which are open to women only if they are invited by male members.   

Several clubs contacted by AFP, including the Garrick, did not respond to requests for comment.

In their late 19th century heyday, such clubs served "a very specific purpose" and their gender rules were "not particularly controversial", according to historian Amy Milne-Smith, of Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University. 

She noted that at the time they filled the largely male need for a social space "to meet with your peers in the city", as their homes could be cramped, or outside London where restaurants and nightclubs barely existed.

At the same time, women's social lives were primarily house-bound, and dominated by "teas and balls and dances".

"But our society changes, and so we have to rethink and re-evaluate all institutions, and they always change," said Milne-Smith, noting the clubs were never intended to be sites for business deals.

"But how do you define business?" she asked. 

"It's about networking and it is about making connections and... it's hard to separate that sociability from power in a patriarchal society."

Fast forward to the 21st century and Bendell believes it is "very naive" to think members keep their personal and professional lives separate while schmoozing in their clubs.

"We all know that if we go down the pub with someone that... if they're part of a network, we're more likely to help that person out."

- 'Normalised' - 

Female-only elite clubs also exist today but are far less common.

In 1886, a group of women frustrated at being barred from joining men's venues banded together to form the University Women's Club, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in Britain, located in the upscale Mayfair neighbourhood. 

"These women grouped together, rather than fighting against (it) they said 'we are going to do better, we are going do this for ourselves'," Alex Maitland, the club's current manager, explained in the warm confines of its green library. 

But for Bendell, although such all-women venues are "very important", with power in society still overwhelmingly concentrated in male hands they do not adequately solve the problem presented by men-only structures.

Some clubs have decided to open up to women, such as the City of London Club near the Bank of England in 2011. 

The Garrick Club itself held a vote in 2015 on allowing female members, supported by several eminent members, including the actor Hugh Bonneville, senior government minister Michael Gove and several House of Lords peers. 

But the poll saw the narrowest of majorities -- 50.5 percent -- back continuing the ban on female membership.

"It's very hard and difficult for club men today to see the problem with it, because it's so normalised," said Milne-Smith, noting they were following in the footsteps of fathers and grandfathers.

She added that permitting women would fundamentally change the character of many clubs, before adding: "Then you have to decide, is it time for that change to happen?"

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