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The Garrick Club now welcomes women – but why would we ever want to join?

(Alamy)

Baroness Kennedy

Baroness Kennedy

4 min read

On Tuesday evening, a vote by the all-male Garrick Club decided to admit women as members.

The recent exposure of women’s exclusion from this elite watering hole has caused a flutter in establishment circles and has led to the resignations of some senior judges and civil servants who suddenly, after all these years, saw the force of the argument that such discrimination did not sit well with their public roles.

It has also provoked some legal luminaries who are Garrick members to cross swords on whether the rules have ever actually prevented women becoming members rather than custom and practice over many years, assuming that this was a place for men of distinction. Lawyers do love to wallow in the mud of legal meaning. This is an issue of freedom of association for some and an issue of equality for others.

No doubt the male members congratulated themselves for embracing modernity and equality

The debacle has led to threats of resignation by those who think the time has come to let women in and, on the other hand, those who say their all-male sanctuary would be ruined forever by the presence of the monstrous regiment. Where else can they go for a bit of peace?

Either way, I put some money on the vote being won. No doubt the male members congratulated themselves for embracing modernity and equality. What I cannot imagine is a long line of women queuing-up for membership.

Parliamentarians may ask why it matters. What about other clubs up and down the country that offer membership to men or women exclusively? Don’t women like to get together without men from time to time?

The difference in this case is power. That may be true of other Gentlemen’s Clubs to which parliamentarians and others belong. Membership of such places requires sponsorship by people in senior positions within society’s elite. It is through such networks that power is maintained and passed on.  

Membership of exclusive networks is how power is consolidated and how hegemonies are created. Such exclusive male-only clubs inevitably reinforce existing inequalities. However much it is denied, such clubs gather together people with inordinate social, cultural and economic clout and that influence is not left on a peg at the door. “Charles is a marvellous chap and would be just prefect for that appointment.” 

I'll always remember being taken by a judge friend to a mahogany-panelled club in Washington back in the late 80s. There were women dotted around the room and when I asked if women could be members my legal luminary explained that judges could not belong to male-only clubs as a result of a US Supreme Court decision.

In the US, the Code of Conduct for Judges sets out that judges should not belong to any organisation that discriminates. It makes perfect sense. How can those who are expected to administer the courts impartially belong to elite clubs that bar people on the grounds of their sex, gender or race.

How can we as parliamentarians be committed to equality if some of us belong to places that operate under a different set of rules?

It should be emphasised that the women who have raised concerns about the Garrick do not oppose men gathering in single-sex spaces. They have no objection to single sex gyms, spas and massage parlours! It’s about the nature of the membership of certain clubs and the fact that only high-powered men can become members.

Of course, there will be men who will inevitably take themselves off to other clubs, like those who rejected the Anglican church when women became priests and turned overnight into Roman Catholics.

Happily, the world is slowly changing and men are increasingly recognising that women can be colleagues, friends and stimulating companions at a dining table.

 

Baroness Kennedy KC, Labour peer and barrister

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