IT’S 101 years since the all-male Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was forced to insure the Old Course for £1,000 and draft in 200 guards to protect it from women’s rights activists who were waging war against the country’s sporting facilities.
It’s 101 years since Punch magazine ran a cartoon which showed a caddy telling a visitor to a golf club: “That’s the old green to this ’ole, Sir. It floods, so they’ve give it to the lydies,” under the headline – How Militant Suffragettes Are Made.
In that century and a bit, much has changed. Women have the vote. They’ve made their mark on the workforce. They’ve produced champions in sports from which they were once excluded. They are on the boards of global companies, though not, of course, in sufficient numbers. But only now – almost two years after the Augusta Club, home of the US Masters, opened its doors to female members – is the Royal and Ancient finally addressing its history of discrimination against women.
The club’s decision to ballot its 2,400 members on accepting female members has come about, not because it has had some kind of epiphany about sexual equality, but because confusion between the private club and the R&A – the similarly named, but separate body which has overseen the rules of golf since 2004 – was proving embarrassing for the sport as a whole, and because its retrogressive attitude threatens potential sponsorship. Last week, the R&A also confirmed other male-only clubs – Muirfield, Royal Troon and the Royal St George in Sandwich – are likely to remain on the roster to host the Open Championship even if they fail to follow the Royal and Ancient’s example (although Muirfield and Royal St George’s have said they will review their policies). So, excuse me if I’m not sounding the trumpets to celebrate “historic” victory in the battle for gender equality.
A similar scenario is unfolding in the capital; Edinburgh University is set to review its historic relationship with the secretive and all-male Speculative Society, whose former members include the former Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home and businessman Sir Angus Grossart. The society has held black tie meetings in rooms in the Old College, home of the university’s law school for more than 200 years, but neither the passage of successive Equalities Acts, nor the signing of the Dignity and Respect Policy, committing the academic institution to ending discrimination on campus, prompted action. Not even an unprecedented legal case brought by Robbie the Pict, who claimed the judges hearing his appeal against his conviction for refusing to pay the Skye Bridge toll were biased because they had belonged to the Speculative Society, pricked any consciences. No, it has taken an expose by a student newspaper – and the threat of international humiliation – to force the university’s arm.
While it may seem unlikely any woman would want to be a member of a society whose members supposedly meet by candlelight and are forced to pay fines for rule-breaking in pounds, shillings and pence, the club’s danger lies in the influence it exerts over the make-up of society. For generations it has acted as an old boys’ network, effectively controlling who will reach the upper echelons of the establishment. Similarly, the Royal and Ancient (and other all-male golf clubs) are waterholes around which many power brokers gather, doing deals, and doling out promotions on a nod and a wink.
Scotland is not the only bastion of bigotry; there are around 11 all-male golf clubs left, six in the US, one in England and one in Canada. You would have to go some to beat Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Maryland, for sheer chutzpah. Said to have been founded after a male foursome from another club got stuck behind a slow-playing group of female golfers, women are allowed in the building by appointment only on Saturdays in December so they can buy their husbands presents at the club shop. Offers of honorary memberships were extended by the club to all new Supreme Court Justices until the appointment of the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, in 1981.
In other ways, though, we lag behind. The Speculative Society is similar to the infamous Skull and Bones Society at Yale University. But however anachronistic the US club remains, it opened its doors to female members in the early 90s, and now recruits an equal number of junior class men and women every year.
Still, just two years ago, when Gordon Brown made a speech calling for women to be allowed to join its ranks, the Royal and Ancient didn’t even dignify him with a reply. Today, it’s gearing up to change its policy. And so long as its members back the move and that, once admitted, women aren’t treated as second-class citizens, it is difficult to see how Muirfield and Royal Troon could resist the pressure to take similar action.
As for the Speculative Society, with some confusion over ownership of the rooms it frequents (some say they were handed over to the club in perpetuity), Edinburgh University may not be able to oust it from the Old College. But a thorough review and a public expression of disapproval of its practices would go some way towards addressing the impression given that the university cares little about discrimination taking place on its premises. It’s progress of a sort and it is to be welcomed. It’s just a shame it’s taken so long and been offered so grudgingly. «