In 1912, the British golf writer Herbert Leach wrote about a female incursion on to the Royal Dornoch golf course with impressive condescension. Some suffragettes had forced their way on to the 10th green where the prime minister, HH Asquith, and home secretary, Reginald McKenna, were putting, and waylaid them with idle chitter-chatter (powerful rhetoric). “It is somewhat peculiar that they should wage war upon golf considering that it has become the favourite recreation of their own sex,” Leach mused loftily. “But there it is: one more example of the unreasonableness of women.”
Leach died long ago, but his spirit stalks the earth in the bodies of those Muirfield club members who last week voted once again not to accept women. In a letter recommending a No vote, campaigners insisted it would take “a very special lady golfer to be able to do all the things that are expected of them” and that “the ladies’ membership as a whole may not meet this standard”.
One hundred and fourteen years separate these observations, but there is no perceptible shift in tone. It is as if the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers has been plucked from the Edwardian era and preserved in aspic to teach future generations about old-fashioned mores. Learning about its quaint practices is like stumbling on a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book (“First catch your hare”) or Manners For Women (“There is no greater ornament to conversation than the ripple of silvery notes that forms the perfect laugh”) tucked away at the back of an attic.
Sadly, though, the Muirfield members are real, live 21st century men, with wives and daughters; pillars of their East Lothian communities who, presumably, not so long ago, held high-powered jobs . To hear them talk about the female players holding up “foursomes and speedy play” – oblivious to their own bigotry and the glaring double entendre – is simultaneously shocking and hilarious. Ditto 85-year-old commentator Peter Alliss’s remark that women who want to play the Muirfield course should probably marry a member.
If the club was as erotically charged as the “foursome” phrase suggests, I suspect women would long ago have battered down the doors and forced their way in, but of course it’s not. It’s stuffy and insular, and so change-averse the thought of luncheon being delayed by a couple of minutes is enough to bring on a stroke. According to Alliss, those women, who are, by dint of their marital status, allowed to hang out in the drawing room, are so submissive they baulk at the prospect of their husbands having to pay thousands of pounds for their subscription. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place to which a feminist crusader would fight tooth and nail to gain access.
At the same time, Muirfield is one of the best courses in the country, and there’s a principle at stake, so it was good to hear Nicola Sturgeon describe the decision as “indefensible”, and the R&A confirm the club would no longer be allowed to hold the Open, worth an estimated £65m to the local economy.
Muirfield is an affront to a country with a female First Minster, a female Lord Justice Clerk, and a female Solicitor General, but it is not the only club not to accept women members; the same is true of Troon – where this year’s Open is being held – Royal St George’s in Kent, and several venues in the US. Even in those places where women are allowed to join, there may still be residual sexism, with the men holding on to the reins of power and women’s access limited to certain times of the day.
Any publicity which piles on the pressure for change at Muirfield and Troon ought to be welcomed. And yet, there has been something disproportionate, almost hypocritical, about the way in which the story has been covered in the UK and across the world. It is almost as if, by focusing on these odd hang-overs from another era, we can pass off gender inequality as a blip, an aberration confined to a strange Scottish outpost, as opposed to a feature of everyday life.
As a journalist, of course, I understand the appeal of the Muirfield tale. But how come the world can whip up a storm of protest when a private golf club of 648 members outlaws women, but barely raises an eyebrow when a G20 summit is a sea of grey suits ? Why is it absurd that the wives of the Muirfield members are forced to drink tea together while their husbands try for six under-par on the course, but par for the course when the wives of world leaders are to go shopping while their husbands shape history?
Pedants will say there is a difference; Muirfield has taken a conscious decision, while external factors are responsible for keeping women from high office elsewhere. But the golfing scandal has been met with an unbecoming smugness, both from the R&A, which only voted to allow women members under duress in 2014, and from the media which is not known for leading the way on gender equality.
Embodying these double standards was Ruth Davidson. Last month, the Scottish Conservative leader pledged to boycott the Open at Troon as long as the ban on women members remained in place and after the vote she sent out a tweet mocking Alliss’s remark. Did she think if she made enough noise about sexism in golf, we wouldn’t notice her predominantly male shadow cabinet (9-2, including her)? Or that we’d forget the reason she had so few to choose from is that only 19 per cent of Tory candidates were women, and one regional list – the Highlands and Islands – was male-only?
The problem with the all the fuss over Muirfield is it’s a distraction. The club’s decision is so obviously wrong-headed that criticising it is an easy way for the likes of David Cameron to assert some kind of feminist credentials. But, hey, political leaders of today: guess what? In 2016, it’s no longer enough merely to diss a bunch of old men who are already heading for extinction; or to hold the radical opinion that women are not too slow and vapid to share a space with the blokes.
Rather, you must regard them as assets in your cabinet and your board room and your newsrooms – and pull out all the stops to remove the obstacles society has thrown up to prevent them getting there. Anything less is just cynical posturing.