Jane Bradley: Take no pride in prejudice, Muirfield

Muirfield is right to value its traditions '“ except those rooted in the belief that women are inferior, writes Jane Bradley

Men play golf at Muirfield Golf Club where they rejected the decision on women as members. Picture: Getty

It may not have got the same publicity, but, just like Muirfield Golf Club, Scotsman Towers was once the centre of a major sexism row.

One afternoon, a couple of years ago now, a female colleague decided to organise a “girls’ night out” for the women working in the newsroom.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

One male reporter, who I’m going to refer to as Bob to preserve both his anonymity and my own future office harmony, was incensed.

“Not invited?” he bellowed. “Men are not invited? What kind of sexist world are we living in?”

While I quite liked the idea of a night sipping Prosecco with the girls from the office, I could see he had a point. If he, or any of the other men in our (fairly gender balanced) newsroom had decided to hold a male-only visit to a strip club, or a boys’ golf tournament, we would have been cross. Angry even. Possibly apoplectic with rage. Like Bob.

Muirfield Golf Club this week felt the wrath of the world – and industry grandaddy the Royal and Ancient Golf Club – on its shoulders when its members failed to vote in a proposed ruled change to allow women to play its hallowed greens.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon came out strongly against Muirfield, branding the decision “wrong and indefensible”, while the R&A, which only allowed female members itself 18 months ago, warned that it would no longer permit golf clubs that ban women to host the Open Championship.

A major smack in the face – both socially and economically speaking – for East Lothian’s fusty golf community leaders, who were, they claimed in a letter to members, merely concerned that admitting women may disrupt lunch arrangements and that the club’s “foursomes and speedy play would be endangered”.

Their words were unacceptable, stuck in the Dark Ages, offensive, patronising and downright sexist.

In fact, in other walks of life, sexual discrimination is quite positively encouraged.

Gyms, for example. National chain Curves, as well as independent places like Edinburgh’s Fitness Chicks, are quite happily allowed to be women-only, on the assumed basis that some females feel intimidated by the idea of walking into a gym full of sweaty men pumping iron.

Single sex schools, while possibly a dying breed, are regularly lauded by education experts as beneficial to pupils’ achievements.

Although now a taboo subject in my office for fear of sending Bob into an early grave, “girls’ nights out” or even “boys’ weekends away” are phrases in common parlance.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, there is a recently formed group called Edinburgh Gossip Girls which is, as its name suggests, aimed at women living in the Edinburgh area. While the name alone makes me want to chew off my own elbow, it has proved incredibly popular among the female population of the Capital.

It acts as a recommendations site, a for sale board, an outlet for sharing property porn and for asking for advice on babies’ rashes. Not as salacious in real life as its title suggests, but for some reason, it has nearly 5,000 (female) members and a waiting list.

Why is Edinburgh Gossip Girls allowed to exist in its current form, yet Muirfield Golf Club is not? Why are female-only golf clubs such as Lundin Ladies in Fife allowed to operate without a quibble?

Indeed, if any other criteria were used to discriminate – perhaps by race or disability – it would be categorically unacceptable. As it should be.

Yet the reason that these single sex organisations, which do technically discriminate, do not face the same public opposition is simple: most do not do so because they believe that the other sex is inferior. Agree with it or not, they do so because they believe that something works better when men and women do it separately.

The underlying argument for female-only gyms is that the situation is quite the opposite of arrogance. Men in gyms are regarded as stronger, bigger, more powerful than most women. In short, women think men are better at working out at gyms than they are. It is not discrimination – it is an inferiority complex.

Another moot point is that few of these organisations expressly ban the opposite sex: they merely offer a service which is not likely to be attractive to them.

Curves says it is “designed for women” but nowhere on its website claims it would actually turn away a male gym-goer.

The Edinburgh Gossip Girls group does not expressly ban men: it is just unlikely than many people of the masculine persuasion want to be a fully signed-up “gossip girl” – or to spend their time discussing nappy rash.

Even most single sex schools have begun to open their doors to the other gender further up the school – or have teamed up with schools of the other sex for social events to give a more well-rounded experience to their pupils. They also segregate, they do not discriminate: an important difference.

Muirfield, on the other hand, has made it quite clear that it believes women to be sub-standard – in almost every way. The sporting skills of “lady golfers” would not be up to scratch, slowing down play. It would, the men claimed, take a “very special lady golfer to be able to do all the things that are expected of them”.

As a woman, it is impossible to take Muirfield’s decision any other way than with huge offence. I can’t golf, it is true. A “fourball”, whatever that is, would likely take me a fortnight to complete. And I probably would be far more rowdy over lunch than would be acceptable for a Muirfield member. I wouldn’t want me to join, either.

Yet those women who would want to join an institution such as Muirfield – God help them – are not women like me: they are golfers who, like the men who frequent Muirfield, value a civilised place to have a bite to eat after a game. They should be welcomed, not shunned.

Even if Muirfield ultimately reneges on its decision, it will be accused of doing so not because it wants to embrace modernity, but because it faces losing out on hosting one of the sport’s most prestigious events.

And that is a sad situation for one of Scotland’s most historic sporting institutions. Muirfield is not wrong to want to retain its tradition, its social atmosphere or its high golfing standards.

But it is wrong to do so because of a deep-rooted prejudice against women.