Chitra Ramaswamy: We’ll have no women here thanks

One of Scotland’s last men-only clubs has shelved talks on letting females in, perpetuating a long history of subjugation, writes Chitra Ramaswamy

Vicechairman Mel Keenan, of the Royal Northern and University Club, which only allows women in if they have been signed in by a male member. Picture: Hemedia

A few years ago I decided to have a party to celebrate International Women’s Day and my birthday. A party for women only. It was to be an uncomplicated do with music, food, drink, laughter, dancing... none of that hen or ladies’ night stuff but the universal nonsense we like to get up to regardless of our age or gender.

I sent out invites and assumed my male friends wouldn’t give a toss. After all women have for centuries been excluded from every sphere of life bar the home. The doors, metaphorical and actual, of clubs, businesses, churches, and the worlds of sport, art, politics and culture have long been closed to us. What was one party in the context of a history of discrimination?

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How wrong I was. My male friends felt hurt, left out, angry, and misunderstood. What was the point of a women-only party? What did leaving men out – especially evolved, feminist men like them – have to do with International Women’s Day? Or 21st century feminism for that matter?

One even said to me: ‘how would you feel if I had an all white party and didn’t invite you?’ I told him that would be completely different. But how exactly? Why was one act of exclusion an example of racism and the other one of solidarity? I felt shocked, confused, and a bit stumped.

Last week this all came flooding back to me when one of Scotland’s last men-only clubs shelved talks on admitting female members.

Here was exclusion of the more traditional and expected kind. The Royal Northern and University Club in Aberdeen, founded more than 160 years ago, currently allows women through its doors only if they have been signed in by a male member.

Last year the club set up a committee to seek members’ views on women joining the institution. Apparently the ensuing debate caused “ungentlemanly discussions”, which sounds to me like a posh way of saying “dodgy sexist banter”. Anyway, the decision was made to put the vote on hold for at least three years.

Rather appropriately, it came in the same week as the maiden speech by the SNP’s Mhairi Black, a barnstorming example of a bold young woman speaking truth to power in that other bastion of white male privilege, the House of Commons.

The Aberdeen club and its 700 members now find themselves at the centre of a sexism row that has been replaying for decades.

On one side is the view that these archaic and sexist institutions – Victorian in age and outlook – hold no place in a modern society.

As a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: ”[We are] leading by example with a gender balanced Cabinet, one of only three in the developed world, a campaign for gender balance in boardrooms, increased childcare which benefits both mothers and fathers, and work to tackle gender stereotypes.” In the face of all this progress, she noted, “it is disappointing that examples such as this still exist”.

A similar response was voiced earlier this month when the Garrick, one of London’s most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, voted to safeguard its 184-year rule against female membership.

Some of the reasons the men gave for not wanting women members on the Garrick’s hallowed books spoke for themselves.

One said that his “experience of the club table at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, where one does unfortunately encounter lady members, is that their presence leads to very different and far less enjoyable themes of conversation”.

On the other side of the argument are those – women and men – who claim the issue no longer has anything to do with sexism. Of course men and women need their own spaces: why would we want to gatecrash each other?

Exclusively male spaces are no different to women’s groups, gay choirs or, indeed, my International Women’s Day party. Banning one kind of exclusion would only lead to the need to ban others.

This misses the crucial point, which is one of historical, social, and political context. Men-only spaces are not set up in the same way and for the same reason as spaces for women, or indeed any oppressed people. Women’s clubs tend to be safe spaces. Men’s clubs, historically, tend to be centres of influence: the centuries old dark wood-panelled rooms that one arrives at via the corridors of power.

They are the places where networks are formed and deals are made. They are the places where the establishment makes and reinforces itself. To continue to shut women out of these creaking old institutions – not that we necessarily want into them, mind – is to shut women out of all this, and more.

It is to close the door on equality. This is why when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews last year voted to admit female members for the first time in its 260-year history, it was widely seen as a step in the right direction.

Even David Cameron, former member of the men-only Bullingdon Club and White’s, where the Queen remains the only woman permitted to set foot over the door, said gentlemen’s clubs “look more to the past than they do to the future”.

None of this means that men can’t do their own thing, in their own company. It means that doing so should never perpetuate the long, dark history of excluding and subjugating women. This is how we’ve ended up in the ridiculous and unjust position where the 2010 Equalities Act bans clubs excluding people on the basis of race while continuing to permit the rejection of women.

No-one likes to be left out, but some are more left out than others. The men who didn’t get an invite to my International Women’s Day party weren’t used to the sore, indignant, and shame-infected feeling of exclusion. As white, straight, middle class men, they probably hadn’t experienced it much, if ever. Women, on the other hand, face closed doors every single day of their lives. Flinging a few open can only be a good thing.