Emma Cowing: Yachting set shows golf a fairer way

IT TAKES a certain type of arrogance to appoint someone as the patron of your organisation and then deny them entry because they don’t have a Y chromosome.
A cannon fires outside the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes to signal a passing yacht winning its class during Cowes Week. Picture: PAA cannon fires outside the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes to signal a passing yacht winning its class during Cowes Week. Picture: PA
A cannon fires outside the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes to signal a passing yacht winning its class during Cowes Week. Picture: PA

But that’s exactly what the Royal Yacht Squadron – the world’s most prestigious yacht club, did.

The club, which is 198 years old and based in Cowes, is for men only. Despite the fact that the Queen is its patron and Dame Ellen MacArthur (you know, the woman who sailed singled-handedly around the world and might know a thing or two about yachting) lives just down the road, the club does not allow the membership of women.

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At least, it didn’t until Sunday. In a move that has shocked the entire yachting community, the club quietly, unceremoniously and without fuss, voted to extend its membership to women. Apparently, the ballot by members did not receive one vote in opposition to the move.

Of course, the Royal Yacht Squadron will only consider a certain type of woman as member, in the same way that it will only consider certain types of men to join its hallowed ranks. Profession, social standing and wealth are also believed to be considered in membership applications, and the joining fee alone is around £1,800, with annual membership of a further several thousand pounds. It does, I must say, call to mind the famous Groucho Marx quote about clubs and membership and not wanting to join, thanks very much all the same.

But the important thing is that women may now, if they choose, apply for membership. It’s a choice they have never had before, and one that is significant, even if one of the first female candidates under consideration is apparently Princess Anne, someone I’m not sure we could reasonably say has lived a life of oppression.

Perhaps then, someone at the Royal Yacht Squadron should give Muirfield a buzz.

Muirfield golf club (the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers), which hosted the Open Championship in July, received a fair amount of negative publicity over its steadfastness in refusing to allow women members, something which Alex Salmond – never one to miss a PR opportunity – made a stand against by boycotting the championship.

While some may question Salmond’s reasons for announcing his boycott, he nevertheless drew some much-needed attention to the issue, one the club squirmed under, in the way a small boy with his finger up his nose might do if caught in the act. Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient, the sport’s governing body, petulantly declared that male-only clubs are “for some people a way of life that they rather like”. By “some people” I expect he means “some men”, since women have no choice in this “way of life”.

He also drew a distinct line in the sand between not allowing women members and what he called “other forms of discrimination” – by which I can only assume he means that, while it is not OK to discriminate against racial minorities, it is perfectly fine to discriminate against women. And if you disagree with me, substitute the words “male-only club” for “whites-only club” and then re-read the line about “a way of life”.

Of course, Dawson will tell you there are female-only golf clubs in Britain. He’s right, there are. They were set up because women who wanted to play golf were denied access to so many male-only clubs, they set their own clubs just so they could play. Their very existence was borne out of the sort of discrimination that Dawson believes is a “way of life”.

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I’m sure there are some men out there who prefer to play golf with a crowd of men, just as I’m sure there are women who probably enjoy a round of the game in female company. Why that has to end because male clubs, such as Muirfield, start to admit female members I am unclear on. No-one is forcing anyone to play golf with someone they don’t want to.

What this is about, however, is choice. By voting on Sunday to allow women members, the Royal Yacht Squadron sent a strong message to the world that they regard women as equals, and believe they should have the choice to join if they want to. As one of the hosts of the Open, a flagship event based in Scotland that showcases who we are to the world, doesn’t Muirfield have a duty to do the same?