Once again the Garrick Club is under fire for its failure to admit women as members. This time a lingerie entrepreneur called Emily Bendell has given the club 28 days to agree to admit women or she will seek a court ruling that the club is acting unlawfully under section 29 of the Equality Act 2020 in discriminating against them. Her case will doubtless be contested by the club. Whatever happens, it will make a lively story.

It always amazes me how much media attention is paid to the Garrick, where I have been a member for 43 years. Other men’s clubs in London manage to keep their internal affairs out of the headlines, even though they also exclude women from membership. These include White’s, Brooks’s, Pratt’s and the Travellers’ club, all of which, I would say, include among their membership many more powerful establishment movers and shakers than the Garrick.

I doubt if Ms Bendell will win her case, but if she did it could have serious, unintended consequences for women. If the Garrick is found guilty of discrimination in excluding women, then all women’s clubs, of which a number have sprung up in recent years, even the WI, might also be banned for excluding men. So, rather than helping the cause of women, which she proclaims, Ms Bedell could stop hundreds of women doing what they want to do - meet other women to talk business or anything else – without the presence of men. Gay clubs might also suffer.

Ms Bendell says her aim is to become a member of the Garrick because she is “a supporter and lover of the arts” and wants to make “business connections” - and she doesn’t see why she can’t be a member just because she is a woman. She doesn’t seem to know that the Garrick contains relatively few businessmen, and they are mostly long retired.

Nor that the club forbids business discussions on the premises and doesn’t allow any papers to be produced. As a female journalist wrote the other day: “Most members haven’t the faintest idea what networking is.” Ms Bendell strikes me as rather naïve.
I am not concerned about the Garrick admitting women members – I am wholly in favour of that and have voted accordingly in the two polls held to date. But even if the rule was changed, she couldn’t become a Garrick member just by applying for it. She would need a proposer and a seconder and enough written support from other members to convince the membership committee to recommend her. To put it mildly, Garrick members are unlikely to welcome someone who has attacked the club in this way. She might fall foul of one of the main tenets of the club’s founders that “it would be better to reject ten unobjectionable men than to admit one bore.” There is also a seven-year waiting list.

Ms Bendell is spoiled for choice among clubs already if she wants to make connections in business or the arts. She could join the Groucho Club or Soho House, and in that long stretch of clubs along Pall Mall the Travellers is the only one that doesn’t admit women as members. She could seek membership of the Athanaeum, the Reform Club, the RAC and the Oxford and Cambridge clubs. If she wants to meet people from the arts, she could join the Arts Club or the Chelsea Arts Club.

The Garrick does not harbour a political or social elite. It mostly consists of actors, publishers, lawyers and journalists – all of which were professions practised close to Covent Garden when the club was founded in 1831. Shaftesbury Avenue theatres, the law courts, Fleet Street and the offices of publishers were all within walking distance from the club for lunch or supper. All but the theatre were then almost exclusively male professions. The membership has widened a bit to include, among others, a football manager and a rock star.

Other so-called “gentlemen’s clubs” have admitted women over recent years – not out of an ethical sense of fairness and equality or a yearning for a female presence – but for commercial reasons. They needed the money that opening up the club to women members would bring. The Garrick has not had this commercial pressure, mainly because it received a huge chunk of money under its bequest from A.A.Milne, a former member, when the rights to Winnie the Pooh were sold to Disney.

Nonetheless, there has been persistent internal pressure from members to change the rules to admit women. I recall the first occasion, in 1991, because so many members turned up in the club that there was no room for them all in one room. Eventually one member stood up and said; “If you like, you can use my theatre, which is just round the corner. Just give me half an hour to put the lights and heating on.” After the motion had been lost, Melvyn Bragg and I were interviewed in the street by a television crew and said we had voted to admit women and were sure it would happen eventually. When I got home my then wife said: “I see you said on TV that you were in favour of admitting women to the Garrick, even though you knew you would lose the vote, thereby preserving both your comfort and your liberal reputation.” Ouch!

Five years ago, there was another debate, also in a theatre, and this time just over half the membership voted in favour of admitting women. Unfortunately, it requires a two-thirds majority to change the club’s rules, so the status quo has remained. In fact, the campaigners for admitting women have not ceased in their efforts to get the rules changed. It is quite likely that another vote would have been called for this year or next if the Covid pandemic had not intervened. And now Ms Bendell’s legal approach has put the likelihood of a vote back even further.

I have been struck by the sympathetic way in which the Garrick has been treated in newspaper reports of Ms Bendell’s challenge. The gist has been, even from avowed feminists, that the old codgers are doing no harm and should be left in peace. Much has been made of the fact that female guests at the club are treated with great courtesy by the staff and by members. There is only one room in the club where they cannot go – the members-only enclave under the stairs. My wife and I enjoy staying at the club when we are in London.

Many years ago, soon after I joined the club, I took my then young family for Sunday lunch at the Garrick (sadly, a facility no longer available.) I will always remember a letter my eldest daughter, then about 13, sent me afterwards: “ Dear Daddy, I was shocked to learn that you belong to a club that doesn’t allow women to join just because they are women. But thank you for the lunch.” I felt rather ashamed – and still do a bit, though I would rather that the club made its own decision rather than be forced into it by a lady who sells lingerie.