Earlier in the month, Zoe Williams of The Guardian examined a growing phenomenon in the UK and in London in particular: the rise of single-sex private members clubs catering for the fairer sex, a happening that is not without its detractors.
For many decades, most have decried the elitism and obvious discrimination of private members clubs, particularly those that discriminate on the basis of gender. The next most obvious point, even where the sex-segregation is lifted as a matter of policy, that the elitism of such clubs continues on the basis of ability to pay for membership (or what the William’s article doesn’t mention: the policy amongst many private members clubs of requiring a nomination from an existing member in order to join).
In Ireland, there are only a tiny number of clubs, mostly catering to closed, segregated (and almost entirely male) memberships. I suspect that their role was largely displaced by that other great bastion of men-onliness (and again not discussed by Williams, though it is, and remains, an extremely powerful bastion of gender-based segregation: sports clubs). Portmarnock golf club continues a policy, upheld by the Supreme Court despite many efforts, of discrimination against women.
So is starting our own single-sex (or more commonly “men as guests”) clubs the answer? The suggestion seems to be that the very existence of such clubs is in order to preserve the privilege of an elite, so simply removing gender-based discrimination only serves to remove one element of the societal pressures that preserve pockets of power by allowing individuals or groups to exclude or include selected individuals or groups into corridors of power. Money remains the most obvious factor: Williams points out in her article that there is an air of exclusivity, of being uncommon, even among the newer women’s clubs.
I did a little research into the phenomenon elsewhere in the world and was surprised to discover that, not only are women’s private members clubs institutions in the USA, they have existed for over a century in order to cater for the needs of powerful women in US society. Two stood out, both New York based: the Colony Club, which houses dining rooms, a ballroom, a swimming pool, a spa, squash courts and even a kennel for leaving your beloved pets, and the Belizean Grove, which is mostly patronised by women in diplomatic services and politics. There is little more though, for many years, in central London, the Glass Bar, a small Tardis-like building in front of Euston Station, has been a private members club for ladies who prefer other ladies for a good many years, and has a very easy going and simple membership scheme which is highly accessible. The kindness of those who run this ubiquitous little oasis of calm cannot be understated, as I discovered in 2002 while living in London.
What’s more interesting in William’s research is the open willingness to cater for women who might be interested in such institutions in order to well, further their relationships with other women on a more than just platonic basis. So it is openly admitted that some of the clubs exist for more than just the purposes of enabling women to enjoy a few drinks out without being constantly hit on by men: but surely if that is the case then maybe there is a need for a change in what is acceptable in “normal” social institutions?
For example, I was quite delighted to discover, in San Francisco 4 years ago, that the bar attached to my hotel was popular with slightly older single straight ladies, who would prop up the bar and chat away with other single straight ladies, while enjoying a drink. Exactly the kind of thing that hundreds of thousands of men here in Ireland take for granted when “going to the pub” – that you don’t need to bring several friends as protection, that drinking alone is not an invitation for amorous men, that you can actually socialise in a bar. Do we really have to create expensive, exclusive members-only institutions for this purpose?
I definitely welcome the option of a members club catering for ladies, but I certainly do think we need to look at why they feel a need to exist in the first place before embracing them as the way forward.