Britain's Men-Only Clubs Have to Let In the Ladies

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Anwar Hussein Collection / Getty Images / Pool

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, checks out a member's tie during a St. Andrew's Day visit to the Caledonian Club to open its new wing

It was an unlikely venue for a civil rights sit-in. But on Oct. 1, Lady Antonia Fraser, the formidable Anglo-Irish author and widow of playwright Harold Pinter, walked into the Garrick Club — a plush, "gentlemen only" member's club in London's West End — and took a seat at the hallowed center table in the coffee room. Throughout its 179-year history, the table had been reserved for men. But there was nothing the members could do to stop Lady Antonia's defiance. Britain's new Equality Act — a law that prohibits establishments from discriminating based on gender — is forcing the country's male-dominated social clubs to overturn many of their cherished traditions.

London's oak-paneled, leather-chaired, jackets-and-ties-only gentlemen's clubs have long been a refuge for the country's ruling class. During the heyday of the British Empire, men from top universities were judged not only on their intellectual merit but also their "clubbability." In the past 30 years, however, as those who attended university during the social revolution of the 1960s came of age, many clubs have amended their policies. The Reform Club, where Phileas Fogg made his bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days, was one of the first of the prestigious men-only clubs to admit women, in 1981. United Oxford and Cambridge Club finally admitted women in 1996 — previously the club had been open only to male graduates of those venerated universities — and many others have since followed suit.

A small group of clubs, however, has continued to confer on women inferior status. Now the Equality Act is forcing that to change. The Garrick — which was established by dramatists in 1831 — previously required "lady guests" of male members to enter through a back staircase, barred them from the cocktail bar before 9 p.m. and encouraged them to eat in a room named after Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne, who left much of his estate to the club. It became a running joke among the members that women must eat in the "poo room." Thanks to the new law, the club has lifted these restrictions, to the chagrin of some of its members.

A former conservative member of Parliament has reportedly rallied an insurrection against the reforms, collecting enough signatures for a general meeting to debate a resolution "that cherishes the traditional role of the center table." He's unlikely to succeed. In a letter to all members, dated Oct. 20 and obtained by TIME, the club's chairman wrote that "it is axiomatic that the Club comply with the law" and warned members that the motion "may be damaging to the Club because it will inevitably lead to publicity which is unlikely to portray us favorably."

At the nearby Caledonian Club — set up 119 years ago as a meeting place for Scottish politicians and business leaders in London — the Equality Act led members to hold a general meeting in which, according to club secretary Ian Campbell, "everyone ended up in a bit of a sticky wicket" — which is to say, an awkward impasse. The members eventually decided that "Lady Associate Members" should be promoted to full members. Previously, women were required to drink in a floral drawing room, where they ordered drinks by ringing a bell to call the bartender in from the adjacent men-only bar. "Some were for the change, and some were 'agin it,' " Campbell says. "But I think everyone understood that this change was long in the works and inevitable."

Because of an idiosyncrasy in the law, single-sex establishments that do not allow those of the opposite gender on the premises — even as guests — can keep their exclusive status. The law kicks in only when one sex is given preferential treatment. That means some gentlemen-only clubs will not be required to tweak their rules to let in the ladies; others are considering complying with the legislation by entirely removing guest privileges to women.

But even in those clubs that end discriminatory practices, de facto segregation will likely persist. Since Lady Fraser's attempt at integration at the Garrick, only two other women have dared dine at the center table, according to an employee of the club. Even the chairman's letter in support of the changes stated that the club's committee "was of the view that in practice very few members were likely to bring lady guests to sit at the Centre Table." On a recent afternoon, I accompanied a woman to the Garrick for lunch. She was the only female guest on the premises, and each time she entered a room, many of the conversations fell into shocked silence. We dined in the poo room.

Supporters of men-only clubs have always argued that gender segregation is crucial for upholding decorum and British good manners, according to William Bortrick, executive and royal editor of Burke's Peerage and Gentry, a sort of Who's Who for the British, Irish and American aristocracy. "I suspect one of the reasons these clubs have such strict rules against women is, frankly, that they didn't want them to turn into brothels," he says. "The fear is that instead of bringing wives, the members would bring mistresses."

Even as they are forced to modernize, members-only clubs are increasingly becoming an anachronism. The landed aristocracy that once was their core constituency is thinning out. In the days of Cool Britannia and Tony Blair's New Labour a decade ago, power in Britain shifted from the hushed rooms of the older clubs to a new, more raucous breed of drinking clubs. The ruling class is now more likely to be found not sipping a claret or scotch at the ultra-private White's club or the Garrick but downing a chic cocktail at Zanzibar Club, Groucho Club, Soho House or any number of new, trendy coed drinking clubs.

Caledonian Club secretary Campbell says members of the club realized that abolishing gender inequality was an essential step to attracting the country's younger generation of forward-thinking elites — "our best hope to remain relevant." As Lita Khazaka, a 30-something female architect and member of the Caledonian, put it, "Getting young people involved in the club is crucial — and that can be hard to do if the club's policies are so old-fashioned that they cause embarrassment."