Two weekends ago, Saturday the 13th of April saw history being made: for the first time since its foundation in 1926, the Kate Kennedy Club included female club members in its famous procession. In fact, it was not until a year ago last month that the club voted to accept applications from female students. This from a club named after the niece of the founder of St. Salvator’s College – but we’ll go back to that one later. Meanwhile, elsewhere, Culture Secretary and Minister of Women and Equalities Maria Miller was quoted as calling on golf clubs to rethink their men-only membership policies. “With golf being a growing sport that women want to participate in,” she said, “I really think that clubs that take that attitude [of not allowing female members] should be thinking long and hard about where they go in the future. If they want to be successful … they should be reaching out to women and really looking how they can involve them.” One such club is the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, one of the world’s most famous and influential clubs. The Royal and Ancient has been in the news several times already because of its discriminatory membership rules; before Miller, it was former PM Gordon Brown who last summer said, referring to the club, “I think we have to think hard and long about issues of discrimination in our own country.”
Despite chronic protesting, the club seems determined to remain a boys’ club. Boys, not men: In a statement from last August, following the Augusta National Golf Club’s decision to invite Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as their first two female members, the Royal and Ancient said: “We congratulate Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore on their membership … [but] The rules of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews specify a male membership and this policy remains a matter for our members to determine.” Putting the ball to someone else’s green (semi-pun intended) is hardly a sign of maturity. Well, the ball is now once more in the Royal and Ancient’s green, and what will come next remains to be seen.
What could come next? An important question to ask ourselves is whether admitting a couple of women club members – like the Augusta, Georgia club did – will make a difference. There is a serious risk here of tokenism, of a small and empty gesture that is only meant to silence the opposition. Such seems to be the case with Augusta, whose reluctant decision to acknowledge gender-equality was largely viewed as a means to placate angry media outlets. Incidentally, the Augusta National admitted its first black member only in 1990, 57 years after one of the founders famously said: “As long as I’m alive, all golfers will be white and all caddies will be black.” Clearly, advice on equality should be looked for elsewhere.
Back in the Kingdom of Fife, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, should its esteemed members decide to make a change, would be wiser to open the gates to women rather than admit a carefully-selected few. So would the Kate Kennedy Club, by the way. The KKC’s modern foundation took place eight years after the UK suffragettes succeeded in obtaining the vote (although only for women over thirty who met minimum property qualifications; the general vote for all women over twenty-one wasn’t until 1928). But the ability to affect politics was not enough to get them admitted, it turns out, not for almost a century. I find it curious that naming the club after a woman was somehow acceptable. This is not so much tokenism as it is a subtle form of objectification: a bit like naming your boat after a beloved woman but not letting her sail it.
At any rate, the KKC I will give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are just having a rocky start, and within a few years the procession will show a more fitting representation of women – preferably one that mirrors their size in the population, which, is just over 50%. As for the Royal and Ancient, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Female golfers in St. Andrews can have their birdie putts yet, but not until some seriously sexist attitudes are let go.