On September 18th, a yes vote rang out across Scotland, but it wasn’t in response to the heated referendum question. This particular vote saw 85% of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club members, three-quarters of whom cast their ballots, declaring that men and women are in fact better together and thus ending 260 years of male-only membership to the club. But what exactly does this decision mean and what consequences can we expect from it?
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club views itself as the spiritual home of golf and membership into the Golf Club grants access to the clubhouse where golfers can dine after a round on the green. University principal Louise Richardson had long complained that, aside from its symbolic importance, this arcane tradition was preventing her from conducting university business directly with guests wanting to be wined and dined at the famous clubhouse. However, though the decision holds high symbolic value in the struggle for great equality in the stereotypically male-dominated golf society, its significance is undermined by several mitigating factors.
For one, the Royal and Ancient governing body, which separated from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 2004, is the one that actually runs the British Open and is thus the true source of power in the game; the Royal and Ancient still has 3 male-exclusive clubs in its British Open rotation: Muirfield, Royal St. George’s, and Royal Troon. Thus, despite the inclusion of women in the clubhouse in St Andrew’s, the body still actively fosters openly discriminatory practices elsewhere; therefore, though last week’s decision is a step in the right direction, the fight is far from over, and there are many more battles to be won.
Secondly, it can be argued that the decision was made more for economic reasons than a general change in the mentality of the Royal and Ancient club members; merely a year before the vote was taken, the Chief Executive of the Royal and Ancient, Peter Dawson, was strongly defending what he saw was just a way of life, a right of men to play golf on Saturday mornings with their “chums.” His quick change of heart may have something to do with British Open sponsor HSBC expressing doubts over its ability to support competitions at venues with discriminatory policies. With the game finally beginning to embrace the 21st century, and with marquee players like Rory McIlroy coming out in support of gender equality, it has become increasingly difficult to justify anachronistic, discriminatory traditions. Doing otherwise would simply be a matter of bad business.
Now, I don’t discredit the entire club or question the motives of each member who voted. Hopefully, they really are just acknowledging that golf is a sport that women are as equally passionate as men about, and that they deserve a role in the growth and development of the game. I’m merely pointing out that changing one’s official policy and really shifting one’s mindset are not one and the same. True acceptance for Richardson and other women at the Royal and Ancient may still be years away.
I also realise that some people think society nowadays is unfairly demonising gender-restrictive organisations, critics pointing out that all-girls schools, gentlemen’s clubs, and even the not-quite University of St Andrew’s affiliated Lumsden Club of Kate Middleton fame are all examples of organisations allowed to discriminate against applicants on the basis of gender.
I’d argue that judgment on these types of organisations should depend on their symbolic implications; restricting membership to a club like the Royal and Ancient makes a detrimental statement about the role of women in the sport. Add to that the restriction on their ability to enter a physical establishment, the clubhouse, and you have flashbacks to the times when men would sit around talking politics and business while their wives dined elsewhere, thought too intellectually inferior to participate in such important discussions.
Finally, simply allowing women to become members doesn’t mean that the end for gender-based discrimination in golf or St Andrews. It was a symbolic gesture necessitated by Richardson’s – a high-profile member of the academic elite – consistent public pressuring. Selection for membership remains a highly prestigious honour, and it’s highly unlikely that more than a trickle of women will follow her through the Clubhouse’s doors as full members.
Still, as much as one woman here or there is not going to be enough to turn the tides, it is a foot in the door and a wedge other women can stand behind and push; it’s an acknowledgement that our world is changing and that our institutions – no matter how venerable- and their rules must change with it.