In 2014, the chairman of the prestigious Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, London, carried out a consultation on the question of admitting ladies as members of the Club. The “e-letter” received 190 responses, and of those members who replied, 114 (60 per cent) were against the proposal. The Chairman, Anthony Layden, wrote in his report that “in general, those opposing change expressed themselves more strongly than those in favour.” This sentiment has come to represent the general modern view on these such establishments – outdated, outmoded, and utterly opposed to change of any form.
A closer look at some of the responses to the report is especially illuminating. Most tend towards a similar theme, an outcry against changing the status quo. I suppose that fits into the general allure of a gentleman’s club, the sense of tradition, the fantasy of a private space that does not change. Not every response to the motion was entirely savoury, however, and many were quite eye-opening. One member replied: “My experience of the club table at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, where one does unfortunately encounter lady members, is that their presence leads to very different and far less enjoyable themes of conversation.”
The problem with falling back upon “tradition” as an argument for an establishment’s continued existence, or the need for it in a modern society, is that quite often, the tradition upon which such an idea is based is born out of an era with a set of values and attitudes entirely non-compatible with our own. According to one member, the Club existed as a means through which its members could “retreat from the rigours of normal life”, clarifying that he considered women to be in the “normal-life category.” We could try and understand this were it not for the fact that in this instance, the club’s members seem to be retreating from the slow march of societal progression. It’s almost ironic, in fact, that in 2016 such clubs consider the acceptance of women to be progressive at a time in which we are all just starting to acknowledge the existence of trans and non-binary rights.
Are all-male clubs sexist? Yes, I strongly believe so, and reading some of the member testimonies from this instance only reinforced my opinion.
Are all same-sex institutions sexist? Are women-only gyms and bars sexist? That’s a slightly more interesting question. Historically, gentlemen’s clubs have existed to maintain the male grip on social politics and the general running of the country. Women were precluded from major discussions, and these clubs helped facilitate this. You only have to look at the powerful members’ list of institutions like the Garrick’s Club in central London to understand that this idea. unfortunately, still persists. Female-only institutions, by contrast, have only recently begun to fully emerge, and for an entirely different reason.
I have the utmost sympathy for women who, tired of the harassment and general treatment at regular gyms, flee to women-only gyms, where they can work out in peace without being disturbed. The idea of same-sex institutions seems intuitively sexist – they are, after all, fundamentally discriminating based on gender – but if we examine the motivations behind founding such institutions in this scenario, for example, the concept becomes a little more muddied. Is it sexist to want to escape harassment and sexism yourself? It seems a poor choice: stay and risk being the target of harassment, or go and be branded as sexist.
In an ideal world, hopefully a world fast approaching, individuals will not face gender-based discrimination of any kind. In that age, perhaps this question will be easier to discuss. I have an easy time branding gentlemen’s clubs as sexist because of the sorts of attitudes they tend to cultivate, and their historic role in the oppression of women.
The word ‘sexist’ is one that seems to get thrown around quite freely nowadays. There is an increasingly negative stigma attached to it, meaning that even before you see the context in which the word is being used, the very mention of it provokes a reaction from an audience. I am not denying that sexism still exists. The reality is, sadly, that you don’t have to look very hard to find sexism in our society. What’s even more depressing is that we live in an age where we seem to have mastered nearly everything else.
Gender-specific institutions, however, are more of a subjective affair. The fact that an institution accepts one gender over another does not make it inherently sexist. Of course there are institutions which are inherently sexist: ancient elitist golf clubs – such as Muirfield in East Lothian, which continues to deny women memberships – are backward and outdated, since there is no legitimate reason for their biased policy but a preference based on tradition. In cases such as these, sexism is being actively voted for.
However, I would contend that an overwhelming majority of gender specific institutions are not sexist, given that their function is not to openly display prejudice, but rather they are better suited to serving the needs of a particular gender. I doubt, for instance, that a ladies’ hairdressers would be considered sexist just because it does not offer services to men. The employees in that particular establishment are probably very skilled at working with women’s hair, and I doubt that men feel they are being singled out because of their gender. This is partly due to the fact that they could just walk into a men’s barber instead. This brings me to my next point.
Now I understand that 100 years ago single-sex institutions, such as Parliament, were largely created for male use, overtly demonstrating strong gender divisions. I’m pleased to say, however, that cases like this are on the decline. If our current government announced plans for male-only trains or a ban of all women entering the armed forces, for example, then we’d have a problem. As it is, though, the chances are that if you find an institution which is specific to one gender, then it is more than likely that there will exist a very similar institution, only it prioritises the other gender instead.
The example of single-sex schools illustrates this idea. I have heard it said that schools which only accept one gender are unacceptable as they are passively demonstrating sexism. However, this doesn’t make any sense at all. If it were the case that there was a blanket ban on one gender receiving an education, then we could talk about it in terms of sexism. As it stands, that is not the case! Gender specific schools are not preventing the opposite sex from going to school, given that roughly the same proportion of boys attend all boys’ schools as girls attend all girls’ schools. The existence of single-sex schooling is not the result of a plan to cause division, but of one to provide the best education for boys and girls with minimal distraction.
We can even observe gender specific institutions here in St Andrews. Let us look at sports clubs: it is impossible for a female to play for a male sports team, but I don’t think anyone would feel that this is ‘sexist’ because the equivalent female sports team is available instead. Perhaps it could even be argued that the parallel coexistence of the Kate Kennedy Club and the Lumsden Club presents a kind of balance rather than blatant sexism. I mean, if they took a leaf out of Donald’s book and starting making heinous comments about the other gender, then the situation would be different but, as it is, members of both genders have the opportunity to enter separate selective institutions, which doesn’t really pose a problem.
The debate surrounding sexism is one that has dragged on too long. The problem is, however, that the actual term itself is really more of a hindrance than a help. We are so ready to label things as sexist that we often lose sight of what the word actually means. Single-sex institutions are far from perfect, but the truth is once you’ve cleared your head of the connotations that come to mind when someone drops the s-bomb, you can see that there are actually very good reasons for why institutions adopt gender-specific policies.