In defence of Muirfield, Gentleman’s Clubs,
and the Women’s Institute

Unless you’re living under a rock you will have heard that Muirfield, home to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, last week voted to maintain its ban on female members. Women are allowed to play the course as guests, but are not allowed to become members.

Suddenly, a lot of people who have never previously showed any interest in golf care an awful lot about the terms a private organisation – first established in 1744 – sets for its membership. Feminists have argued that this decisions shows the patriarchy is alive and kicking, limiting women’s access to public spaces and shoring up male privilege.

One of them, Laura Bates, argued that women only spaces are completely different to Muirfield – they mostly exist because of the patriarchy too, necessary because women are not safe in mixed company. She (again) confuses issues around a few bad men and men as a whole. And spends no time assessing why so many women like women only sessions at gyms and swimming pools.

Anecdotally, all of the women I know who like this women-only provision do so because the dynamic in a single gendered space versus a mixed gender space is different. They don’t choose it because they are worried about being assaulted – they choose it because they don’t want men looking at their bodies while they sweat. And no. That’s not a consequences of patriarchy – it’s a consequence of vanity and the natural aspiration to look attractive.

While women-only spaces are accepted as normal, because women sometimes enjoy the company of other women – from swimming sessions to girls’ nights out and the WI – men-only spaces continually come under assault.

None more so than men-only gentleman’s clubs. Those historic organisations are largely based in London’s clubland, where men can drink, dine and socialise. Like Muirfield and the WI, but unlike women-only sessions as gyms and the like, access to gentleman’s clubs is open to women too; as guests of male members.

Our own Paul Nizinskyj, CfL’s Creative Director, is a member of a men-only club – the Savile Club. He tells me is apathetic to any change in policy and would not oppose women becoming members, but I beg to differ.

The Savile Club is a wonderful place. Located in Brook Street, Mayfair, it is a beautiful old town house with lavish, traditional fixtures and fittings. You can see the decor of its fabulous Ball Room in the pictures from our Magna Carta Dinner last year.

The atmosphere is something you cannot see in photographs. But I know it because – shock, horror – I have attended as a guest of Mr Nizinskyj on multiple occasions. There is a relaxed, convivial, friendly atmosphere of a kind that is difficult to describe. I have never found a mixed space with the same feel (including those historic London clubs that admit both men and women as members), and I can understand why members would fear the impact of a change in policy. In a campaign to change the policy at the Savile Club, I would oppose it.

I draw three lessons from this:

  • Clubs which only allow male members, but also allow women as guests, have a different feel to other mixed spaces. The fact that the club is theirs – and women are guests – affects the culture and atmosphere. In the same way that women only space have their own distinct culture and atmosphere, too.
  • Other mixed spaces, where men and women are on an equal footing, do not have the same atmosphere. If the feel of a clearly male dominated space is to clearly different to other public spaces, it seems clear to me that ‘the patriarchy’, where men supposedly dominate everything, is actually not a thing.
  • Single gender spaces are valuable. Sometimes men like to be with just men. And sometimes women like to be with just women – not because of patriarchy, oppression, or whatever, but because of commonality and sisterhood.

But whether you agree with these conclusions or not, there is one even more important point: freedom of association must always be protected. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes regulate the clubs and societies citizens may join, dictating entry criteria, meeting places and topics discussed. Whether golf, drinking, swimming or politics, we must always defend the right to choose your own company.

Emily is the Chairman of Conservatives for Liberty. Follow her on Twitter: @ThinkEmily

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty