Whiff of change upsets somnolent men's clubs in London

July 19, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- They tell a story here about two members of a London men's club who had not spoken to each other in 20 years until one of them, reading the obituaries in The Times one day, lowered his paper and said to the other:

"I see you just buried your wife."

"Yes. Had to. Dead, you know."

It could have been the Travelers Club, whose peculiar tradition is that its members rarely talk to each other. Or it might have been White's, London's oldest club (established 1693), once described as a place where "the clock has stopped at a time when there was no such thing as a Labor Party."

Whichever, the message within the story is not that misogyny rules the minds of the members of London's men's clubs so much as a horrific fear of change of any sort.

Now, once again, the specter of change looms, if not all that threateningly. In fact, in one quarter it has already been batted down, and in another where it had been sighted, it is not, upon closer inspection, to be found. These were the Garrick and Athenaeum.

The Garrick recently rejected a motion to admit women. The vote was an emphatic 363 to 94.

The Garrick was founded in 1831 for actors mainly, who then were not welcome in polite society. Journalists and judges are also among its members, and luminaries like the writer Kingsley Amis. A place of elephantine egos, it was named after David Garrick, a friend of the sage Samuel Johnson, who once wrote of "the endearing elegance of female friendship."

Dr. Johnson was clubbable, and he admired that quality of easy sociability in other men. Might women also be clubbable? The question probably never entered his head.

About five years ago the Athenaeum -- the brainiest club in London -- voted not to admit women. But lately there have been rumors around town that a new vote was contemplated. A club spokesman, asked if this were so, replied unequivocally, "No, sir."

Some small progress in this matter has been reported, however. The United Oxford and Cambridge Club, which admits men accepted to those universities, approved a resolution to permit, for the first time in the club's history, a postal ballot on the same question to which the Garrick responded so negatively, and the Athenaeum declines to reconsider.

Will women eventually be admitted to the United Oxford and Cambridge Club, now that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the graduates of those universities are female?

Don't bet on it.

There are about 40 traditional gentlemen's clubs still open in London, down from nearly 200 at the turn of the century. Though many are older, most were established in the early part of the 19th century in the atmosphere of peace that followed the final defeat of Napoleon and the calming of revolutionary France.

They were men's clubs from the start. Most of those that remain still are, but not all. The Reform Club -- best known, perhaps, for Jules Verne's fictional Phileas Fogg, who set out from there on his trip to circle the world in 80 days, on a bet -- has admitted women for over a decade.

The National Liberal Club, founded by Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, and known for the number and variety of pictures of its founder, also has women members.

The Carlton Club, a club for Conservative Party members, and known for the number and sumptuousness of its lavatories, has only one: the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It is still considered an all-male club.

"Clubland," wrote P. G. Wodehouse, "is a purely English invention," kind of a paradise where male prerogatives and perspectives are celebrated. But the modern world is intruding. As the numbers of women increase in the traditional professions from which the clubs recruit, the law, medicine, journalism, the ideal of sexual exclusiveness becomes less acceptable to society at large, if not to the clubs themselves.

Women argue here, as they do in the United States, that by being kept out of the clubs, they are denied opportunities to FTC meet and socialize with men in the upper levels of their chosen professions, men who might encourage blossoming careers.

The clubs belittle these arguments. Members frequently describe their own clubs as silly, anachronistic, fusty, as if by such self-ridicule to ask who would want to be members of such boring places. Some see this as a tactic, a trivialization of the aspiration, which in turn trivializes the aspirant, and thereby the cause.

Thus, the writer Frank Muir was quoted recently on his club, the Garrick: "I can't imagine why women would ever want to join. It's full of boring old men. There's an extraordinary myth of power of clubs if you are not in them."

But a lot of people regard the clubs as more important than their members let on. They see attempts to penetrate them by women as symptomatic of a struggle wider than the specific dispute at hand.

Robert Fogarty thinks the clubs are important within the context of Britain. "They are showcases for people's social and political attitudes, kind of another social cement."

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