Rachel Johnson: Forget the Garrick, women — single-sex spaces matter


Rachel Johnson: Forget the Garrick, women — single-sex spaces matter

Achtung! It is time the capital dragged its appalled gaze from the chaos on Mein Campus in the US to the crisis in London’s Clubland. For an historic vote in the Garrick Club, which could roll the pitch for the full admission of women after a mere 200 years of blissful uninterrupted chapdom, is almost upon us.

On Tuesday, following some jiggery-pokery and elastic re-definition of what “he” means in law (it can also mean “she”, it turns out) a mere majority vote will be needed to determine the august club’s possibly co-ed future.

If the pro-women lobby wins, this will be put to a further taste-test of palatability at the general committee meeting. The composition of this 24-man committee changes in the summer, and if this results in a majority of crusty diehards, they then might mulishly overturn the vote and revert to the status quo ante — i.e. if the Garrick really, really wants women members, this has to be the decision of a full two-thirds of the membership. Complicated, and quite boring so far, I know, but it gets livelier.

In a shock development yesterday, the pop star Sting, a member since 2023, said in a letter that he’ll resign if women can’t join. This was undersigned by a distinguished host of luvvies, actors, directors and whatevers, leading many to ask: if Sting and co objected so fiercely to the existence of the men-only club… why on earth did they join one in the first place?

Meanwhile, many continuity-Garrick ultras have threatened privately that they will consign their stained salmon-and-cucumber club ties to the back of the wardrobe in disgust if the female intifada of gender equality activists does manage to “liberate” the Garrick from the patriarchy. A group of barristers even set up an encampment outside the club in March, in their full legal regalia of wig and gown, holding up angry signs saying, “Exclusionary clubs belong in the past!” and “Gender Equality is Not Optional”.

As the Left-wing Canary wrote of the protest: “The Garrick Club had at least 14 senior male judges as members (before four resigned). This underscores the institutionalised misogyny that exists within the justice system — and may well help foment it. But this male-only environment is also a microcosm of the larger toxic patriarchy that society, both in the UK and globally, still operates under.”

During the encampment, the club barricaded the Garrick St entrance and members had to come and go via the back door. Talk about aux armes, citoyens! What did I tell you — Clubland makes Columbia University look like a teddy bears’ picnic.

“Either way, members will resign,” one member chuntered yesterday. “Do I give a f*** whether Sting resigns if women aren’t admitted? No. He’s only been a member for a year! The cheek of it!”

Look, I don’t care if Sting resigns, either. And I accept the general gripe that the Garrick is one of the last bastions of all-male privilege. Have you seen the list of members? It’s an eye-popping roll-call of the establishment and the elite. Of course it is. But what’s far more important than whether a few high-profile women — like the proposed likes of Cathy Newman and Mary Beard — can or cannot become members of an elite London club (if they manage not to be blackballed by four committee members, which is a big if) is this.

The preservation of female-only spaces is, for me, a far bigger issue than a few women being denied access to one London club

Recently the NHS belatedly acknowledged that biological sex exists, and men cannot demand access to women-only spaces, so women will not, for example, have to share wards with those of the opposite biological sex. The preservation of female-only spaces is, for me, a far bigger issue than a few women being denied access to one London club.

How can The Women’s Institute legit continue to exclude men, ditto Newnham College, if the Garrick can’t exclude women as members?

I also think that women can’t have it all ways: insist on the protection of their women-only spaces on the one hand, and access to men-only spaces on the other. Of course it’s a shame that most female-only spaces — generally prisons, hospital wards, rape crisis centres rather than clubs for claret-swilling — exist for the protection of women. And men-only spaces exist for the perpetuation of privilege. But that, I guess, is the price we have to pay to keep women safe.

You have to choose your hill to die on — and this is why the Garrick ain’t mine.

Rachel Johnson is a contributing editor of the Evening Standard