Garrick Club's decision to accept women is about more than just sexism

The challenge being mounted against men-only spaces is not necessarily that men should not have them, but that they can exclude women from power

In a male-dominated culture, power is often asserted in such clubs’ corridors and lounges. Getty
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According to Margaret Atwood, award-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” I was reminded of her quote when reading about a hypothetical dilemma that has been circulating on social media recently.

A couple of women were discussing the following question: “Would you rather meet a bear in the woods, or a man?” The strikingly clear answer was… a bear. This went viral and social media has since abounded with #TeamBear stories. Women have been sharing countless experiences of assault and harassment perpetrated by strange men. These accounts are so numerous that this seems to have become part of the fabric of women’s lives. These women were sharing a pervasive sense of living in danger wherever their physical spaces in the world.

In fact, the woods context was almost unnecessary; the bear might leave you alone, and cases of bears attacking people are rare. It goes without saying of course that not all men are responsible for attacks or harassment. Sadly, it was also indicative of the scale of the problem that many men did not believe these women, were personally affronted and did not listen to why there was such an outpouring for Team Bear.

As Atwood’s quote suggests, for women it is about safety. As the bear hypothetical and subsequent debate suggests, this need for safety must be heard and believed. For men, not being laughed at is about ego and power and, as the bear debate shows, it is about resolutely not ceding space to women’s experiences and voices, nor conceding that they have legitimate views on the subject.

The bottom line is that men and women have very different perspectives in the way they perceive space.

Meanwhile, in the UK, another conflict about men and women’s experience of space has moved closer to resolution. The exclusive Garrick Club in central London has finally decided to allow women to become members. The Garrick was established almost 200 years ago as a place where, its founders said, “actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms”. Today its members include some of the world’s most famous (male) actors and (male) politicians as well as other (male) politically and culturally powerful men.

In the 18th century onwards, many of these so-called gentlemen’s clubs were opened, usually by the upper classes. If you’ve watched or read Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, the famous wager is made inside another gentlemen’s institution – the Reform Club – although this was one of the first to admit women, in 1981.

Whether it’s men or women, it’s still an exclusive club, and only a handful will have access to those lounges and sofas where power sits. And how to solve that is its own challenge

The argument for women’s admission, especially to the Garrick, is not only that their exclusion is sexist but that it also bans women from spaces of power. In a male-dominated culture where power is asserted in such clubs’ corridors and lounges, this is a significant supporting point as to why those barriers must be removed.

At the same time, women are constantly pushing for women-only spaces. This is for many reasons, including modesty, privacy, dignity as well as for safety and – just as importantly – to have spaces where their voices are not drowned out. Quite the contrary, these are spaces in which women can be heard on their own terms, their experiences can be shared and discussed openly, and they are not gaslit.

The challenge that is being mounted against men-only spaces is not necessarily that men should not have them, but that they currently reserve power for men and women can't get to it. There's a power differential – women want to create spaces where they have some power; men are often using men-only spaces to keep hold of that power.

But there’s also an everyday, sociable aspect to how we think about space. As anyone who has been on a hen do, girls’ night out or equivalent will tell you, there’s something both liberating and empowering about being with other women. Sometimes, you just need to be with other women. So, here’s the rub: I believe that for all these reasons, men also should have men-only spaces.

This leaves us with a different kind of dilemma: how do we ensure that the political, cultural and social power that resides in those men-only spaces is decoupled from the physical space, so it can be brought into a more equitable shared social domain, one in which women can also participate? And how do we recreate in that same shared social domain the experience women have in women-only spaces of their voices having the room to be heard?

Those are the challenges we need to confront. But of course, when it comes to the gentlemen’s clubs, even if they are opened to women, if we really care about how power can be accessed more equitably across society, there’s still the glaring question about the fact that whether it’s men or women, it’s still an exclusive club, and only a handful will have access to those lounges and sofas where power sits. And how to solve that is its own challenge.

Published: May 27, 2024, 7:00 AM