Garrick Club asked to consider membership for seven leading women

<span>Six of the nominees (clockwise from top left): Cathy Newman, Amber Rudd, Ayesha Hazarika, Mary Beard, Juliet Stevenson and Margaret Casely-Hayford.</span><span>Composite: The Guardian/Getty</span>
Six of the nominees (clockwise from top left): Cathy Newman, Amber Rudd, Ayesha Hazarika, Mary Beard, Juliet Stevenson and Margaret Casely-Hayford.Composite: The Guardian/Getty

Seven women with leading positions in the British establishment have been nominated as prospective female members of the Garrick in the event that the club agrees to change its rules so that women are able to join.

The classicist Mary Beard, the former home secretary Amber Rudd, Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman and the new Labour peer Ayesha Hazarika are among the first names to have been put forward to the club as possible future members.

Also on the list are the actor Juliet Stevenson, Margaret Casely-Hayford, who chairs the trustees of Shakespeare’s Globe and is chancellor of Coventry University, and Elizabeth Gloster, formerly an appeal court judge.

A group of Garrick members who hope the rules on female members will change have tentatively proposed these names to the club’s administration seeking confirmation that they would, in theory, be eligible for admission to the club.

Stephen Fry, the broadcaster Matt Frei and the opera singer Ian Bostridge were among the signatories proposing these women as potential future members. After securing confirmation from the women that they were happy in principle to be put up as club members, the proposers sent their names to the Garrick chair on Wednesday, asking for guidance on how to proceed.

The release of the women’s names marks an attempt by members to initiate a damage limitation exercise to protect the Garrick’s battered reputation, after a string of high-profile resignations from the club after controversy over the Guardian’s publication of a long list of names of senior figures from Whitehall, politics, the arts and the judiciary as members of a club that has repeatedly blocked the admission of women since the 1960s.

Last week the head of MI6, Richard Moore, and the head of the civil service, Simon Case, resigned from the club, after deciding that membership was incompatible with their organisations’ commitment to improving diversity. By Monday, at least four judges had tendered their resignations from the Garrick.

On Thursday the Bar Council, the professional body for barristers, warned that exclusive members’ clubs created “the potential for unfair advantage” for lawyers seeking to become judges. “Closed doors and exclusionary spaces do not foster support or collaboration between colleagues,” the organisation’s chair said.

Made public for the first time by the Guardian, the club’s closely guarded membership book includes dozens of judges, dozens of members of the House of Lords, the deputy prime minister, the secretary of state for levelling up, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, at least 10 MPs, heads of influential thinktanks, law firms, private equity companies, academics, prominent actors, rock stars and senior journalists.

Mary Beard said: “I have enjoyed my visits to the Garrick and would love to become a member. If they won’t have me, there might be many reasons – I won’t be suing them, but it will have been worth a shot.”

Another of the new nominees said she was reluctant to be quoted publicly at this stage, but added: “My view is that when I was approached I thought it was a bit hypocritical to decline the invitation after spending years railing against all-male bastions.”

The club’s managing committee is considering a new legal opinion given by the David Pannick KC, who led the successful Brexit article 50 case against the government, advising that the current rules at the men-only do not in fact bar women from being members.

The club’s chair, Christopher Kirker, wrote to members last week, informing them that in light of the “very unpleasant publicity which we all deplore” the club’s management was urgently considering the new legal advice, to see whether women should be admitted immediately.

“We are aware that there are strong views. But let us not be hasty. All is being carefully considered,” he wrote, adding that he would contact members again with further thoughts on 4 April.

This is not the first time that women have been nominated to the men-only club in the face of regulations prohibiting women from joining. In 2011 Hugh Bonneville proposed fellow actor Joanna Lumley; his decision to write her name in the book of proposed candidates triggered such anger among some of the club’s 1,500 members that the page was ripped out from the nomination book. Some members scrawled expletives on her nomination page, and one wrote: “Women aren’t allowed here and never will be.”

Mary Ann Sieghart, the author of The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, warned that nominating women was no guarantee that the club would allow them to join. The leading human rights lawyer Anthony Lester had hoped to propose her as a member in the later 1990s, but the then club chair blocked the suggestion (and took her for lunch in the club instead).

Responding to widespread bemusement about why there has been such an outcry about whether membership of a club for men in elite roles should be extended to women in similarly elite positions, she said: “The Garrick may be an elite club, but its membership matters precisely because it’s elite. Its members hold powerful positions in government, the judiciary, the media and the arts. These are people who run the country, and if women are excluded from this elite, then the establishment will remain overwhelmingly male. And that matters for all of us.”