Garrick Club votes to accept female members for first time

<span>Garrick Club member Stephen Fry shakes hands with a well-wisher after the vote to allow women to join.</span><span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Garrick Club member Stephen Fry shakes hands with a well-wisher after the vote to allow women to join.Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The men-only Garrick Club has finally voted to allow women to become members, 193 years after the London institution first opened its doors.

The vote was passed with 59.98% of votes in favour at the end of a private meeting where several hundred members spent two hours debating whether to permit women to join.

The meeting was closed to non-members, and a warning was made by the club’s secretary before the vote that details of the occasion were confidential and should not be discussed with non-members.

However, sources revealed that 562 members had voted in favour and 375 (40.02%) voted against. The actor Stephen Fry and journalist James Naughtie were among those who gave short speeches arguing for the admission of women.

“It will become a much better club with women in it,” one member said, asking not to be named. “It was a very courteous debate.”

Hundreds of Garrick members, many of them wearing the club’s pink and green striped tie, had gathered inside the Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden in the late afternoon to cast a vote.

Most were hoping the vote would end six weeks of intense scrutiny of the club’s inner workings triggered by the Guardian’s publication of a list of about 60 names of the club’s most influential members.

The Garrick’s closely guarded membership list revealed that the club remained a bulwark of Britain’s still male-dominated establishment. Listed alongside the king were the deputy prime minister, scores of leading lawyers, dozens of members of the House of Lords and 10 MPs, as well as heads of influential thinktanks, law firms and private equity companies, academics, senior journalists and the head of the independent press standards organisation.

It showed members were overwhelmingly white and the majority older than 50. Many theatre directors, producers and actors, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Brian Cox, are also members.

The club’s management revealed it had received letters and emails from more than 200 members informing them that they would resign if the vote had gone against women.

The musicians Sting and Mark Knopfler, along with Fry, wrote saying they would resign because “public controversy over this issue” had put them in an untenable position, jeopardising their relations with female colleagues.

Campaigners for greater diversity in politics and greater representation of women in public leadership roles had responded with dismay in March to the revelation that Simon Case, who as cabinet secretary is the leader of more than half a million civil servants, and Richard Moore, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, were members.

Moore and Case had repeatedly spoken about the need for increased diversity in their workforces, and both resigned from the club days after their membership was made public.

At least four judges also resigned their Garrick memberships amid intense media focus on the large number of senior lawyers who were members of a club that has previously voted on several occasions since the 1980s to block the admission of women.

Women working in the arts had also expressed frustration over the past few weeks at the high numbers of their colleagues who were members of a club where women have only been allowed to visit as guests if men accompany them around the premises.

Jude Kelly, the theatre director and founder of the Women of the World Foundation, described feeling “humiliated” on the occasions she had been invited to the club for theatre-related events.

“I’m glad that men who were previously comfortable with the club being men-only have thought again and decided that they are now uncomfortable with that arrangement,” she said.

“These clubs were created as places for people who were given superior privileges. This is not the same as having an all-girls picnic or a boys-only cricket club. This is a place that sustained male power.”

Related: The Garrick Club needs women. But try telling that to the members with the locker-room bants

The club is expected to propose readmitting all those members who resigned in protest on this issue in recent weeks, sources said.

The decision to let in women rests on a legal technicality rather than representing a profound desire by members to associate with females.

New analysis of the club’s rules by David Pannick KC, backed by senior lawyers including two former supreme court judges, concluded there was nothing to prevent women from being allowed to join, because the 1925 Law of Property Act advises that in legal documents the word “he” should also be read to mean “she”.

Pro-women members have already drawn up a list of seven women they now plan to nominate for membership: the classicist Mary Beard, the former home secretary Amber Rudd, the Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman, the new Labour peer Ayesha Hazarika, 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.

The club’s admissions process is notoriously complex and slow, requiring names to be written in a red leather-bound book, seconded by two pages of signatures, before prospective members are invited in to dine at the club, and their membership is discussed by committee members, with an opportunity for unpopular nominees to be blackballed.

Despite Tuesday’s vote, there may not be a radical change in the club’s membership anytime soon.