‘No longer remotely defensible’: Garrick’s decision to admit women shows times have changed

<span>Garrick Club members, including Stephen Fry, leave the Grand Connaught Rooms after the vote on Tuesday.</span><span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Garrick Club members, including Stephen Fry, leave the Grand Connaught Rooms after the vote on Tuesday.Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Who cares that an elite organisation full of mostly elderly white men has decided to allow women to join them in a small central London private members’ club?

Such was the reaction of many of the club’s members who had responded with extreme ill-temper to the Guardian’s recent decision to publish the names of about 60 of the Garrick Club’s most influential members. There has been an orgy of mansplaining in newspaper comment pieces. The Garrick’s rules prohibit networking or even working inside the building, these members say, so it would be very wrong-headed and silly to believe that anything of any consequence ever happens within the club’s four walls. The Garrick is merely a spot for friendly relaxation.

“The Garrick Club is not a public body and the whole issue is too unimportant to make a fuss of,” the retired supreme court judge Jonathan Sumption admonished a New York Times reporter when the issue piqued the interest of US readers – though he added that he supported the admission of women.

“This is such a ridiculous debate. Should all women-only clubs in Britain now be forced to accept men? (Not that we’d want to join…)” Piers Morgan asked on X on Tuesday before the vote.

But numerous senior politicians, leading civil servants, the head of MI6 and the chair of the Bar Council all very quickly came to a different conclusion. Most were clear that they were not interested in preventing men from gathering in single sex spaces – in pubs, clubs or sports groups – but were responding instead to the uniqueness of the Garrick, with its powerful membership list casting an unflattering spotlight on Britain’s still very-male dominated establishment.

The NHS has stressed the importance of men opening up about their feelings to improve their mental health. An organisation called Men’s Sheds, aimed at improving wellbeing and reducing loneliness, encourages men to meet and talk to each other (in sheds); the charity says members have experienced an 89% decrease in depression since signing up.

So it is not the existence of a single sex club that has felt problematic for many observers, but the dense concentration of men in very senior positions, who had chosen to join the Garrick, a club that has been notorious since the 1960s as an institution where women have not been welcomed on equal terms.

“It is hard to believe that we’re in 2024 and only just welcoming the news that women can join the Garrick,” Jemima Olchawski, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said, noting that the problem with the Garrick was that it allowed men to consolidate power, reinforcing existing inequalities by excluding women.

“At our last count, 92% of FTSE 100 companies were run by men, 83% of supreme court justices were men, along with 62% of the leaders of the civil service,” she said

Within hours of the chief of MI6, Richard Moore, being named as a Garrick member, he had meetings with senior female colleagues; after sleeping on the matter (and being criticised by family members) he decided reluctantly that he needed to resign his membership of the club.

Colleagues pointed out that only a few days earlier on International Women’s Day he had tweeted: “The brilliant women of #MI6 work tirelessly to keep our country safe. Although they can’t receive the public recognition they deserve, I can at least say thank you here, on #IWD2024. Today, and every day, we #InvestInWomen. Come and join us.” Wanting to spend his private time with fellow senior members of the political and Whitehall establishment in a club that excluded these tirelessly working female colleagues seemed at odds with this declaration.

Simon Case, the head of half a million civil servants, also gave up his membership, as did at four judges, who were responding, only 13 years late, to the concerns set out by Lady Hale who warned in 2011: “I regard it as quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about … [Judges] should be committed to the principle of equality for all.”

As members filed in for the vote last night, one man said that he would immediately be submitting an application to join the Women’s Institute if women were admitted to the Garrick. If he does, he may be disappointed to discover that the WI does not have the same high number of government ministers and Hollywood stars.

More than 200 members wrote to the club’s chair warning that they would give up their memberships if the vote did not allow women to join, including musicians Sting and Mark Knopfler and the actor Stephen Fry. One member warned that a vote against women would “trigger a huge shoal of resignations, particularly across the arts”. This determination to quit prompted some to ask why all these men were happy to be members before.

The shift in mood reflects a sense that times have changed. Other gentlemen’s clubs are likely to be under pressure to change their rules in the months to come. One speaker argued before the vote that similar clubs with an all-male membership are no longer “remotely defensible in public life”.