March 30, 2024 - 8:00am

“BREAKING”, began Emily Maitlis’s tweet on Thursday evening, so that we understood the gravity of her announcement. She had “been given sight of” — I guess that means she had seen — a letter proposing the potential first female members of the Garrick club, signed by current members including Stephen Fry and the never-knowingly-correct Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins.

Which brave pioneers were primed to strike a mortal blow at the crusty male establishment? Eminent female lights of the establishment, like Mary Beard, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, former judge Elizabeth Gloster, and former home secretary Amber Rudd.

Since the Garrick was founded in 1832 to help boost the social standing of actors — its namesake, David Garrick, was 18th-century England’s premier thesp — the London gentlemen’s club has kept its membership strictly gentlemen-only. Though 50.5% of Garrick members voted to admit women in 2015, it didn’t meet the two-thirds threshold for change. But after the Guardian published excerpts from a leaked membership list last week, this perma-blokeyness had been under renewed pressure. MI6 chief Richard Moore and civil service boss Simon Case have both resigned from the club, presumably outraged to finally discover why all those jolly drinks evenings were such sausage fests.

If you think this is a remotely progressive campaign, I have a seat in President Hillary Clinton’s cabinet to sell you. Anger at the Garrick is a relic of “girlboss” feminism: more women CEOs, the argument goes, and never mind about the wages of the female cleaners who scrub the office toilets overnight. The term titled the 2014 autobiography of American fashion tycoon Sophia Amoruso, and reached its apotheosis in Clinton’s 2016 tilt at the White House.

Girlboss feminism presupposed that the West’s political and economic settlement was more-or-less swell: all that was needed was a smidge of recalibration to get a few more women to the top. But people didn’t want a Manolo Blahnik heel stamping on their face forever any more than a well-polished Oxford shoe. After the populist convulsions of 2016, the term became one of derision rather than affirmation. Serious progressives realised the moment demanded a critique of power that went beyond putting women on corporate boards.

Needless to say, “serious” is not a word that gets much of a workout when talking about the British establishment. This current fracas is really an intra-elite struggle. The main contention, beyond the fact that male-only establishments are generally a bit icky, is whether the Garrick is just a place for fun, or a place where professional networking goes on, which women shouldn’t be shut out of. It’s a reasonable point, but the sheer energy being poured into the whole thing — at least two KCs have given up billable hours to analyse whether the club’s existing rules really exclude women — indicates an establishment that has its priorities out of joint.

The men in the Garrick, and the women who want to get in, do not properly understand the country they run. They see it through a port glass, darkly.


Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.

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