‘Out of step’: Why sex discrimination is permitted by members’ clubs

Article by Andrew Taylor /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
December 16, 2018 /
Click here to view original /

Replete with plush armchairs, heavy curtains, fine bone china and vases of exquisite floral arrangements, the Queen’s Club opposite Hyde Park was founded in 1912 for “social purposes for country and city women”.

Further along Elizabeth Street is the Women’s Club, established in 1901 to “fill some of the needs of intellectual and academic women by offering mental and artistic enjoyment”. Its website makes clear membership is by invitation only.

“From its inception, the club has attracted women who are active in community service, the professions – medicine, law, science, academia, business, education, artistic and public life,” the website states.

Yet while private men’s clubs are under pressure to admit women, these private women-only clubs of Sydney have avoided controversy over membership rules.

Brisbane’s Tattersalls Club is the latest men’s club to be pushed to grant women full membership.

An anonymous website, Tatts Myths, has been set up to fight the move away from men-only members. The results of the vote will be revealed at an extraordinary meeting of the 153-year-old club on Wednesday.

The NSW anti-discrimination law permits registered clubs to restrict membership on the basis of gender, which both the Women’s Club and Queen’s Club do. Neither club responded to questions about their membership policies.

Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in politics and gender at the University of Melbourne, said the most potent influence of private members was networking.

“These clubs exist because of their mystique and air of influence and as centres of power, decision-making and influence,” she said. “This is all largely myth and self-confected delusion rather than reality.”

The chairman of Sydney’s Tattersalls Club, Colin Dunn, warned his interstate colleagues they were fighting a losing battle against discrimination. “One thing I can say with absolute clarity is that if the vote is not approved, it is only a matter of time before it will be raised again,” he said. Members of the Brisbane Tattersalls voted against admitting women in 2006.

Sydney’s Tattersalls voted to admit women five years ago. Since then, nearly 100 women have become members of the club which was established in 1858. “Membership has grown every year since, halting many decades of decline,” Mr Dunn said.

“At first some of our members were concerned the culture of the club might change. We discovered culture is not about gender, and the breadth and depth of our offering has improved, including the opportunity to build partnerships with other Sydney institutions including Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, Sydney Dance Company and the Royal Botanical Gardens.”

Mr Dunn said the decision to diversify membership had been integral to the revival of the club. “Tattersalls is now more relevant than ever for people who want to join a club of consequence,” he said.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in November that a club that bans women from being members is “out of step with community sentiment”.

Men-only clubs such as the Australian Club in Sydney and Athenaeum Club in Melbourne have been criticised for failing to diversify their memberships.

In Britain, meanwhile, the men-only Garrick Club, whose members have included Laurence Olivier, Stephen Fry and John Gielgud, is reportedly considering a vote on admitting women after failing to end the ban in 2015.

Dr Rosewarne said she believed there was a case for women-only venues such as gyms, swimming pools or clubs because of historical discrimination.

“Personally I don’t like the idea of clubs that exist with a mission to be selective and exclusionary. Such clubs always end up discriminating the people with the least amount of social power and thus who probably could most use the networking leg-up offered by these clubs,” she said.

“So while admitting women is better than not admitting them, the very existence of the clubs themselves sits uncomfortably with me.”