Do women lawyers really want to belong to a club that has blocked them from membership for so many years?
Gender politics have featured large on Legal Cheek over the last fortnight.
First, we wrestled with the issue of whether the sexual harassment Stasi should be called out when bumbling thirty-something men lawyers suggest a swift drink down the boozer to women law students.
And this week, we move up the age bracket to London’s venerable Garrick Club, which is renowned for not allowing the ladies to join.
Despite being best known for its luvvie thespian membership, senior members of the legal profession — including the judiciary — have been known to prowl its corridors and slump in its Chesterfield leather chairs, large brandies in hand.
And it is a lawyer-member that has thrust the gender issue back into the spotlight. Carmelite Chambers criminal barrister Bob Marshall-Andrews QC has put a motion to the Garrick’s committee of Grand Poobahs calling for 184 years of tradition to be binned and women to be allowed to sign up.
The mercury around the issue rocketed when The Guardian newspaper reported suggestions that 11 un-named QC members of the club had launched concerted opposition to Marshall-Andrews.
Then the Association of Women Barristers piled into the row, coyly telling Legal Cheek that the Garrick’s bar on women members was “unusual in modern times”, not least because the double X chromosome brigade is currently allowed entry as guests.
On its face, the debate is clear-cut. Should Garrick members join the 21st century and proudly turn their backs on outmoded sexism? Or, as a private members’ club in a free democracy, should the Garrick be allowed to set whatever membership rules it fancies?
This is a tough call for The Judge, for despite being a member of the crusty old male team, he wholeheartedly supports efforts to improve social equality. But in this case, The Judge rules that the Garrick ought to be allowed to fester in its exclusively male juices if that’s what its current members prefer.
There are some hugely difficult hurdles to overcome in arriving at that view. And the biggest is this — how would Legal Cheek readers feel if the Garrick hung a sign on its Covent Garden entrance reading “No blacks, no Irish, no Travellers”, adding in the small print: “No gays and no Jews, as well, while we’re at it”?
It is likely that not only Legal Cheek readers and the wider legal profession would be outraged, but so would the rest of civil society. And regardless of how fine their legal minds are, the 11 silks currently ranged against Marshall-Andrews would struggle to see off the brickbats.
But here’s the potentially controversial line: gender discrimination in this instance is very different from discriminating on the grounds of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. In addition to the fairness argument, there is an overriding public policy rationale for banning all discrimination on those grounds.
As, indeed, there is also a compelling argument in favour of banning discrimination on the grounds of gender in relation to most areas of life, not least equality of pay and employment opportunities.
But the Garrick Club (pictured below) is effectively a social beast. And while it may offend many — both men and women — with its insistence on a male-only admittance policy, what is the actual damage done? Is it any more harmful to society than women-only Tuesday evenings at the London Fields Lido?
John Gray’s 1990s massive bestseller “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” raked in millions of pounds on the back of the premise that the two genders are very different psychologically. Cod-philosophy and pap-pulp it may have been, but the fact that more than 7 million copies were shifted from bookshop shelves suggests the phenomenon of gender-mentality differences catches the popular imagination.
It is certainly a concept that some curmudgeonly old geezers at the Garrick would support. And perhaps it’s best that the rest of us just let them get on with it. It’s not as though London is short of the odd club or two.
Catch you down Groucho’s — don’t they do half-price cocktails on ladies’ night?
Association of Women Barristers slams ‘unusual’ Garrick Club after 11 QCs oppose motion to admit women [Legal Cheek]