The star-studded London club that won’t let women join


“We’re in 2024,” Kelly said. “These are incredibly senior people. Many of them are espousing diversity and inclusion in their professional lives. Being on the inside for a long time makes you complicit.”

The Garrick Club is not the only private club in London that does not admit women: White’s, Boodle’s, the Beefsteak Club and the Savile Club are also men only. But what makes the Garrick unique is its star-studded membership list, which ranges across the worlds of politics, law, arts, theatre and journalism.

Benedict Cumberbatch made the cut for the club.

Benedict Cumberbatch made the cut for the club.

Members, based on The Guardian’s leaked list, include actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Brian Cox and Stephen Fry; Mark Knopfler, the guitarist of the rock band Dire Straits; Paul Smith, a fashion designer; BBC correspondent John Simpson; Oliver Dowden, Britain’s deputy prime minister; and, yes, King Charles III (on an honorary basis).

The boldfaced names have lent the dispute extra piquancy, especially since many of them would seem the kind of bien-pensant progressives who would abhor any kind of discriminatory policy. Indeed, Cox, Fry and Simpson are among those who have come out publicly in favour of admitting women.

The last time the members voted on the question, in 2015, a slender majority – 50.5 per cent – said they supported it. But the club’s bylaws require a two-thirds majority to change the policy on membership, and a new vote, if it were scheduled, would not be held until summer. A club official declined to comment on the matter.

Stephen Fry is a member.

Stephen Fry is a member.

For all the misgivings that members have about not admitting women, some predict they would still fail to reach the two-thirds threshold. The dispute has, perhaps inevitably, turned bitter, pitting a handful of committed campaigners against a larger, older group, many of whom are fine with women as guests but are reluctant to rock a boat that has sailed grandly since 1831.

And so is Scottish actor and Succession star Brian Cox.

And so is Scottish actor and Succession star Brian Cox.Credit: Justin McManus/The Age

In London, where clubs including the Garrick are more zealous about being social rather than professional networking institutions, defenders argue that the case for preserving male-only membership is justifiable.

These members say they go to the Garrick to drink wine, unwind and enjoy themselves. They crack jokes they wouldn’t make in mixed company. They are not allowed to conduct business; even pulling papers out of a briefcase is looked down upon.

Some dismissed it as a tempest in a teapot. Jonathan Sumption, a lawyer and former justice on the Supreme Court, said he supported the admission of women, but added that those who opposed it were entitled to their opinion.

“The Garrick Club is not a public body and the whole issue is too unimportant to make a fuss of,” Sumption said. “It is still a pretty good club.”

Mark Knopfler can also adjourn after dinner to the members’ lounge, known as Under the Stairs.

Mark Knopfler can also adjourn after dinner to the members’ lounge, known as Under the Stairs.Credit: Derek Kudson

Jenkins, the columnist, agreed, suggesting that some of the news coverage had caricatured the Garrick as a vaguely sinister place where men gather to plot against women. Women, he said, were welcome at the communal table in the dining room, perhaps the club’s most hallowed place.

The only room off limits to women is the members’ lounge, known as Under the Stairs, where men gather after dinner. Yet, as Kelly and other women note, the most valuable relationships are often formed in such informal settings.

To that extent, the Garrick is different from White’s, an even more exclusive men’s club in St. James’s, where Queen Elizabeth II was the only woman ever invited as a guest. When President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, held lunches there with his senior staff, he could not invite his own political counsellor because she was a woman. Female employees at the embassy complained to the State Department, and he was urged to end the practice.

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But White’s and its old-line, Conservative-friendly brethren “tend to be high Tory places, where the question wouldn’t arise”, said Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian, who resigned from the Garrick more than a decade ago. “The Garrick membership is more a mix of actors, journalists and lawyers,” he said. “Thus, it’s a more pertinent question.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.



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