I must look into becoming a member of the Garrick Club.
The former PM’s wife says the men-only club is putting women at a working disadvantage
Cherie Blair has joined the fight to persuade the all-male Garrick Club to admit women members for the first time — 45 years after she was turned away while a pupil lawyer with Tony.
Blair, 66, first tried to get into the club in 1976 with him when they were trainee barristers after being invited by their supervisor, who was a member.
She has now signed a petition for the club, which has about 1,300 members, to admit women as members before the Garrick’s 190th anniversary today.
Women are allowed in as guests but cannot join the club’s ranks. Emily Bendell, 40, the lingerie tycoon, started the petition after her application was rejected. It has now been signed by more than 300 lawyers, who claim the ban on women members gives men a professional networking advantage.
Last year lawyers sent a legal letter on Bendell’s behalf to the club, saying their policy breached the equalities act.
The club has counted Charles Dickens, HG Wells, JM Barrie, AA Milne and John Gielgud among its members.
Blair, the founder of Omnia Strategy chambers in Marylebone, tried to get into the club not long after meeting her husband in 1976, while they were at Irvine’s chambers. They married in 1980.
“Derry Irvine [Lord Irvine of Lairg] was our pupil master and he was a member,” she told The Times. “He’d often take us out to lunch after a case, but in those days I could go over the threshold and no further, really. In those days, as I said in my book, the attitude was that there was a girl and a boy for this place so we’ll go for the boy. Chambers would say they won’t take women because clients won’t like it.”
Attempts to change the rules have failed, despite plenty of support for it.
“Over 50 per cent of the members did vote to admit women,” Blair said. “There have been a number of attempts over the years but they have fallen foul of the two-thirds rule.”
The effect was to exclude women from networking opportunities, she said. “Everybody knows in professions, from journalism to the law, one of the ways you learn is by meeting and talking to more experienced practitioners. It’s about networking, mentoring. I have my own foundation for women entrepreneurs and we promote this as a way for a woman to gain skills and experience to progress in her business. The law is no different from that.
“But if you have a place where only men can go and women are excluded — and the Garrick will say there is a ladies’ room, but clearly it’s not the same — you are missing out on opportunities, which is not only unfair but is not encouraging diversity in general.”
The actor Nigel Havers, 69, a Garrick member, supports the move. “Surely it is time for the Garrick to haul itself into the 21st century,” he said.
An equalities lawyer told The Times it would be uncomfortable to bring a case on women’s rights or discrimination before a judge known to be a member of an all-male club. But the law made a distinction between the perceived bias and actual bias, Blair explained, saying: “I don’t think in reality there would be any actual bias, as we have a very robust judicial appointments system. But nevertheless, for claimants appearing before judges the appearance of bias is very important. That’s why judges give up their political party allegiance when they become judges, certainly at the High Court and above.”
Irvine had been very involved in efforts to get women admitted, she added. “I am sure that there are some people in the club who are very set in their ways, but I can’t imagine the 48 per cent of members who voted against the proposal were all over 80.”
Jennifer Danvers, an equalities barrister who worked on Bendell’s case, said the Garrick had argued that a club like itself provided a restaurant and rooms, which meant it was more than a membership association — the type of organisation that was allowed to discriminate in membership.
“When you get something like the Garrick, you are quite far from, say, a women’s support group [which can turn away men]. You’re providing a restaurant and rooms,” she said. “If Pizza Express decided they only wanted to serve Christians, they couldn’t do that by saying that they are a club.”
•Men-only clubs such as the Garrick argue they are permitted to turn away women because, as a membership association, they are allowed to discriminate against certain characteristics.
•An association of 25 or more can refuse admission or membership to people on the basis of religion or gender but not colour. “Clubs with a single protected characteristic, like a woman’s knitting group or a Christian book group, can limit membership that way,” said Jennifer Danvers, an equalities lawyer who worked on the Garrick case.
•In 2017 one of the UK’s last men-only golf clubs, Muirfield in Edinburgh, allowed women to join.
•As of 2017 there were 55 members’ clubs in London, of which 20 were all-male.
•The legal letter sent last year hinged on the services the Garrick provided. By operating a restaurant and rooms it could be said to be providing goods and services, so would not be protected. But challenging was risky. Danvers said: “If the court doesn’t agree, then we are paying the Garrick’s legal costs.”
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