The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

“Divisive Women” And Old Men Who Just Don’t Want To Let It Go (Patriarchy, That Is)

Posted by Rhiana Whitson on October 3, 2008

Image sourced from Athanaeum website

Melbourne's Athanaeum Club. Image sourced from Athanaeum website.

Last week controversy erupted around Melbourne ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, The Athenaeum.

For the first time in the club’s 142-year history, honorary membership is not being extended to the some of the highest office-holders in the country simply because they are women.

The club excludes women from obtaining membership. Women are only admitted entry and limited access to the club’s facilities if accompanied by a (male) member, with most instances of women in the club occurring during during specific officially sanctioned (by the old boys themselves) female events, such as annual ‘daughter’s day.’ It is the home of the very rich, and the very powerful, the ‘crème de la crème of Victorian society’…

But as last week’s Australian reported, you might be rich and powerful but if you don’t have a flaccid or protruding member dangling between your legs, the glass ceiling may be broken but you will still be ‘stopped at the clubroom door’ or at least made to wait outside in the rain.

I have read various comments on news websites who have argued that if the Athenaeum is a men’s club then why would women be permitted to join?

It is true that the Athenaeum is a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ (aka ‘old men in dark suits’), not a ‘gentle men and women’s club.’ However the real misogyny lies with the Club’s shunning of women in positions usually revered by the club’s; such as new and first ever female Governor General Quentin Bryce, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, Christina NIxon, Chief Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court, Marilyn Warren, NSW Governor Professor Marie Bashir, Queensland Governor and Penelope Winsley – just to name a few.

As the Australian reported:

This is despite the club’s constitution, which allows honorary membership for “people in positions of distinction or attainment, including the governor-general of Australia and the governors of each Australian state.

Compared to the above facts the Athenaeum’s boastful and forward looking spiel on it’s website’s homepage is quite laughable…

A proud resident of Collins Street since 1868, the Athenaeum is one of Australia’s oldest and finest clubs, confident in its heritage and traditions, yet enlightened and contemporary in its outlook.

‘Enlightened’ is a strange word to describe a club which prides its self on holding the membership of Australia’s business and government hob nobs but excludes equally and often more successful women.

Somewhat surprisingly though, the decision to ban female membership is not shared by all, and there has been a ‘feminist’ uprising of sorts happening within the leather and oak filled confines of the club with 130 of the club’s member’s last year circulated a discussion paper which pushed for a pro-women reform.

Unfortunately though efforts to bring the club from out of the dark ages, were blocked by the then club president Graham Rogers, the author of this charming excerpt from a letter directed to members of the club’s feminist uprising and published in last week’s Australian:

The committee has great concern that the wide and continued circulation of this paper has the capacity to create division amongst the membership of the club and interfere with the objective of the survey to obtain an unbiased view of the attitudes of members,” Mr Rogers wrote in a letter to the reform group.

“The committee therefore, respectfully requests that all activity to promote a particular view of the club’s forward path cease immediately.”

(not those bloody women, gasp!) BUT… It seems Graham and the rest of the club’s ‘enlightened’ members with their ‘contemporary outlook’ did eventually get their way, managing to keep those ‘divisive’ women out off the leather chairs – December saw the club’s members vote two to one against allowing women to obtain club membership.

I know some of you may be thinking, “why would Quentin Bryce want to join a stuffy old men’s club anyway?” which I happen to agree is a valid point, I know I certainly wouldn’t wish to be hanging out with a bunch of men who believe that women belong at home, or at least out of the bar.

My point is that it is dangerous for men of this kind of ‘power’ (we’re talking big money, big business, big politics here) to still have these types of attitudes towards women of power. Attitudes which involve a continuing fear of women, and especially those who succeed in business and government. Even more dangerous is it to let them continue on in such a fashion while at least in the rest of Australian society women are (slowly) being recognised not on the basis of gender (whether this is ever truly possible is debatable) but on the basis of merit.

Without an infiltration, these ‘enlightened’ men will continue to be allowed to hold misogynist and anachronistic views of women and thus a new generation of men (and yes, apparently they do exist there) will continue to hold views towards women which, like the Athenaeum, date back 142 years.


3 Responses to ““Divisive Women” And Old Men Who Just Don’t Want To Let It Go (Patriarchy, That Is)”

  1. Bezant Hutchinson said

    Most of the responses to these articles that I’ve read involve whining about Fernwood (women-only gym chain) and the more elite women-only clubs such as the Lyceum and Alexandra. You know, “if WOMEN can have their own club, why can’t MEN? Just leave us alone and let us drink in a bar where our wives can’t find us!”-type comments. What these responses fail to acknowledge is that the formations of these women’s clubs were mainly counteractive efforts, developed in the face of the pre-existing equivalent men’s clubs.

    First, let’s get Fernwood out of the way. Fernwood is women-only because its founders want to provide a space where women can exercise without feeling threatened and – at the risk of sounding somewhat biologically deterministic – the average woman might have different needs than the average man in terms of health programs/personal training (though I’d argue that this point is less significant than the former). I don’t see how the existence of gyms like Fernwood is threatening or harmful to men in any way, in any area of their life, and it is obvious that they were created (among other reasons) as a RESULT of women feeling objectified or embarrassed work out among men. The creation of the Athenaeum Club is in no way analogous to the creation of Fernwood gym in any shape or form, and to compare them is futile at best.

    On the other hand, let’s consider the Lyceum Club, the Alexandra Club and other women-only clubs alike. It must be recognised, first of all, that these clubs were also established in a counteractive nature, specific to the epoch:

    “Its founders in Australia […] hoped the club would gain equal standing with the prestigious male clubs of the day.” (Gillison, Joan M. ‘A History of the Lyceum Club Melbourne’ – Osborne Papers)

    In the early 20th century – when most of these women’s clubs were formed – they were entirely necessary, especially considering the rights of women at the time. In 2008 however, I would argue that the Lyceum and the Alexandra clubs appear just as ridiculous as the Athenaeum Club (and its various other gentlemanly equivalents). Just as the Athenaeum has failed to move with the times, so too have the corresponding women’s establishments. Australian women in 2008 are in better (not prime, but better) positions now to lobby against the living anachronisms that are the many/varied staunch gentlemen’s clubs, and establishments like the Lyceum and the Alexandra do NOT aid that cause now in the same way that they did in the early 1900s. There are far more useful organisations (such as Emily’s List and the WEL) that support the furthering of women in business and politics without the ‘ladies-that-lunch’ air of the Lyceum.

    If clubs like the Athenaeum and the Lyceum are going to exist, it is certainly time for them BOTH to become genderless. At the moment, both are stuck in the past – the Athenaeum clinging to a vision of male dominance in the business/political worlds, and the Lyceum doing little to challenge that vision in any other way but mere mimicry.

  2. Leah said

    First, snaps for the 130 members who supported the inclusion of female members.

    Secondly, in answer to Rhiana’s question of whether it is possible that one day women will be recognised in Australian society on the basis of merit not gender, I say yes I think it is possible. A colleague recently told me about the roots of the words ‘sinister’ and ‘dexterous’ – they come, respectively, from the Latin for ‘left’ and ‘right’, and for a long time in a number of cultures left handed people were seem as somewhat dodgy, hence efforts to train children to be right handed even if it felt unnatural to them. My friend pointed out that today no such distinction exists between left and right handed people, and my hope is that one day whether you have a female or male body will be just an interesting difference that doesn’t signify much about your abilities etc – just like being left handed is no big deal today. I know the divisions between and stereotypes about male and female bodies run deeper in my culture (and others) than the left hand/right hand division presumably ever did, & I acknowledge that it might well take a hell of a long time to come about, but still, I think it’s possible. A flow on effect in this possible future would be that heterosexuality and homosexuality are redundant terms as we would all just be people who fall in love or lust with other people, and whether they happen to be male or female wouldn’t particularly matter.


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