Here come the girls? UK club faces lawsuit over ban on women members

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 8 September 2020 18:05 GMT

Emily Bendell, who is preparing to launch legal action against the Garrick Club in London over its male-only membership policy. Bluebella.com via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Famed London private club faces challenge over rules barring women members

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A businesswoman is set to launch legal action against one of the world's oldest private members' clubs as she argues its men-only membership rules breach British equality laws.

The Garrick Club, founded in 1831, has welcomed famous men including novelist Charles Dickens and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but continues to refuse women membership, despite the push for gender equality worldwide.

Now it is facing a legal challenge from entrepreneur Emily Bendell who believes that allowing "gentleman members only" violates the Equality Act 2010 that bars discriminatory treatment towards women and other minorities.

"The world has now moved on," Bendell, who founded the lingerie firm Bluebella in 2005, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she had been "shocked" to learn that male-only membership clubs still existed in Britain.

"This is a really influential club ... It's excluding women from those connections and all those invisible relationships that propagate power."

The Garrick Club did not respond to requests for comment.

Women remain under-represented in public life and senior business positions despite growing calls for greater diversity and equality, with ingrained sexism, "old boy" networks and inflexible working conditions keeping women out of top jobs.

The Garrick Club was founded by a group of "literary gentlemen" with the aim of bringing together actors and supporters of theatre.

Women may visit as guests brought by a club member but they cannot join in their own right or pay for services at the club, such as its restaurant, lounge and hotel rooms.

The Equality Act 2010 does not bar single-sex associations but service providers can only limit access to a single gender if they provide a good reason for doing so, said Bendell's barrister Jennifer Danvers of Cloisters.

"In essence, women are only able to access the club's services as second-class citizens on the whim of a man who has to both invite and pay for them," said Bendell and her lawyers, who include Leigh Day solicitors, in a letter to the club.

The letter gave the Garrick Club 28 days to respond, and confirm any plans to change its policy.

Failing that, Bendell said she intends to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick Club from "continuing to operate its discriminatory policy".

The Garrick Club has been debating whether it should allow female members. In 2015, a majority of members backed a resolution proposing it open up to women, but failed to reach the two-thirds majority required to pass.

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(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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