Still fighting for her place

Despite moves to open up exclusive men's clubs to women, the battles that really count are yet to be won, argues Joan Smith, author of 'Misogynies'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
GREAT NEWS for women who spend a lot of time in central London, have pounds 13 a week to spare, and enjoy hanging out with elderly Tory MPs - the Carlton Club has voted to admit women. Another bastion of male chauvinism has fallen, further evidence that women are winning the battle for equal rights - or are they? The result of the ballot was announced on Wednesday, the same day that an industrial tribunal hearing in London accepted that a 32-year-old woman was pressured into having an abortion by her employers, the England and Wales Cricket Board.

The case, to which the ECB did not put in a defence, is a much greater landmark for women than the vote by Carlton Club members. The tribunal ruled that Theresa Harrild was a victim of sex discrimination, unanimously accepting her account of events as "truthful". Ms Harrild told the tribunal that, when she became pregnant by one of her colleagues at the ECB, she was pressured into having an abortion. The ECB paid for the operation in cash, she claimed, after the chief executive, Tim Lamb, told her she could not be considered for promotion if she had children. Some time after the termination, when she was suffering from depression, she was told she was being dismissed and offered pounds 1,000 to be "a good girl". Mr Lamb is now denying the allegations.

Ms Harrild painted a picture of the ECB as an organisation where misogyny was rife, with senior members of staff regularly making "crude and derogatory remarks about women". Members of the England women's cricket team, she said, "were continually referred to as lesbians and dykes". Her case, which follows last month's decision by members of the MCC not to admit women, provides a startling insight into an anachronistic area of the sporting world in which women are routinely regarded as different - and sends a powerful message that such attitudes will no longer be tolerated.

While cricket may be a special case, in which discrimination appears to be more deeply entrenched than in society in general, the conduct of the ECB is a salutary reminder of what women are up against. Ms Harrild had no idea, when she took a job there in June 1996, of the kind of organisation she would be working for. She enjoyed her pounds 14,000-a-year post until she became aware of what she called the "sexist atmosphere" - a phrase which, in these days of upbeat, can-do feminism, has a distinctly dated ring to it.

It's easy to imagine, when we look at the record number of women in the House of Commons, that the big battles have been won. The crusading language of two or three decades ago, the call to arms in books such as The Female Eunuch, sounds strident and confrontational to young women who grew up in a decade when Britain had its first woman prime minister.

"Feminism is about equality for women, nothing more nor less," Natasha Walter argues in her book, The New Feminism. This would be fine in a world where men and women have exactly the same goals and can work together.

But the truth is that we inhabit a culture where a woman's place, her right to be treated on equal terms, cannot be taken for granted - and is not even universally viewed as desirable.

This week's supposedly historic vote of the Carlton Club has yet to be ratified by its general committee - and two out of five members voted against admitting women. For Theresa Harrild, plunged into a milieu where female employees are not valued as much as their male colleagues and pregnancy an inconvenience, it is the language of traditional feminism.

"On one occasion I heard one male member of staff say that a female staff member needed her legs prised open with a cricket bat," she said. That such remarks could be made openly in the 1990s, in the hearing of women employees, demonstrates that the demand for equality in jobs, wages, childcare - the clarion call of the New Feminism - is not enough. The reason we don't yet have those things, or have achieved them only partially, is not just a matter of outdated working practices. If that were the case, all women would need to do is point out instances of unfairness - as we have, vociferously, since the late 1960s - and the injustice would immediately be remedied.

This is not how the world operates. The awkward reality, which some of the New Feminists have yet to experience for themselves, is a deep-seated loathing of women which has led to our systematic exclusion from certain types of organisations. The Carlton Club, which has kept women out for 166 years, has not maintained its ban on female members because of an oversight. Nor has the Garrick. The unstated raison d'etre of these men- only establishments is to provide members with a space they don't have to share with women - except in the capacity of waitresses.

Of course this isn't true of all men. From the beginning, men like William Godwin and John Stuart Mill were outspoken advocates of women's rights. But a generation of young women has grown up, protected from the unpleasant fact of misogyny, largely as a result of the struggles of women who are now in their 50s and 60s. These days, woman-hating tends to be subterranean, concealing itself in pockets, but that doesn't mean it no longer exists. It isn't much comfort to Theresa Harrild, driven to a nervous breakdown by attitudes which are supposed to have died out, to suggest that her case has done other women a service. But it serves as a vivid reminder of why we are excluded from some areas of life - of the fact that misogyny, even if it has gone underground, is as virulent and destructive as ever

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