The comfort of a frumpy chair: Esther Oxford visits The University Women's Club, whose eminent elderly ladies are seeking younger members

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IN Mayfair, London, there is a big red building just around the corner from the Dorchester Hotel. It could be any old building but for a sign that says: 'The University Women's Club'. Knock on the door and a fat chap with a harassed look on his face tells you that there is no need to knock: the door is open. 'What's a man doing inside a women's club?' you think, and step in. The door swings shut and all is quiet. Elderly women doze with their chins on their chests. Outside there is a sudden burst of screams and yells: Michael Jackson's fans are tearing down the road after his black limousine.

One woman puts her hands on the window- sill to pull herself up for a look. She gazes with relief at the young people. 'We need more of them in here,' she says. 'There are too many old sticks like me.'

One hundred and nine years have passed since a group of 60 women, many of them pioneers in the field of higher education, resolved to establish a club offering 'facilities of intercourse for women educated at the universities'.

Since then, membership has grown to 1,500. The club committee is not worried about numbers - 'for every two or three that die, we get two or three joining' - but it is concerned about the rising age of members. Penny Burtwell, the club secretary, says young women are no longer attracted by the offer of 'traditional pleasures in elegant surroundings' (including a restaurant, bar and library) as advertised in Vogue. 'Young people are more inclined to join gyms,' she says.

More recently there has been talk of installing a Jacuzzi or sauna to attract younger women, but not everyone is keen. 'How can we possibly splurge on such luxuries,' asks an elderly member, 'when there is little new money coming in?'

Ruth Jones, retired, prim and flowery, tells me she is my hostess for the day. She emphasises the word 'hostess': 'I can't see any point in changing words; we are not feminists here, you know.' She is a member of the general committee, which is responsible for most of the club's decisions. Ushering me through reception and up the main staircase to the library, and speaking in the soft tones usually reserved for museums or grand homes, she enthuses: 'This place is a haven; it is a safe place for women to come when they are alone.'

Elderly women, I muse. Although the staircase is majestic and the rooms willowy and elegant, the chairs and the people sitting in them appear to have been borrowed from an old folk's home. On the walls are portraits of celebrated past members.

'The club was set up by women eminent in their field; women who did not want to talk about domestic duties but preferred to discuss academic and social issues,' Ms Jones says. 'That principle still stands today. This club hosts meetings of minds.'

I ask my hostess: 'Whose minds - anyone famous?' She replies: 'We don't disclose the names of our well-known members without permission. This is a private club.'

Sitting in the library, swallowed up by frumpy chairs, we are surrounded by women discussing their careers. 'Do you ever get time to go home?' one woman asks another. 'Yes. I just don't sleep. It's quite lucky really; I'm an

insomniac.'

Archaeologists, cookery writers, doctors and engineers: the club will consider women from diverse professions, as long as they have a university degree, or have excelled in their particular field, Ms Jones says. Usually the women are recommended by another member. If they do not know any members, women hopefuls meet a member of the committee for a chat. Questions are asked: who are they, what have they done, why do they want to be a member? Once accepted, a fee is requested: pounds 100 for registration and pounds 120 to pounds 210 for annual membership. For this, members have the privilege of belonging to 'a pool of quietness', where they can eat, drink and be alone without 'being disturbed by, or having to react to men'.

Once a month, the club holds a 'dining-in'. Members introduce themselves and 'meet people of their own education'. On this night there are three male guests (there are also male dining members) as well, indistinguishable from the waiters. If they aren't apologising ('I'm sorry I touched your leg; I didn't see it there') they are jumping up and down ferrying dishes of barbecued sardines and pavlova to anyone with a voice high enough to shriek: 'Over here Charles, there is a darling]'

I ask Ms Jones why men were allowed to invite themselves to a women's club. 'We are not part of the feminist movement, you know. We refuse to hold up the 'all women, no men' flag; men are always invited to our functions.'

Penny Burtwell is more forthright: 'Any woman who would choose to ban men from this club must lead a pretty sad life,' she says, smoothing her hair impatiently. 'This idea that women are special beings who need a niche in order to flourish is just . . . is just . . . nonsense]'

Next to me sits a lanky Canadian husband. 'I tried to join this club, but failed to pass the physical,' he jokes. His crack meets with steely eyes and dressed smiles. 'The men here tend to be so patronising,' confides Rosie Heys, 27, one of the club's youngest and most valued members. 'They come to be entertained. 'I love women', they always say. 'Well, you bore the socks off me,' I think to myself.'

Ms Heys, according to one woman, is 'a perfect darling' with a personality 'appropriate' to the club. This is surprising: Ms Heys has a loaded laugh and likes to murmur subversive comments in an articulate whisper. The club has a strict but unspoken dress code and Ms Heys is wearing a see-through blouse.

Ms Heys moved to London four years ago. She had only one girlfriend at the time, and missing the company of women and tired of the attention of men, she joined the University Women's Club. She thinks the club should have more practical offerings: fewer 'sherry-in-the- library' affairs and more lectures on subjects that help promote women in the workplace, including banking, financial management and employment rights.

'My generation is the first in which women have been forced to work for financial independence. It is not easy: we need advice and help from older, wiser women. We need more mentors,' she says.

Diana Kirkbride-Helbaek, 77, is one of the club's most discussed members. She introduces herself as an 'eminent archaeologist': she helped excavate part of Petra, entertained Cole Porter in a cave and went on assignment with David Attenborough and Miles Kington. By the way she talks it is clear she adores men, so why does she choose to spend most of her time among women?

'Am I a feminist? Am I a feminist? Am I a feminist]' she repeats, getting louder and louder so that everybody becomes aware of my stupid, stupid question. 'What the hell is a feminist? I like a man to get up when I walk into a room] I like a man to give up his chair] Balls to feminism. 'I'm as good as you are' - Phu] Dung] Dung] Dung]' she snorts.

And then she goes quiet: 'I know people on the Independent. I know enough people in high places to get you swept out of your job] Cross me and you will regret it.'

I think back to what Ms Heys said about the need for inspiration from older, wiser women.

Talking to some club members, it is clear they would rather reminisce about past careers, how it used to be, than hear about the problems facing young women. Maybe they believe they can live for ever if they can only succeed in impressing themselves on the memories of the younger women. Continuity, a life passed on, is the illusion.

'I love this place for the sense of on-going,' says Eve Lewis, a doctor of philosophy at the University of Carolina. 'Sitting in this library, I feel a sense of the elegance, responsibility and beauty of the women who have been associated with this building.' Beauty and an appreciation of other accomplished women are all Ms Lewis asks of new members: 'We want the club to be like a river of association, where the old pass on to the young.'

Ms Heys, with a sympathetic manner, says she appreciates this idea. 'I want to preserve what these past women have fought for,' she says. 'Everything is here: the fabric of a club, the mansion, the people involved. There is enough to build on.'

But she has reservations. 'We need more open networking - not the networking seen in men's clubs where it is all done in secret, down in the cloakrooms, but open networking, which doesn't break moral or social laws.'

She has said all this before; the older committee members shake their heads and say, 'Yes, dear'. But Ms Heys is rather quietly challenging the club's framework before their very eyes. 'Once a month I come here wearing leggings in defiance of the conventional dress code,' she says.

With or without a sudden influx of young women, the club will keep going, Mrs Burtwell insists: 'Unless we do not recruit a single member for 68 years, or until the youngest member is dead, the University Women's Club will march on.'

The University Women's Club, 2 Audley Square, London W1Y 6DB (071-499 2268).

(Photographs omitted)

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