The joy of single sex

Who wants to join the stuffy old MCC anyway? Instead of knocking on the doors of male institutions, we should be building on our own. Long live sex segregation (and the girls' night out) says Hester Lacey
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LAST WEEK, the Marylebone Cricket Club managed to annoy an awful lot of people when it voted once again not to admit women as members. The Sports Minister, Tony Banks, said the MCC had "made a mockery of cricket"; the chair of the club's own marketing committee, Michael Sissons, claimed the MCC would be seen as "fuddy-duddy, anti-women and stuck in the past"; while 60 MPs hastily signed a Commons motion urging the club to rethink its decision.

Given that there is an 18-year waiting list for non-playing members to join the club, even if the doors were opened to women tomorrow, the MCC wouldn't have a sudden influx of hyenas in petticoats to fear. But what would these potential new members find inside? Erm, lots of crickety stuff, mainly. "There is a wonderful gallery and museum in the Long Room," says one MCC veteran, who voted to allow women in. "You can sit and watch the game and turn round to see the history of it played out on the walls." Meanwhile enjoying sparkling conversation and fine wines? "Oh, it's very quiet. I sometimes meet a friend over a gentle half-pint." Other gentlemen's societies are more feisty; the most famous ones are drinking and social clubs like the Savile and the Garrick. "The Garrick is very sociable; it's a serious drinking club. At some clubs people say 'Well, shall we go straight in to lunch?' No-one does that at the Garrick," says one enthusiastic member. Women are admitted for lunch or dinner, but not into the bar and they cannot become members.

And why should they want to? Nothing could be more natural or normal than sex-segregated activities, whether their purpose is leisure, work or education, explains Kate Fox, social anthropologist at the Social Issues Research Centre, an Oxford-based think tank. "In all cultures across the world, there is far greater segregation than we experience, right through social life and the division of labour," she says. "And it is not assumed that the male structure is more valuable or desirable. In this culture, however, we seem to have a notion that we want to desegregate just for the sake of it, rather than because we actually want to take part in the activities that we demand to be part of."

Modern western culture is, she says, the only one in which the blurring of distinctions between the sexes is seen to be desirable. "The fact that, despite all ideological, political and legislative attempts, we still persist in getting together in male and female bonding activities, suggests that there is a strong instinctive drive towards being with others of the same sex," she adds. "Even when most activities in work and leisure are desegregated, men would fight to the death to hang on to congregating in the pub or at the football and women would feel deprived if we didn't have our nights out with girlfriends or shopping in groups."

In the spirit of reciprocity (also known as tit-for-tat), if men aren't encouraged to hang on to their own institutions, will women be able to keep hold of theirs? Somerville College in Oxford, one of the last two female-only colleges of the University, finally began to admit male undergraduates in 1994, after a long-drawn-out and controversial argument. "I can understand why some of the women wanted to keep Somerville all-female. Oxford strikes one as still being a male-dominated place and perhaps there is still some value in having at least one or two single-sex colleges," said one of the first male intake at the time (the one remaining women's college, St Hilda's, voted against admitting male dons last year). Women who have been educated in an all-female environment are quick to defend its advantages. "At Newnham College in Cambridge the atmosphere was fantastic. There were a lot of very positive female role models and it was very supportive and comforting," says one alumnus.

One of the main arguments for opening up the private world of men is that women miss out on the advantages of networking; contracts, jobs and advice all flow freely around the bar in the club-room. But, says Jo Gardiner of the Industrial Society, "There is great danger in trying to fit into old structures and traditional hierarchies if they don't work for you. A lot of women may try to behave like the men they see at work, but over the years it is better to try and change things." Women's networks, she says, have been very successful. "They have provided an environment and forum for women to talk about the real issues that are important to them without being hampered by the language and constraints of the old boys' network. Over the last two decades priorities have merged more, and issues that used to be seen as women's priorities have now become mainstream - men are realising there are better ways of doing things and are starting to change their methods."

International media consultant Geraldine Sharpe-Newton, chairman of Forum UK, the women's networking organisation, agrees that there is most definitely a place for women-only clubs. "There is a huge benefit having somewhere you can kick off your shoes with people who have the same difficulties and problems," she says. "I think women are more open to sharing knowledge and ideas. Men are always looking behind their backs at the next man - women don't do that in the same way. While I believe there should be some inclusion at all levels - the Reform Club now allows women and it's called the Reform Club for a reason - I also understand the need for closed societies. There needs to be both kinds, and it's of benefit to everyone to allow both."

And, she adds with a laugh, women "don't agonise over wearing the right ties". Because, equally importantly, of course, men-only institutions simply don't sound like much fun. "I've been to the Savile Club on ladies' night, which is nice, but it's only nice because we're there," says writer and broadcaster Kate Saunders. "There's nothing wrong with recreational activities that exclude women, because we don't want to be there. I would rather heave coals than join the MCC or the Garrick - men need not fear we're going to start leaving our knitting everywhere."

As for networking, she says, there's little that can't be achieved over a few bottles of wine. "Go to Soho House, the Groucho Club, or Two Brydges Place and there will be tables of women. It's not realistic now to say that important powerbroking takes place behind closed doors - 'networking' really means getting honkingly drunk. And every woman has her unofficial club of girlfriends - when you head off to the tapas bar to meet your friends, your husband might as well say 'Oh, she's off to her club in St James's'." Girls' evenings, she says, fulfil an important purpose: they protect male sensibilities. Just as men feel the need to get plastered over the claret and tell dirty jokes without having to take into account the fact that ladies may be present, "If you are married or have children," says Kate Saunders, "it's a very coarsening thing - you simply aren't fit for mixed company, where you dare not tell that hilarious little gynaecological anecdote."

Anyway, attempting to alter a venerable dinosaur may be more difficult than it may seem. It's not simply a question of opening the doors. The Oxford and Cambridge Club was forced to change its men-only policy in 1996, when a number of dons flounced out in disgust at its retrograde attitude. "I haven't noticed a great deal of change," says one regular (male) visitor. "I don't think women have rushed to join what is essentially a stuffy, women-unfriendly place." And, he observes: "The lavatory on the ground floor is not marked with a sign saying 'gents' - you find it by trial and error. Although there's been a refurbishment, that door hasn't changed. Presumably, the numbers of women who are likely to blunder into the gents by mistake just hasn't made it necessary."