Two resignations in one week over the issue of women members. But will the 20th century ever come to clubland, or should the gentlemen rot in peace? B y Vicky Ward
Two years ago I suffered the humiliating experience of being refused entry to a gentlemen's club. Intending to meet some (male) friends at the RAC club in Pall Mall, the very heart of London clubland, I found myself stranded instead in the women's drawing room. The man at reception had stopped me from going in to the mixed drawing room, where I suspected my friends would be. "You may only go in there accompanied by a member," he sniffed. So I sat down to wait in solitary confinement - for what tu rned out to be two long, tedious hours.

After half an hour I tried tiptoeing past the reception desk to see if my friends were in the noisy drawing room opposite. A hand was laid firmly on my shoulder. "I'm sorry Ma'am, but you heard what I said." So back I went to my cell, albeit a nicely furnished one - the RAC club does allow women members, providing they abide by certain archaic rules of segregation. By the time my irate friends finally discovered me, the evening was totally ruined and I was in a fearful temper.

It is precisely this kind of petty sexism that caused Dr David Butler, a psephologist from Nuffield College, Oxford, to resign last week from the Oxford and Cambridge Club, which his great-grandfather helped found.

In response to the club's decision not to admit women members, he wrote: "the action or inaction of the club committee has made it impossible for a self-respecting Oxford don to remain involved with a body that remains so flagrantly impervious to the will of its members or the norms of contemporary British society."

As became quickly apparent, it is not only the Oxford and Cambridge but almost all of London's clubs that are impervious to society. Butler's actions inspired Lord Lester, a leading human rights lawyer, to make public his resignation from the Garrick. In1992 he canvassed unsuccessfully for the admission of women to the Garrick - a club which one might expect, from its liberal thespian/journalistic membership, to have a more enlightened view of the opposite sex.

There is, however, a certain sad irony in the highly principled actions of both Dr Butler and Lord Lester. Of course, they are to be tremendously applauded for making so symbolic and important a gesture in support of equality for the sexes; but if the truth be known, most women don't really give a fig about joining London's clubland.

That only 200 women have joined the Reform Club since it changed its rules to admit women in 1981 is surely testimony to this. A male member confides, "Most of my women friends are amazed when I suggest meeting there for a drink. It seems the concept of meeting in that kind of environment is completely alien to them, when in fact it is really rather nice."

Or is it? Perhaps the reason women have not leapt at the chance of joining the Reform is that they have seen how the behaviour of otherwise reasonable men alters radically once they are ensconced within the hallowed portals of clubland. The impulse to be"clubbable" seems to exert an extraordinarily debilitating influence over their judgement. When, in the late 1970s, the Reform Club debated for two years whether or not to admit women (mainly, you understand, for economic reasons), the then chief leaderwriter of the Guardian, a reliable source discloses, was among the chief protesters - until, that is, a fellow journalist threatened to forward his name to Private Eye.

While Malcolm Allcock, club secretary at the Travellers', says that he can foresee his club eventually taking on women members, Graham Snell, the club secretary at Brooks's, says that there it is simply not an issue. So are the members of the Travellers'such a very different breed? "No," he says, "they are the same. It's just that men behave differently in different clubs."

A similar sort of doublethink seemed to afflict those senior journalists at the Garrick who refused to report on the blackballing of Jeremy Paxman, who was refused membership in 1993. Indeed the Sunday Telegraph columnist Frank Johnson went so far as to state that it was appalling that the story had been leaked, implying that he put his loyalty to club rules above journalistic duty.

At least Mr Johnson saw the distinction between the values of the club and those of the outside world. Brooks's Graham Snell seems not to. "You must not think that the club is in some kind of time-warp. People discuss all sorts of modern issues here." Aha, I riposte, so the issue of women members is being discussed? "Oh no,'' he replies blithely.

To be fair to Mr Snell, and to his counterpart at White's, David Ward, it is far more hypocritical of the Oxford and Cambridge club to refuse women membership than clubs like their own. As David Ward points out, "Wives of White's members [mostly ageing members of the establishment and aristocracy] are perfectly delighted to attend our parties [they have a tent, annually, at Royal Ascot and two years ago were allowed into the club for the first time for a tercentenary dinner], but they have never even touched on the subject of women membership."

By contrast, the Oxford and Cambridge club exists specifically for members of the universities, which nowadays comprise both sexes in equal measure. "I am quite amazed that they can actually afford to reject women, given that they are cutting off half their potential income,'' says Anthony Lejeune, author of The Gentlemen's Clubs of London.

Economic pressure in the late Seventies led to the Reform Club's decision to take women. "A lot of service clubs were closing because members were dying," says a Reform member. Some of the service clubs, such as the Naval and Military and the RAF, did take women members to make up numbers. Now every London club except White's will admit women on certain occasions, though mostly as secondary citizens. At the Travellers' they are allowed in only on certain evenings, and not in the Smoking Room. At Boodle's they have to enter through the back entrance.

The surprising feature of the Oxford & Cambridge's policy is that the movers and shakers behind the vote against women were not the men over 50 but, according to a mole, the men under 35: "The right-wing young Spectator lot in tweeds."

What, most of us ignorant women are asking ourselves, are these guys under 35 doing in clubland? One answer is peer pressure: bosses or godfathers often offer to propose proteges embarking on careers in London. It would be rude to refuse.

Otherwise, motives are less clear. What do the poor mugs, who have to pay an annual subscription of roughly £600 a year (they are all about the same price, except for the Garrick, which is £750) get in return? Reciprocal membership with clubs around the world (which tend to provide accommodation for members' wives and children), but atrocious food.

Poor fare is compensated for by the fact that most clubs provide their members with a cheap place to stay overnight (from as little as £10), fine wines, a good library and snooker room, but all these are peripheral to what being clubbable is really all about: depositing your derriere in a high-backed armchair, puffing on your cigar, sipping your port and exchanging bon mots with like-minded wits.

Do not believe the myth that the country's top business deals are decided in low voices in these inner sanctums. Far from it. Conversation is public property; strangers are allowed to butt into anyone's conversation, though those that make a habit of it can become dubbed "the club bore".

Much though we must feel for Lord Lester in his embarrassment at not being allowed to escort women up the staircase of the Garrick - he cited an occasion on which he and Lady Howe were turned back - do the women he describes as deserving membership of such clubs (Baroness James, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss) really care about them?

Baroness Jay, who surely falls into that category, too, says: "I cannot imagine wanting to belong to one of those clubs."

When I asked a member of the Turf Club why he went there, he replied lamely, "I go there to see a few friends, most of whom admittedly I see anyway, and to play board games." In which case, perhaps women are better off leaving men to it.