Women celebrate successful storming of a male bastion

Twenty years ago a tradition was challenged. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online
On one of the capital's most imposing riverside club terraces, Margaret Wingfield will tomorrow drink a toast to the 20th anniversary of the falling of a male bastion.

Mrs Wingfield, 84, led the charge through the barricades when the National Liberal Club became the first traditional London club to permit women full membership. "I think it was very important," she said yesterday.

The relative recency of the victory may seem remarkable. In 1976, the Viking spacecraft was showing earthlings close-up views of Mars. But the battle was long-fought. Mrs Wingfield, president of the Liberal Party in 1975, had applied to join previously and was told the "facilities" were not good enough.

Yet when the time came, there was not even a vote because nothing in the rules banned women, according to Stephen Bonarjee, 84, the current club chairman and a former BBC current affairs editor.

"When it was founded in 1882, everyone assumed there wouldn't be any [women]. But the debate was ... lively, I think is the word. There were certainly older members who were rather disturbed by the whole idea."

Today, the National Liberal Club has 2,000 members, about 250 of them women. Many of them will be at tomorrow's anniversary reception, on the House of Commons terrace with Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, as guest of honour.

Baroness Seear, the Liberal Democrat's deputy leader in the Lords, who will be among them, said: "I was glad that the club opened up. But I myself don't believe that entry to a club has been in any way nearly as important as entry into jobs." Neither does she object to men and women having clubs of their own.

With membership to the Garrick, Beefsteak and others denied to them, many women have done just that, founding organisations such as Club 2000, the City Women's Network and Business and Professional Women (BPW) UK. "The men have been at it longer, but I think we'll get there," Janice Bancroft, BPW's president said.

The Garrick rejected the idea of allowing women in when it came up some years ago. Brian Masters, author of books on the killers Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer, defended the club. "You can have a club which has mixed male and female members and it could be as good as or better than the Garrick but wouldn't be the Garrick. Conversation is the important thing. Conversation with ladies is always different.

"It only excluded 'ladies' because it always had done, he said. "It's not a justification, but it's good enough for me."

Landmarks in the battle

Female incursions against all-male bastions.

1996: Gay Kellaway becomes the first woman trainer to win at Royal Ascot and Alex Greaves is the first woman to ride a horse in the Derby.

Women are admitted as members' guests to the clubhouse pavilion at Lord's cricket ground for the first time in more than 200 years - but for one day only. The occasion is the first women's one-day cricket international between England and New Zealand.

1994: Women become an integral part of the Royal Navy as the Wrens is abolished.

1992: The Church of England's General Synod votes for the ordination of women priests.

1991: Helen Sharman beats male contenders and becomes the first British person in space.

1981: The first female cox in the history of the Boat Race, Susan Brown, steers Oxford to victory.

1976: Angela Rippon becomes the BBC's first female newsreader.