Women join rowing elite after 179 years

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In a move prompted by financial incentives as well as modern thinking, a male sporting bastion has dropped its 179-year bar on women being members.

The 2,800 members of the Leander Rowing Club, which is home to Olympic medallists Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, voted for the move by a majority of more than the required two-thirds after a three-hour meeting.

The decision has been prompted by an offer of a pounds 1.5m National Lottery grant towards a pounds 2.3m development plan.

One condition is that the club must comply with the Sports Council's open membership policy, which would mean that women must be accepted on the same terms as men.

The National Lottery had made it clear to the club that it could no longer retain its exclusively male membership if it wanted pounds 1.5m.

Leander, based at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, has for years allowed women crews to train, but has never invited them to become members, nor has the club ever built women's changing areas. The decision means they can become members and also use the facilities.

The club's first rule states that "qualification for membership is good fellowship and proficiency in oarsmanship".

Yesterday, Leander's chairman, Chris Rodrigues, said: "The club will remain a high-performance centre".

Mr Rodrigues said the Leander Club would pursue the lottery application, "provided it in no way compromises our rowing centre". He said "the vote was based on principle."

Pinsent, who was in favour of the move, said recently: "Of course, the club should be open to women. Probably a small percentage will object because it has been male-only for nearly 200 years, but that is not a legitimate reason to oppose it."

Dot Blackie, an Olympic oarswoman who coaches the Oxford women's team, said the move was vital if the club was to become a centre of excellence. "We need to be members so we can use their facilities. Most of the women I know don't really care about belonging to the club itself. They have more interesting things to do with their time than join a country club".

Founded in 1818, Leander is Britain's oldest rowing club and the leading centre for the men's heavyweight national squad. In recent years it has provided the bulk of Britain's international teams, including more than half of the men's heavyweight teams for the Atlanta Olympics last year.

The club can now expect to receive pounds 1.5m towards the rebuilding and expansion of their Henley clubhouse, which celebrates the centenary of its building this year.

Their expansion plans include a purpose-built gymnasium, facilities for physiotherapy, medical assessment and treatment, and women's changing rooms.