No Girls Allowed
Thinking back to the days of men's-only clubs in the United Kingdom.
I taught at University College London for eleven years from 1972. I was pleased to be part of the first university in England to admit women students from its earliest days. Newnham, my college at Cambridge, had been an agnostic college. UCL, founded by Jeremy Bentham in 1826, was also agnostic, and, I imagined, politically forward-looking, rational, unprejudiced. I loved particularly the Housman Room, a staff common room and bar, large and airy, with a tree growing inside it, under a glass dome, and wonderful paintings by Slade graduates—a magnificent Stanley Spencer, a glorious Ivon Hitchens. There was a shiny modern bar, mirrored and elegant. There were other staff common rooms including the Margaret Murray Room—very small, with a teapot stand and chintzy covers on uncomfortable squat armchairs—and the Haldane Room, which I remember less well. Then I learned that until very recently these rooms had been the men's common room, the women's common room and the mixed common room. The Housman Room had, of course, been reserved for men.
I was told that my friend Isobel Armstrong had conducted a sit-in in the Housman Room in the sixties, and have always imagined her firmly and courteously refusing to leave. I have just asked her about it and she replies that she would not have had the courage to stage a sit-in but did, in her first teaching year, write a letter of complaint to the staff magazine. She later overheard a man at a Shakespeare dinner complaining that "Some WOMAN has written to the staff magazine saying that the men's common room should be abolished. Outrageous." She adds sadly that when she came back to London, as Professor at Birkbeck—having had chairs at Leicester and Southampton—she went into the Housman Room for the first time and was "astonished at its luxuriance and beauty." She adds, "The women's common room was a little hole with a high window."
I don't know when the segregation ended. But I do remember arguing fiercely at the Housman bar with an academic lawyer about the UCL Professors' Dining Club. This institution did not invite women professors. I—a lawyer's daughter—said this must be actionable. My interlocutor, witty and amused, said no, the Professors' Dining Club was analogous to the working men's clubs that were at the time being defended from being called discriminatory. No it wasn't, I said. If it was analogous it should at least be called the Male Professors' Dining Club. He lowered his voice slightly. He said, "You know, they drink a lot, and then they process round the table with a huge plaster-of-Paris penis. Women wouldn't like that. It wouldn't be the same."