A.S. Byatt on men's-only clubs in the United Kingdom.

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June 9 2011 7:07 AM

No Girls Allowed

Thinking back to the days of men's-only clubs in the United Kingdom.

The following article is excerpted from the latest issue of Granta, the quarterly magazine of new writing. This article is available online only in Slate, but click here to subscribe to Granta in print. For a limited time, Slate readers get a 25-percent discount.

Cambridge University. Click image to expand.
Cambridge University

"No Grls Alod. Insept Mom."Notice attached to his bedroom door by my five-year-old grandson

There are incidents in my life that I think of together—times when I was stopped suddenly short by blank, unexpected and obvious reminders of the disadvantages of my sex. The first was when I was a clever girl at a boarding school—perhaps fifteen years old—being taken out to tea by my father, a barrister, with another elegant lawyer who was his friend. We sat on upholstered chairs in a sunny drawing room in a grand hotel, and had tea from a silver teapot, and triangular sandwiches, and pretty sweet buns. I was asked to be mother and poured the tea.

I was shy and said little unless spoken to. My father's friend asked kindly what I was going to be when I grew up.

"An ambassador," I said. I was very good at languages, I loved them.

"You mean, an ambassador's wife," my father's friend corrected me, still kindly.

I was shocked. I said no, I meant an ambassador. I wanted to use my languages. I already had a horror of being defined as a wife.

"Women can't be ambassadors, I'm afraid," he said still kindly, but finally. I had led a sequestered life in a mostly female world. I was dreadfully shocked. I rearranged my suddenly limited horizons in my head with some distress.


I do not have a naturally political temperament. I went to Cambridge in the fifties. I knew that women undergraduates weren't admitted to the union, but I didn't want to go there. There was so much else to do and I had never cared for formal debating. I didn't think clearly enough.

My moment of pure feminist rage came when I was a very young academic wife in Durham in the early sixties. Durham University in those days was modelled on Oxford and Cambridge—with seven men's colleges and three for women. We lived in the grounds of one of these, up against the wall of the cathedral—which was also, of course, a predominantly male society. Durham Castle was a men's college, and there was an elegant union on the Palace Green between the cathedral and the castle. This was the students' union. It housed the bar and the meeting places of the university. Access was restricted to male students, who debated there as the ones in Cambridge had done. But it was the only place where the university had any social life, as a university. In those days, as one or two of the women I met said a little bitterly, there were no real meeting places in the town; mostly pubs for miners—who also would not have appreciated the presence of women. I protested to male students I met at college gatherings. They could not see what was worrying me. Were not the Oxford and Cambridge unions single-sex? The women could build and found their own union if they wanted one.

They were perfectly pleasant young men, but blandly unimaginative.