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.

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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.

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."

A.S Byatt's latest work, Ragnorak: The End of the Gods,will be published in August in the United Kingdom and the United States. Her books include The Children's Book, Possession,and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, andA Whistling Woman.