Behind closed doors: the secret world of Gentlemen’s Clubs

Do you remember Private Member’s Clubs? You know the type: these were the Clubs that Ian Fleming and Charles Dickens made famous, where ludicrously rich Gentlemen from Dickens’ London and Fleming’s spy-thriller fantasies went to relax in dark-wood panelled rooms, drink horrendously expensive wine, and talk with other like-minded, ludicrously rich gentlemen about the state of the world and how it affected them. Snooker was always in (often with a strange quirk to the rules,) the waiters were always called Georgie. Lady guests were only permitted inside the most progressive of Clubs if they were firmly attached to the arm of a ludicrously rich gentleman capable of making sure that they didn’t disturb the atmosphere of male conviviality within. Some Clubs allowed women to join as ‘Associate Members’ (who had no say in how the Club was run and were often strictly barred from Club staples such as the Smoking Rooms and the Library,) but the majority didn’t allow women to cross the threshold at all: White’s Gentleman’s Club stands by its ban to this very day, having kept its door barred against women since the day it was founded in the late 1700’s.

But why? Was it simple misogyny? The belief that a woman’s place was in the home above all else, no matter which level of society she inhabited? It was certainly a contributing factor. Each and every Club was focused on a different type of recreational interest. For example, the Garrick was the Club for actors and playwrights, White’s was a bastion for conservative politicians and their toadies, and the Traveller’s Club an exclusive haven for Gentlemen who had travelled more than 500 miles away from Britain in a straight line. Within these spaces, they could focus on developing their passions: acting, politics, exploration, academia. All these things were considered at the time to be primarily masculine pursuits, and the Clubs guaranteed this remained the case by making sure that only their members had access to the unique networks and resources that the Club provided, such as libraries written by previous members on their disciplines, which were a necessity for any budding academic hoping to make their career. If you wanted to be anyone in the 17th century, you had to be a member of a Club.

Is it any wonder that we hear so little of accomplished female scientists and thinkers during the centuries the Clubs were at their height? They were effectively written out of history, excluded from the archives of the Garrick and the Traveller’s because it was believed they had neither the skill or the talent to make use of them. Whether it was a whole gender, or a single individual, no-one could be accepted into a Club who had not been approved by the majority of members currently in residence. In this practice we see the core purpose of any Club: the creation of a private, exclusive space, sequestered away behind closed doors, where those who were known and trusted could go freely and the great unwashed could not. In short, these powerful men had turned safety and security into a commodity. Within the walls of the Club, nothing intruded that the members didn’t want to deal with, and the only other people they saw were those who shared their interests. Anything outside the walls could be safely forgotten about, leaving them free to focus on whatever pursuit concerned them the most at the time. According to history, some members took this even further, treating their Clubs like second homes. Whenever they needed to escape from the pressures of work or family life, they would come to the Club to unwind, secure in the knowledge that none of those pressures could follow them in. This remains the case today, with many Clubs keeping hotel-like rooms for members to stay for extended periods. The Commonwealth Club in Canberra provides seventeen suites for its members, and take the comfort and discretion of its guests very seriously. I spoke with a representative of the Commonwealth Club in Canberra, who seemed surprised that I’d even ask about what sorts of activities members could enjoy on the premises. “This is a social club,” He said evenly. “And every member respects the other’s privacy.” I hastily changed the subject.

However, when we peel away the pomp and pretention, the function of a private member’s Club really isn’t that far removed from the modern feminist notion of a safe space. At RMIT University, The Women’s Collective (a student body dedicated to representing women’s rights on campus,) maintains a series of lounges across campus: places where any female-identifying student can drop in at any time. They contain libraries filled with books on women’s health and other subjects, quiet places to study, boxes containing tampons, condoms and dental dams (as well as frank, no-nonsense instructions on how to use them,) and a variety of different programs and opportunities from self defence classes and movie nights. The Women’s Collective also works side by side with The Queer Lounge, a similar space for Gay, Bi, Lesbian and Transgender Students, to offer counselling and monetary support for those of their visitors who need it. Both of these spaces function not only as educational centres who are willing and able to straightforwardly teach visitors about subjects which they might otherwise be too afraid or embarrassed to approach in other spaces or company (such as various aspects of sexual health or exactly how to go about approaching a doctor for hormone replacement therapy), but as refuges for those who come there, from the stress of campus life, an unhappy home or catcallers in the street. In a safe space such as this, they can approach the subjects that interest them without fear of judgement or ridicule. They can share their experiences and passions with other, like-minded people, and learn about different passions from visitors who may not think in the same ways they do. But most of all, they don’t have to worry about any nasty surprises, from ex-boyfriends or annoying classmates or the idiot on the street corner who thinks abortion is the work of the devil. They can take a moment to breathe, without having to worry about the world outside.

Perhaps it’s that sense of stability and conviviality that allows academic and intellectual freedom to flourish in spaces like this. Whenever I write, I need room to focus. I can’t just snatch a few minutes out of a busy day: I need room to sit down and concentrate, to let the images in my head arrange themselves into words and flow through my keyboard onto the page. If I’m in a quiet space, where I know I can concentrate (or at the very least, find myself surrounded by people who are good to bounce ideas off when I’m stuck,) I can usually crack the knottiest paragraph within a good hour or so. But if I’m out at a noisy café, or trying to sneak a few sentences at my desk at work, or even anticipating a shift later on in the evening? My concentration goes out the window. I’m too busy worrying about what’s going to happen next. In a safe space, in a truly stable space, we’re free to not only be ourselves without fear of judgement, but think clearly as well, without fretting over whether or not our ideas are silly or if anyone’s ever going to enjoy reading them. We can just fall into the flow of things, and for a moment forget that there was anything other than doing what we love to do.

Image: Henry Fournier

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Callie HeadshotCallie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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