BERLIN — When the Financial Times on Wednesday revealed harassment at a London charity event last week, the fallout was swift. Within hours, Britain’s House of Commons opened investigations and Prime Minister Theresa May expressed her discomfort. Meanwhile, charity recipients, attendees and donors hurried to distance themselves — and late Wednesday, the trust itself shut down with immediate effect.
For 33 years, the Presidents Club Charitable Trust had organized an annual fundraising dinner — for male members only.
Even a day after the news broke, the revelations remained Britain’s lead story on Thursday, with the focus now turning toward other clubs that accept only male members, even if they may not directly or indirectly encourage the sort of sexual harassment revealed by the Financial Times at the Presidents Club.
“It is worth remembering that many senior establishment men cling firmly to their right to spend time in men-only environments outside of the world of finance,” Guardian reporter Amelia Gentleman wrote on Thursday. “Anyone shocked by the idea of 360 men from business, politics and finance gathering at the all-male Presidents Club annual dinner should note that men-only clubs continue to flourish throughout London.”
In fact, men-only clubs still appear to exist across much of Europe, including in France, Britain and Germany. In the British capital, a number of clubs still don’t accept female members, even though women are often allowed to join men as guests. Frequented by leading figures in business, politics, media and other professions, those clubs have withstood decades-long attempts to get women accepted. In July 2015, the men-only Garrick Club in the center of London voted to uphold its ban on female members. (A slim majority voted to drop the ban, but any changes would have required a two-thirds majority).
The 2015 debate also made headlines in France at the time. Even though it stressed the British “origins” of such gender-separated places, French newspaper Le Figaro found multiple clubs reserved for men in the middle of the French capital.
Both in Britain and France, courts have not used gender equality laws to rule against the practices. Proponents of the men-only membership associations have referred to the existence of female-only sports clubs, saying that they could similarly be found guilty of gender discrimination if such laws were deployed.
In her 2008 book, “Members Only: Elite Clubs and The Process of Exclusion,” Diana Kendall argued that flawed European Union directives — which were originally supposed to advance gender equality — did not tackle the persistence of men-only clubs, ironically because they applied only to mixed-gender clubs.
But elsewhere, men-only clubs have faced more robust legal resistance. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously to outlaw Rotary Clubs’ reluctance to accept female members in a decision that had implications nationwide, and set a legal precedent. The landmark ruling came decades before similar trials got underway in Europe, even though men-only sports clubs are still not entirely a thing of the past in the United States, either. Some of the last U.S. holdouts — among them the Augusta National Golf Club — only recently announced a change of course.
Whereas the 1987 Supreme Court ruling had an immediate effect on Rotary Clubs in the United States, Rotary chapters abroad that are not bound by U.S. rules have continued to exclude women as similar legal challenges in their respective countries were lacking.
It took until last August for a German court to rule that clubs that discriminated against a gender should be banned from registering as nongovernmental organizations. Men-only clubs are less widespread in Germany’s capital, Berlin, or the banking hub Frankfurt than they are in London, and the court case mostly referred to the Freemasonry, a fraternal organization that is not unique to Germany and has historically allowed only men to join its ranks.
Even though the court decision stopped short of constituting an outright ban, it restricted the association from benefiting from the tax perks usually granted to nonprofit organizations. As in Britain and France, critics of the ruling argued that it may also affect male or female choirs, where gender separation is not necessarily intended as discrimination. But others viewed the broad ruling as necessary to force the country’s remaining men-only bastions to open up, which included a fourth of all German Rotary clubs as of August 2017.
The ruling will “certainly lead to a lasting rethink among this minority [of Rotary clubs] — and we explicitly encourage this,” Peter Iblher, one of Rotary International’s directors, said in an interview last year, indicating that the organization, which is headquartered in the United States, has long viewed as outdated the practices still in place at some of its independent regional branches abroad.
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