Why would any woman want to join the Garrick?

Meet Emily Bendell, the lingerie entrepreneur who wants to overturn the exclusive London club's historic men-only policy

Entrepreneur Emily Bendell
Entrepreneur Emily Bendell tells Celia Walden why she wants to join the Garrick Credit: Andrew Crowley

Emily Bendell – the lingerie tycoon who is challenging the Garrick Club over its “gentleman-only” membership policy – isn’t loving my suggestion that she stage a protest of underwear-clad models outside the exclusive West End club. “That,” frowns the 39-year-old over Zoom, “might sadly work against us.”

It’s obviously a preposterous idea, although the image of Garrick members abandoning their Welsh rarebits to press their faces, en masse, against its festooned frieze windows is priceless. And the idea will be no less preposterous to some than Bendell’s threat of legal action against the exclusive 189-year-old institution for refusing to open up its membership to women.

“I know this issue has been in the news before, but I must have missed it,” says the Nottingham-born businesswoman, who founded the fashion-led lingerie label Bluebella, from her east London office. “So when I was looking around for a good members club in which to meet retailers earlier this year, I was really shocked to find out that men-only clubs were still allowed. And, actually, under the Equality Act, it isn’t allowed to refuse to provide services based on gender, which is why I went down the legal route.”

In a letter sent to the Garrick last week, Bendell’s solicitors have claimed that, under section 29 of the 2010 Equality Act, it is prohibited to discriminate against a person requiring or seeking to use its services and that “continuing to operate its discriminatory policy” is breaking the law.

The Garrick has been men-only since its opening 189 years ago. Here, a painting depicts men enjoying the billiard room in 1869 Credit: Picturenow/Universal Images Group Editorial

Bendell is no Groucho Marx. Not only would she “join a club that would have her as a member”, but she would join one that would only have her under duress. Wouldn’t there be a certain social awkwardness involved in that first triumphant G&T in the “under the stairs” lounge, if not a tangible froideur?

“Maybe. But I’d go there tomorrow if they changed their policy,” she maintains. “Because it’s important that it happens. Often, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable to generate change. The first woman in Parliament and the first QC will have felt uncomfortable, and if I have the opportunity to walk that path then I will take it.”

I’m curious to know whether Bendell has ever been inside the Garrick as a guest (she hasn’t). Female guests are allowed, after all, although they’re barred from paying for their own drinks – which is just one of the reasons I’ve always relished being taken there.

If utopia were a heart-stoppingly beautiful, oxblood-walled festering man cave – populated by the kind of elite old boys who are so low-slumped in their chesterfields you only discover they’re still breathing when a waiter tries to remove the brandy glass from their hands – then this is utopia. Mantopia. Add to that the glorious art collection – which includes paintings by Johan Zoffany, Thomas Lawrence, George Clint and Gainsborough Dupont – and its impressive theatrical library, and there’s no doubt that the Garrick is a covetable club. But to me, allowing women into this bastion of broken blood-vessels and male repose feels a little like letting Marie Kondo loose on Miss Havisham’s attic.

This is not an argument I put to Bendell, not least because it is, of course, a caricature. Alongside the more elderly and often distinguished names, the club also counts younger lawyers, journalists, surgeons, actors and writers as members – so instead I ask what in particular makes the Garrick more appealing than any other London members' club. “It’s not so much that I’m lying in bed every night wishing I were sitting in one of those red, velvety armchairs,” she tells me, “although they do look very comfy.” No. Bendell’s legal challenge is more symbolic: “It’s about the principle and the wider issue at stake.”

It’s an issue that blows up every four years or so, before disappearing in a puff of outraged opinion pieces. In 2011, Baroness Hale, the former president of the Supreme Court, expressed her dismay that “so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick”, and in 2015, a ballot failed to overturn the lifelong ban, despite 50.5 per cent of its 1,300 members voting for the admission of women (a two-thirds majority was needed). Several famous members – including Stephen Fry, Damian Lewis and Hugh Bonneville, who even put Joanna Lumley up for membership – expressed support for letting in women.

John Wayne and Richard Attenborough Brannigan were members of the prestigious club Credit: United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock

But until now, nobody has used the strong arm of the law to challenge the club’s policy, and Bendell’s lawyers are confident “they can win this” battle, she says – or at least prompt the Garrick to vote again. “Because the law is quite clear, and if we didn’t think there was a case we wouldn’t have brought it this far. Nobody wants a long legal battle, but it’s important this is resolved, and I have every intention of getting this done.”

To be fair to Bendell, who has been accused of mounting a shameless PR stunt, she has condensed her argument down to one not entirely fallacious point. “Although the Garrick themselves say that the club is not a place of business, we all know that the person you go down the pub or for supper with is the one you end up more likely to do the deal with – so it’s naive to say that it’s not about professional connections. My concern is that the very top tier of people running this country go there, and it’s a space women are excluded from. Which is very troubling. These old boys’ networks have for many generations inhibited women’s progression, and that this one still exists in 2020, I find astonishing.”

'Old boys' network': Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey jokes at a lunch at the Garrick Club  in 1978 Credit: Michael Ward/Hulton Archive

Her point would be more valid if we weren’t living at a time when the head of the IMF, the Metropolitan Police, Facebook and YouTube (US) were all female. We have our own elite now, just as we have our own private members’ clubs – The AllBright, The Wing, Marguerite, The Trouble Club – our own spas, gyms, TV and radio shows. Bendell has admitted belonging to all-female clubs and networks in the past, and in fact when she started Bluebella in 2005, it was with the help of funding from Addidi Angels, an investment group set up only for women.

But she is shaking her head. “People think that since I believe the Garrick’s policy is morally wrong, then I believe that any single-sex or single-race organisation is wrong: that is not the case. There are obviously many organisations that exclude based on gender or race for various very good reasons.”

Of those reasons, I’m assuming the primary one is that women are still under-represented in general? “Exactly. So there is a purpose those places, just as there is a purpose to, say, a men’s swimming club where men have to disrobe. But what is the purpose of the Garrick excluding women?” Keeping women out so they can have their private moment? “But why is that? Because they can still have their social circle, and if they don’t have to be sitting with women, then the purpose of the club is surely deliberately to exclude women.”

There’s no easy way to say this, but it’s painfully clear that this is absolutely the purpose of the Garrick: it’s right there in the “men only” small print. Which is why mounting a legal challenge against the club feels a bit like demanding to speak to the manager of a vegan restaurant where they’re refusing to serve you steak tartare.

The Garrick has until Oct 5 to reply to Bendell’s legal challenge and, if that reply takes the form of a new vote, the entrepreneur is confident that “the dial will have moved significantly”. Which is great. But it remains to be seen whether the Garrick’s members feel the same – or whether they, like me, feel that change for change’s sake is overrated.