A couple of years ago, I was invited by a good friend to lunch at one of Melbourne's gentlemen's clubs. If I enjoyed it, I might've joined as a ''literary'' member. He promised me amiable company, good conversation, and fine spirits (of the alcoholic sort). I remember my reply: ''Sounds marvellous. Can I bring my wife?''
Of course, I couldn't - it was a so-called ''gentleman's retreat''. And it still is, since a parliamentary committee ended state Attorney-General Rob Hulls' campaign to include the clubs in Victoria's anti-discrimination laws.
Citing ''freedom of association'', the committee argued that these sorts of voluntary communities are a ''fundamental human right''. Whether it's the women-only Lyceum Club, or the men-only Melbourne, Athenaeum or Savage clubs, it's perfectly legal for grown-ups to form cliques and collectives. So what, then, is Hulls' problem with these clubs?
For the Attorney-General, they're dominated by ''crusty old fogeys and young fuddy-duddies'', with outmoded views.
But there's nothing wrong - legally or morally - with being old or fussy. What Hulls is getting at is something else: a patriarchal vision of the world, where men (usually rich, older and white) sit by the furnace of power, and shut the boiler room door on women. And he sees this, it seems, as a relic of the 19th century, with its strictly defined gender roles, and celebration of the rich, powerful, Anglo-Saxon gentleman.
Even if this were a caricature, there's no doubt that gentlemen's clubs do often attract wealthy, powerful men. And in doing so, they provide a forum for networking in an old-fashioned way - while business is off-limits, the atmosphere still provides the glue that keeps old boys together. In this, they're like sporting clubs and private schools, both of which remain tarnished by problems of misogyny and male aggression.
Because of this, I can understand why Hulls wants to put legal pressure on men's clubs; to ask them to apply for exemption, and demonstrate why they should exile half the population from their ranks. I can also understand why Hulls wants the law to be universal: special exclusions reek of inequality and injustice. Over time, these laws might make single-sex associations unworkable and a little dubious. Perhaps in years to come, business leaders and artists alike will find the idea of men-only clubs a little odd, alien, unfulfilling.
But we must also be careful here: past inequality must not be conflated with future fraternity. For many Australians, the desire to associate with their own sex will remain, regardless of legislation. They might not be a majority. And they won't want this day in, day out. Nonetheless, there will be an hour, perhaps at the end of the workday, or after the day's domestic chores are done, when Melburnians will long for a fine wine, a good couch and the company of fellow men or women.
This is certainly a curious impulse - one would think age, class or ethnicity were more important than gender. But whether it's sporting, parenting or travel clubs, some Australians genuinely enjoy time with their own sex. This isn't necessarily about misogyny or misandry. It offers a simple fellowship, uncomplicated by gender relations. It allows certain parts of our personality to be gratified, exercised and refined.
This is why we have words such as ''mateship'' and ''sisterhood'' - they express the strange bonds that are forged by our gender experiences. This has less to do with networking and exclusion, and more to do with our common human longing for fellowship. And we stifle this at our peril.
In the end, I suspect the day will be won by the Attorney-General, or his ideals. If our society is to progress, patriarchy must be replaced - more women will be educated, empowered and independent. They will have equal access to opportunities, and the ambition and skills to seize them. Gender will remain at the heart of identity, but will no longer be a barrier to aspiration and achievement.
If this happens, our businesses, parliaments and public sphere will increasingly be mixed-gender affairs - and rightly so. But the urge for single-sex fraternity will remain. If our ''elite'' clubs are still around, they will suddenly have good grounds for exemption: offering a few rare hours of civilised, convivial single-sex society. It's not for me, but neither are ''boys' nights out'' and footy trips.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author of Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free.
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