“Membership is offered to gentlemen only, based upon the criteria of good fellowship and shared interests.”

So reads the website of Melbourne’s Savage Club, one of the few remaining men-only clubs in Australia (most have lavishly appointed headquarters in heritage buildings in capital cities). But what does it mean? And why aren’t women part of the “good fellowship and shared interests”? Gender-segregated clubs are in the news again following reports that the Queensland LNP would be holding its International Women’s Day lunch at the Tattersall’s Club in Brisbane — a club that only allows male members. While Prime Minister Tony Abbott characterised this as “smashing the glass ceiling yet again”, it seems more like drawing back the curtains on the shady world of these clubs, with their invite-only membership structures and unspoken rules that govern the way they run.

The Tattersall’s Club in Brisbane, which allows attendance by the partners of members, advertises “As a Member of the oldest and most prestigious Membership Club in the Brisbane CBD, you will enjoy unlimited possibilities, luxury services and the opportunity to join an influential network of like-minded Members”.

So what goes in a men’s club and why aren’t women allowed? Crikey spoke to a few men who had attended these clubs, and the overall message is “there’s nothing to see here”. There’s also no conclusive answer about what the clubs are for, or why women aren’t allowed.

The Melbourne Club is one of the more well known of such establishments, but even viewing its website requires a log in. Overt networking is frowned upon at the club, one source said. It’s a place to relax. “You just put your guard down, there’s no veneer.”

“It’s the epitome of a gentleman. It’s about culture and the art of conversation,” said the source. The clientele is mostly older men, “very old world, stuffy, conservative. It’s not offensive, just from a different era.”

Many clubs offer accommodation facilities and are supposed to be a “home away from home” for their members who come in from the suburbs or the country.

Dress codes at the clubs are strict, with all sources saying the clubs they had attended required a jacket and tie. Crikey has been told that guests who turn up  at the Australia Club without a tie are shown to the cloaking room, where there are spares for guests who are not suitably attired.

An overwhelming feature of these clubs is that the decor is grand and elegant. The Australia Club has a ballroom with huge fireplaces, and the male bathrooms were also impressive. The female ones were characterised as more of an afterthought, close to a broom closet, we’re told. The food at the Melbourne Club is “exquisite”.

Though one source was far less complimentary about The Savage Club. “That shit’s fucked up,” our source said. The Savage Club, of which Attorney-General George Brandis is a member, advertises “a diverse mix of academics and artists, lawyers and judges, businessmen and journalists is to be found behind the clubhouse’s scarlet doors, enjoying one another’s company amid classic decor and furnishings, fine art and exotic artefacts”. It was the “exotic artefacts” — indigenous spears and shields, and “I’m not sure if I saw a skull” — that took our source by surprise. The Melbourne venue also has artefacts from South Africa. “That’s where I felt uncomfortable” we were told. He says the artefacts made it seem Aboriginal people were “subordinated” by the displays.

Defenders of such clubs point to the existence of similar clubs for women, like the Lyceum Club in Melbourne, which is for “women graduates and other women who have distinguished themselves in art, music, literature, philanthropy or public service”.

Australia has about 30 gender-segregated clubs, and while they have different names and purposes, almost all have steep membership fees, long waiting lists and are invite-only.

There is a growing pushback to gender-specific clubs such as these, with the mixed-gender Henley Club growing in popularity in Melbourne. The club was launched in 2012 and says its name “derives from the competitive spirit and strive for excellence from the boat race in the UK of the same name”. It emphasises that it is for leaders of the future and “has taken influences from the establishment, but is modern and in-touch with contemporary Australians who are innovative, and engaged”.

With women in eight out of 14 cabinet positions in the Sunshine State, perhaps the Tattersall’s Club members will discover they might need to do some networking with ladies after all.

Peter Fray

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