No place for a lady
'Margaret Thatcher, the UK's only female Prime Minister - excluded from her hometown Conservative Club for being a woman'
In 1992 the Times ran a pre-election article I wrote highlighting how Conservative Clubs were excluding women members and identifying Grantham Conservative Club as one of them. This meant that technically during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as party leader, as well as leading the country as Prime Minister for over 20 years from 1979 to 1990, she could not, however, have been a member of her own hometown Conservative Club, because she was a woman.
That bizarre situation and attitude towards women, by a party voting for a women to lead them while still excluding them as members from their own clubs, was summed up succinctly at the time by one of Grantham’s Conservative Club’s stewards who commented that; ‘A man can bring a dog into the snooker room but not a woman.’ That comment, propelled the story to the attention of TV breakfast news and years later to the attention of actress Andrea Riseborough, who used the article during her research on understanding the discrimination Margaret Thatcher had to contend with as a woman, when she played her in the BBC television series ‘The Long Walk to Finchley’.
Mrs Thatcher’s exclusion ‘Would not be allowed to occur” according to Margaret Dupont, the then secretary of the Association of Conservative Clubs (ACC). The issue would have been settled by making her 'an exception and an honorary member', should she had wished to have join the Grantham club, which she did not do. And while Dupont described Thatcher as always ‘respectful of individual club rules and never took umbrage if they told her it was an all-male club,’ Thatcher, however, diplomatically stated, I would really like to see Conservative clubs open to both sexes and regret that some still don’t want to admit women”.
Many Conservative clubs of course were originally formed as all-male establishments long before women attained the vote and as each one is run on a private basis can apply their own membership rules as they see fit. The ACC preferred to take a softly softly approach to changing the rules on admitting women members, gently persuading rather than pushing aggressively. Unlike Labour, whose National Executive Committee caused uproar when it disclosed they had decided that all male clubs would be banned if they got back into power; but Labour lost the 1992 election to the Conservatives, who gained their fourth consecutive win and last outright victory, robbing them of the opportunity to test such a ban.
Though the desire to admit women members was shared by both Labour and Conservative club association heads with Bernard Dooley, a former General Secretary of the National Union of Labour and Socialist Clubs echoing Margaret Dupont’s sentiments that ‘women should be included as full members’, the feeling on the ground strangely was otherwise and neither Labour’s approach to the issue or women themselves were welcome at the time.
That was 21 years-ago, and with the passing of Margaret Thatcher I wondered whether the ACC’s ‘softly softly’ approach, something Thatcher herself was not well known for, had brought about the change it wanted? And did that vital 'hidden army' of women Conservative club fundraisers that would swing into action at election time and responsible for much of the organization, still remain? Raising funds for your party while being excluded from joining its club must have seemed wholly iniquitous position to say the least.
In the years that have passed the tables have turned at Grantham Conservative club and now it is women who can enter the snooker room and dogs that are banned. Women can also actually use the snooker tables and ‘play very well’ according to Club Secretary Mike Grimwood.
“I changed a lot of old and outdated rules when I took over the Grantham club 6 years-ago,” said Grimwood. “but women are full members now and have been since well before my time”. A change echoed by Charles Littlewood, Deputy Secretary of the ACC. “About 99% of Conservative clubs today have women members and the few remaining ones that don’t that I come across, which I haven’t recently, I gently nudge in the direction of including women when ever I can. The softly, softly approach clearly created the quiet revolution that was hoped for.
Some of the changes Grimwood is responsible for in Grantham, however, might not have met with Thatcher's approval. Such as it no longer being a requirement for members to even be Conservative to join their Conservative club and the club no longer raising funds for the party either.
“People are surprised when I tell them you don’t have to be a Conservative to join our Conservative Club,” said Grimwood. “Rule number 2 of our constitution says we should promote Conservatism and we do, but what Conservatism looked like back then when the rule book was written and what it is now has evolved and we have to move with the times and open our doors to provide the community with a space that serves us all. The best way to show people what we and Conservatism is about is to open the door and invite them in so that they can get to know us for who we are. Not what they think we are.”
And the change in fundraising? Grimwood says there is no longer any hidden army waiting in the wings to mobilise at election time but they do still get phone calls asking the club to make party donations periodically which Grimwood declines to do, however. “I just tell them like it is and say ‘sorry, but we need every penny to keep ourselves going up here and keep open.”
Times are hard in Grantham and like every other long established Club in the country, an aging population means and aging membership, and the battle to get young people through the door is a constant concern not just an election issue. Grimwood is optimistic about the club’s future however. “We’ll keep open” he said, “People think we’re exclusive and have lots of money but we don’t and we’re not. We welcome everyone.”
Labour too have changed their position on women membership although affiliates as private clubs can administer their own rules just the same as conservative ones can; a change brought about more by time than policy perhaps.
While women membership in political clubs is the norm rather than the exception now, as with the Westminster club that is Parliament, the number of women members is far from equaling men. My daughter Charlotte, who grew up during the Thatcher years, innocently asked one day 'Mummy, can you have a man prime Minister?' A perfectly sane
question from an 8 year-old who had only known a woman prime minister and woman head of State. I told her it was 'perfectly possible'. Growing up today, however, perhaps her question would not be 'can you have a woman prime minster' but 'why haven’t we had one since then?'
The reason is that there a fewer numbers of women participating in a political culture that was established by men. Having greater numbers of women in decision making is not simply about equality it is also about increasing possibilities that a diversity of ideas and culture change brings, not just to the Westminster club but also to the country. Until the numbers reach parity, co-operation and partnership with men is more crucial than ever, not only to get more women into Westminster or other areas of decision making but to enable the culture change required to want them to stay there. Co-operation with men of foresight like Mike Grimwood, who not only has the courage to change the rules but understand that culture like Conservatism is constantly evolving and that without the willingness to allow change, cultural shifts will come in ways that maybe unwelcome if not considered seriously, leaving our current decision makers behind the curve and limiting their possibilities to adapt and grow.
At the time of writing the original article about Thatcher being excluded from Grantham Conservative Club, a woman who had become the ultimate decision maker in her country, I had no idea that years later I would let journalism take a back seat to create an organisation specifically aimed at this very issue. Helping more women into decision making processes, at grass roots and senior policy making level is crucial, as their absence from these arenas is not only the single greatest stumbling block to economic, social and emotional development around the world, but also responsible for limiting the possibilities for peace by excluding women from top table negotiations in peace processes and peace building itself. Short sighted as women have a general propensity for mediation and conflcit resolution skills.
I suspect that Mrs Thatcher would not have approved of Conservatives being forced to share power with another party in office but she was nothing if not pragmatic and she too would have had to adapt to change if she could not lead it; like it or not. This next election will be an interesting one when we get to see what our leaders have learned. The process of collaboration forced upon them at the last election reflected a culture change in the country not just the electorate. Sharing, requires more skills than having complete power over your opponent, traits more commonly attributed to women than men. Whatever the outcome of the next election, however, greater skill in the art of co-operation, communication and collaboration will be required, and under those circumstances, one has to wonder if Mrs Thatcher would have even wanted to become Prime Minister in the first place?