What next for women and Vinnie’s?

Resident members of a 150 year old sporting and social club closely linked to Oxford University held a long-awaited vote on removing the ‘male only’ membership criterion. Those voting yes comprised well over half the poll, but not enough to reach a crucial two-thirds supermajority necessary to change the constitution. What happens next?

This is the unwelcome question Oxford University’s Vincent’s Club now faces. The club, colloquially known as Vinnie’s, has traditionally been for male athletes, many of whom have attained a ‘Blue’ representing the university at sport, although all round intellectual, social and sporting ability criteria are stipulated. Last month, they reached the end of a convoluted consultation and voting period in which over 60% of resident members currently enrolled at Oxford voted in favour of opening eligibility to women. Close to, but falling short of the requisite 67%.

At a meeting to discuss the result last week, the decision making process was revealed to be swarming with “misinformation”, “shenanigans” and “phoney emails”. At least two Vincent’s members claimed that they felt “ashamed” at how they had voted, having based their decision on a controversial survey sent out by the women’s sports club, Atalanta’s, which has since been deemed to have included leading questions. In addition, several sportswomen present at the meeting argued that Atalanta’s does not represent the views of a sufficiently wide community of sportswomen in Oxford. This meeting was concluded with suggestions that the various sporting bodies consult more sportswomen and report back to see if there is a wider demand than the Atalanta’s survey suggested. If so, Vincent’s may work towards a re-vote.

Unsurprisingly, many sportswomen, as well as several men who have resigned membership in protest, are unimpressed at this lack of resolve. As a university level netball player myself, I believe that the endless discussion at the meeting about who represented what constituency of sportspeople and how that information was used within Vinnie’s resulted in utter shambles and obfuscation of the salient point: Atalanta’s getting it wrong on many accounts should in no way exonerate Vinnie’s for the result of their vote.

It should not be necessary in 2015 to grant membership to women only after they have pleaded for entry, as this consultation process seemed to demand. Constitutionally, it was only for Vincent’s resident members to decide whether women should be eligible for membership. Surely, they ought to have realised that general principles of equality are not conditional on the results of a single survey.

Moving forward, I think a re-vote of Vincent’s membership is necessary as soon as possible, as several Vincent’s members have themselves demanded, without over-concern for many more obstructive bureaucratic ‘opinion gathering’ procedures. These simply derail the discussion from what is important: namely, finding out whether Vincent’s members are comfortable with sharing equal status with women or believe we should remain as mere accessories to be invited in only when it suits the men.

I have to ask, what are the members scared of? There are no material changes to the club that would be a hinderance to a ‘yes’ vote on a practical level; bathroom facilities are already available at the clubhouse, and scholarships are currently awarded by Vincent’s to both men and women. The only other aspect that could change would be the less quantifiable ‘atmosphere’. What would this mean in practise? Women able to use the clubhouse and attend events without finding a man first. Women respected in their own right and not for the sole purpose of their entertainment value.

If any current members feel otherwise, that their banter in male-only spaces is inappropriate for women’s ears perhaps, then they should probably get off their patronising, misogynist high horse and grow up. They should not, in 2015, feel uncomfortable socialising with women at a university linked club. If they do, I will be glad to help publicly acknowledge their manifest sexism.

What is at stake here is not a radical proposal for the upheaval of the problematic gender binary in sport. Nor even a fundamental rethinking of what Vincent’s stands for. Vincent’s will remain a club for a limited number of elite sportspeople, which excludes many not lucky enough to experience good health and support to train throughout school and university. Nonetheless, it will go some way to removing some of the male privilege in the sporting community and will augment the position of sportswomen in a year where women are playing rugby at Twickenham and rowing on the Tideway for the first time. These steps are invaluable for recognising within Oxford not that men and women should be kept separate from each other, but that women are very much equal.