Last Thursday, the Gridiron Club dining society, otherwise known as ‘The Grid’, failed in its attempt to admit women despite a majority voting in favour. Without passing the two-thirds vote threshold needed to change the society’s rules, the club remains exclusively male.
That dining clubs such as the Grid still exist at Oxford University is baffling enough. That gender-segregated clubs still persist is all the more disturbing. At a time when the University and the majority of its students endeavour to shirk the unhelpful view of Oxford as exclusive and elitist, societies such as the Grid only reinforce this false and damaging stereotype.
The realisation by some within the society that their written prohibition of female members threatens to push their organisation into obscurity is telling of that very society’s current irrelevance. To think of the failed vote as a meaningful attempt at modernisation is at best naïve. All it demonstrates is just how out of touch such clubs are with the contemporary Oxford University.
Often criticised for being heavily comprised of alumni of prominent public schools within the UK, dining clubs are backward relics in an increasingly diverse and modern student environment. As two members of the Grid conceded before the vote, the all-male membership of the group is “an anachronism in an Oxford that is advancing”.
Indeed, on arriving at Oxford University, I discovered that these dining societies long immortalised in popular culture are less mysterious and interesting than I originally thought. Groups of male students dressed in awkward clothing descending on restaurants with wine in hand just isn’t as romantic in real life as it is in our imagination.
But even if the clubs are much more bland than we sometimes allow ourselves to think, the folklore surrounding these groups persists. That in itself is enough to taint an outsider’s perception of the University.
There will be those who argue that Oxford University is so full of quirky, out-dated traditions not in keeping with the modern times that to pick on dining clubs seems unfair. If we are going to denounce dining clubs, they say, then we should also denounce matriculation, May Day, subfusc and croquet.
But those traditions are hugely different from the traditional dining clubs existing at Oxford University. Whereas our quirky traditions are non-exclusionary and inert — every student matriculates, has the opportunity to revel on May Day, dress for exams and try their hand at unusual sports — dining clubs are exclusive and deliberately inaccessible to the majority of students.
What is worse, however, than the failure to allow female members into the Grid is the fact that the society thinks female members would want to join in the first place. We have seen recently just how fierce the battle is for the respect and equality of genders within the University. Yet the very foundations of the Gridiron Club that exists today were conceived in a society that devalued and subordinated the role and rights of women.
That dining clubs continue to exist under the same rules, suggests to me that such exclusive groups are on a downwards spiral to irrelevance. It is partially surprising considering it’s 2014 that enough members were ready to vote against the inclusion of women. But to think that women would want to join the society in the first place is, in my opinion, mildly amusing. Societies like the Grid are so far removed from the progress that has been made at this University, and so steeped historically in themes of male-exclusivity, that even if the motion had passed I struggle to imagine there being a strong demand from women for entry.
The typical Oxford student today is, I hope, deeply concerned about access to the University. Getting into Oxford is a tough process riddled with uncertainty (from college selection through to interviews). That you got in and others didn’t is a testament to yourself only if the application process is accessible. For this reason at least, the typical student should care about equality and openness. Attempts to redeem dining clubs by opening their membership to women may technically make them open to a broader array of individuals, but they remain inherently exclusive. That broad exclusivity, let alone the gender restriction, is anathema to modern sentiment at the University.
Dining clubs are a persistent thorn in the side of the ‘modern’ Oxford University. As our University continues to modernise and break down the Oxford stereotype, dining clubs will only fall further and further into obscurity.