A search for #MuirfieldGolfClub on Twitter provides a telling insight into popular reaction to a recent vote at the Muirfield Golf Club in East Lothian, Scotland, where members failed to rally the two-thirds majority which would have allowed women entry to the club as members. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon called the decision ‘indefensible’ and Scottish Number 1 Catriona Matthew said she was ‘embarrassed to be a Scottish woman golfer from East Lothian after that decision’.

Women already play at Muirfield as visitors or guests of members, but they can’t become full members in their own right. The result of this decision is that the club will be barred from hosting the illustrious Open Championship. As a lecturer with expertise in sport development, inclusivity and equality in sport, and a PhD in the history of women’s sport in Scotland, I spend most of my days working with sports students and encouraging them to act inclusively when they move on to work as professionals in sport, so this decision was disappointing to say the least.

A letter from those club members campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in the decision stated that:

The introduction of lady members is bound to create difficulties. Regardless of the conventions when they first join they are likely over time to question our foursomes play, our match system, the uncompromising challenge our fine links present, our lunch arrangements. It will take a very special lady golfer to be able to do all the things that are expected of them in the template which is suggested.

Some of these are valid points for a private members club, who can of course make their own rules for admission, but they should not expect to be embraced by the global world of sport, which these days is more and more focussed on development and inclusivity as standard.

To stereotype by gender in the way that is outlined above is shocking. To assume that the admission of any male golfer would be preferable to any female golfer, suggests that the members feel there is something in women’s makeup (perhaps physiological?) which means that men are intrinsically more suited to the sport than women. This truly is an ancient view, but thankfully not one shared by the Royal and Ancient.

A look into the history of this issue suggests that women were often regarded as a ‘distraction for the serious male golfer’ who would be ‘cluttering up men’s courses’. 1 At a club in the North of England there was a suggestion in 1889 that ladies should play on ‘a ground of their own’, and when they were eventually amalgamated with the men’s club and given access to the club house in 1912, there were restrictions: they had no access to the bar and their refreshments were supplied through a hatch to their one rented room, so as not to upset the private lunch arrangements of the men.

Likewise, the Muirfield ‘no’ voters have suggested that if there is a desire to move forward with this inclusivity then perhaps there should be the creation of a ‘lady friendly’ second course and clubhouse. So yes, Muirfield are in good company in their reasons for this decision, but their ideals and suggestions are aligned with a club who made a similar case over 100 years ago.

Pre-1914 golf clubs were the epitome of ‘bonding’ social capital, with elitism as standard. Though separate ladies’ sections were permitted, this only served to segregate and downgrade the women’s game even more. Today most working within sport embrace the special qualities it has to bridge divides, not only between the sexes, but between different corners of communities – the decision from Muirfield suggests they don’t want to play a part in this process.

Of course this is a decision they are fully entitled to make as a private ‘gentleman’s club where golf is played’, but it’s satisfying to see it rejected by the R&A, with their chief executive stating ‘The Open is one of the world’s great sporting events and going forward we will not stage the championship at a venue that does not admit women as members.’ Well said.

Dr Eilidh Macrae is Lecturer in Sport Development at the University of the West of Scotland and researches inclusivity in sport and women’s sport and exercise in historical and contemporary contexts.  Her most recent work on exercise in the female life-cycle will shortly be published by Palgrave MacMillan. You can find her on twitter @Eilidhmacraze.

Image: Four unidentified women golfers, 1930s [Wikicommons].


  1. As Jane George has shown in her research into women’s golf in Britain.
Tags : equalitygender historyMuirfieldsocial capitalThe Open Championshipwomen’s golfwomen’s sport
Eilidh Macrae

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