Inside an elite Melbourne men’s club decision to keep women out

“Frequent users of the club and younger members are more resistant to change than less frequent users and older members,” Peter Singline, a researcher overseeing the survey, told members during the meeting last month.

“That’s an interesting one in terms of the female membership question.”

Footage of the hour-long briefing leaked to The Age and uploaded to a private account that appears to belong to the club shows Singline presenting the data to a room full of members.

Singline tells the audience female membership remains a highly divisive topic and warns the influx of conservative young members may lead to the organisation having “a very single-minded mindset about what life is all about”.

“I don’t know how you’d address this, but it feels to me that younger members represent a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you joined recently then you joined feeling that this is exactly what I want,” he tells the audience.

“It’s not a particularly bad thing, doubly so when they are paying their fees, but it does mean that over time you will end up with a narrower and narrower mindset.”

Peter Singline presents the findings of the survey to Athenaeum Club members.

As the floor opens for questions following the briefing, a man who cannot be seen on camera identifies as being part of the 9 per cent of members who would cancel their membership if women were allowed to join the club.

“We’ve recently returned from overseas and my wife is joining [the female-only club] next door and that’s where she should go, not here,” he says.

His remarks are met with a bout of laughter by other members before he continues on: “Future older members are the younger members of today who don’t want females. I just don’t know why we continue to explore this question.”

Before Singline can offer a response, club president Peter Brannighan walks up to the stand to reassure attendees “the issue of female members is completely off the table for four years” and adds the reason it was being discussed was due to the club’s dwindling membership, which has since increased.

“The issue of women as members has had more consideration prior to last year than it has in the last 18 months simply because if we can’t get 1300 fellows to join we need to maintain that number and the other option is women,” he said.

“In reality, we’ve addressed that so one of the reasons why I’m very happy to take women off the table is that we don’t have that burning platform.”

Athenaeum Club president Peter Brannighan.

Athenaeum Club president Peter Brannighan.

Brannighan was approached for comment but refused to answer questions put forward by The Age, saying the club as well as the information and conversations around the presentation were private.

According to Athenaeum’s latest annual report, the club ended 2021 with a total of 1346 members after attracting more than 140 newcomers throughout the year, its largest membership intake in more than three decades. The club also raked in a surplus of more than $2 million.

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Other issues discussed during the meeting included support for a more relaxed dress code, greater weekend dining options, more events outside of business hours, and the introduction of a partner pass for women.

The club has existed in Melbourne since 1868 and is among private men’s clubs including the Melbourne Club and Melbourne Savage Club, and private women’s clubs including the Alexandra Club and Melbourne Lyceum Club.

Men pay thousands of dollars to join the society, which claims to be one of Australia’s oldest and finest private social clubs for “gentlemen of good character” and offers total privacy for members.

Brannighan told attendees the survey was a means to gauge member sentiment and was not being treated “as a plebiscite”. He said a review of fee and membership categories was underway and the club planned to lift the quality and range of events.

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