Could the men-only Sandhurst Club open up membership to Bendigo women?

Members of Bendigo’s exclusive, men-only club are again discussing the possibility of opening membership to women, 13 years after a controversial vote on the issue.

The Sandhurst Club will hold its annual general meeting on Friday, June 15, and while it is not known whether the issue will be raised in a formal capacity, the Bendigo Advertiser understands members have recently met to discuss the issue and the club’s rules have been under examination.

There is a movement within the membership to allow women, the Bendigo Advertiser understands, but it is unknown whether it will be put to a vote, or whether the advice on the rules will render a vote unnecessary.

The club’s secretary and president could not be contacted for comment before deadline, while another member declined to comment.

The club has admitted only male members during its 160-year history, and the current rules state “All gentlemen of not less than 18 years of age shall be eligible for membership”.

But questions have been raised about the equity of such a membership model at a club that has traditionally served as a meeting place for some of the city’s most influential residents.

In Bendigo, the mayor and deputy mayor, both state members of parliament and the federal member of parliament are all female – yet none are permitted to join the club.

Deputy mayor Jennifer Alden said she continued to voice her unhappiness at the men-only membership of the club.

“Equity relates to fairness in opportunity and access, and the situation in our city regarding women’s eligibility to join the Sandhurst Club is deemed outdated by many in our community, not exclusively women,” Cr Alden said. 

The William Charles Vahland-designed clubhouse, which overlooks Rosalind Park. Picture: DARREN HOWE

The William Charles Vahland-designed clubhouse, which overlooks Rosalind Park. Picture: DARREN HOWE

“Some people say they wouldn’t join such a club anyway. However the issue, in my opinion, is about having the choice to make that decision.”

Organisations were aware of dissatisfaction in the community, she said, and by supporting the status quo they were “making an explicit statement of their values and attitudes”.

It was in June 2005 that the club last formally voted on the issue of female membership.

A leaked email sent to members by then-secretary Ian Treyvaud in the lead-up to that month’s annual general meeting revealed the committee opposed the proposal

"...(M)any disadvantages will be created for the members and serious ramifications exist for the sound, successful and harmonious functioning of the Club," the email said.

Two special resolutions were put forward at the 2005 AGM, both of which proposed that male-specific terms and pronouns be replaced with gender-neutral and female-inclusive terms.

The mover of the motions – a former club president – told the members gathered that he wanted to nominate prospective members who could make a contribution to the club, but the rules excluded 50 per cent of the community, a history of the club by Dr Geoff Russell says.

Minutes from the meeting indicate the resolutions incited strong debate.

One speaker against the motion said he had joined a men’s club, and the proposed change was the most far-reaching in the club’s history. 

He said ramifications of the change – including pressure on the facilities, costs, and the impact on the privileges of wives and partners – had not been answered.

Another said other regional clubs who admitted women in an effort to stop decline had compounded the problem.

But a member who spoke in favour of the changes said the club could not stay in the past, and hoped the club would “see past misogyny”, the minutes recorded.

A new member also said there was “no basis for gender-based membership”.

But the proposal to allow female membership was shot down, with 153 of those members present at the meeting against the changes and just 29 in support.

Extending membership to women was recommended by an independent body 24 years ago.

Business consultancy company McGuinness and Associates was brought in in 1994 to address waning membership and attendance and falling income, Dr Russell notes in his history.

One recommendation of McGuinness and Associates was that the club needed to “resolve the issue of women membership in a clear and direct manner, with a suggested proportion of women members within an agreed time-frame, e.g. 20 per cent by 1999”.

Other regional clubs that were once men-only have long since changed the rules to allow female members, including the Ballaarat Club, the Geelong Club, the Hamilton Club and the Warrnambool Club.

Looking back

The Sandhurst Club in its earliest form was established in 1858 by a “small but powerful group of leading ‘gentlemen’”, Dr Russell wrote.

It is not known exactly when or why the club folded, but it was in trouble by March 1860. But in 1872 a group of prominent men in Bendigo revived the concept of an exclusive club for wealthy ‘gentlemen’, as reported in the Bendigo Advertiser at the time, and by May that year the club was in operation.

“...The Sandhurst Club has served as a noisy popular hub for busy local men to meet, socialise and plan for the future, while considering the present and reflecting upon the past,” Dr Russell wrote.

“Consequently, the social fabric of the Club is intertwined in so many ways with the political, economic and social growth of Bendigo at large.”

The current club house, a William Charles Vahland-designed building that overlooks Rosalind Park from behind the Sandhurst Trustees building on View Street, was built with funds raised by members in 1893.

“The assembled company was not overly different from today’s Sandhurst Club membership: ‘members of the legal and medical professions, the banks, mining and commercial interests’,” Dr Russell wrote of the building’s official opening.

Dr Russell notes that while the club was established as a private venue for men, women played a significant role in its life.