The old bloke, the male-only bar and how things change

THE day I had a run-in with a cranky old bloke in a registered club, that ended as a very public stoush with the club’s management and then a victory for women, started ordinarily enough.

So ordinarily that I have no memory of what I did leading up to the run-in.

I was 21 or 22 years old and only fairly new in the job as a cadet journalist at the Gosford Star newspaper. The Star was a free weekly newspaper of the good old-fashioned, local is best, kind. It had pictures of kids at the Gosford Show on the front page. It had stories featuring shop owners worried about vandalism, or local pollies opening community centres, or residents’ action groups demanding someone fix the potholes. 

I was the Gosford Star’s first ever cadet. For my sins I was almost immediately given the job of covering Gosford Shire Council meetings.

Gosford was a fairly typical developing town in those days, back in the early 1980s. There were a few decent public high schools but no private schools, apart from a spattering of Catholic ones. It had a population of roughly 100,000 and was always competing with its neighbour, Wyong, for top billing.

There were parts of town where only doctors, accountants, bank managers and dodgy pollies lived, and other parts where small fibro homes marked out Housing Commission areas. 

Public infrastructure in Gosford was basic but serviceable. The local hospital was forever expanding to accommodate a growing population of commuter dwellers who headed off for Sydney each day, by train or freeway.

And it seemed like everyone knew everyone else, or at least too many people knew me because of my father’s family’s history in the area as builders, and my mother’s involvement with local schools and sports groups.

I got the job at the Star not because I’d always wanted to be a journalist, or because I particularly stood out from the 80 or so people who applied for the cadetship, but because the Star’s editor, Roy Dibben, was a good Catholic who lived across the road and a few doors up.

I got the job because he knew me as “Jim and Barbara’s eldest” – the first of my parents’ 11 children, who traipsed past Mr Dibben’s house each day to go to the Catholic high school on the next block, and who dragged her feet each Sunday in the resentful plod to church.

I got the job because I was from good Catholic stock, in other words.

I was a member of the club who couldn’t enter a part of it that was open to other members, and my husband’s mate wasn’t a member of the club but could wander in and out of that area any time he liked because he had a penis.

The registered club was one of the biggest in the area and I was a member, mainly because it had a decent gym. My husband was a member as well. The club was headed by a group of men who included one with a reputation for toughness and bluntness if you crossed him. Occasionally he would drop in to the Star. 

I don’t remember ever exchanging a word with him back then. I certainly didn’t exchange a word with him after the run-in with the cranky old bloke.

The club had a fairly standard foyer area where you signed in before walking through to the main auditorium. Poker machines were straight ahead, the cafe and bingo area was on your right and you walked off to the left for the gym. To the immediate right was the bar area. And every time I signed in and walked towards the gym I had to pass the sign above a special section of the bar area which said “Male bar only”.

I don’t know how many times I’d passed that sign until that day. I was a regular at the gym. The club was the main venue for touring bands, and I was a regular to those events too. When conferences were held, when weddings were celebrated, when sporting events were played, the club was often where people ended up.

Which is why on that day back in the early 1980s I was standing not far from the male-only bar with my husband and his mate while we waited for the mate’s girlfriend. Which is when the cranky old bloke, who worked for the club, approached me to say it was a male-only bar and I couldn’t go in.

We were in our early 20s and from a generation that was still polite to our elders, even cranky old ones. Through clenched teeth I said we were just waiting for someone and then we were leaving. He told me he’d keep an eye on me until then.

I seethed and gave him a filthy look when we left but said nothing. But it rankled.

I was a member of the club who couldn’t enter a part of it that was open to other members, and my husband’s mate wasn’t a member of the club but could wander in and out of that area any time he liked because he had a penis.

So I wrote a letter to the NSW Anti Discrimination Board and asked if what the club was doing was legal. Could the club even have a “Male bar only” in 1981 or 1982?

As it turned out, the answer was no. To cut a long story short, the “male-only bar” was the haunt of choice of some of the men who ran the club.

When the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board wrote to the club to say the “only people with penises area” wasn’t legal (I didn’t see the letter but I like to imagine that’s what it said), apparently there were a few choice words said about me.

I can’t remember whether the club pulled its advertising from the Star before the newspaper ran a story about the end of the “male-only bar” at the club, or after, but I do remember the grin of the wonderful news editor who told me I had to write it, Wendy McCormack.

I raised a cup of tea to Wendy on Thursday, International Women’s Day – a strong, courageous, inspiring woman who still has the glorious smile of decades ago, and who taught me what journalism should really be about.

This story Dealing with cranky first appeared on Newcastle Herald.