LONDON — A GUST of women's lib is blowing through one of the last citadels of English male chauvinism: the gentlemen's club.
David Butler, a senior general election analyst, unleashed it with his resignation - after 43 years of membership - from the United Oxford and Cambridge University Club because it denies women equal membership.
His protest, which appeared in a letter to the London Times last week and was supported in an editorial, is prompting members of the Oxford and Cambridge, and other clubs, to call it quits.
Averil Cameron, warden of Keble College, Oxford, left the club, she says, because ``associate membership'' for women is ``demeaning.'' Professor Cameron joined the Oxford and Cambridge as an associate, only to find that women were banned from the library ``and aren't even allowed to set foot on the marble staircase.''
Soon after Mr. Butler's announcement, Lord Lester, a high-profile lawyer, said he was quitting the Garrick, another famous London club barring women members. He said the rules of the Garrick, a resort of writers, actors, and artists, are ``antediluvian, absurd, and unjust.''
Butler reports that several members of the half-dozen or so gentlemen's clubs have decided to follow his example.
His resignation letter to Gerald Bowen, chairman of the Oxford and Cambridge, noted that 40 percent of graduates of the two ancient universities are female.
Yet the club remains ``flagrantly impervious'' to the ``norms of contemporary British society,'' he wrote.
BUTLER'S stand earned him vigorous support in a Times's editorial, which paraphrased Groucho Marx in saying that Butler ``does not want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member, but not his wife.'' The editorial noted in passing that Mrs. Butler is rector of a university college.
At the Oxford and Cambridge Club, Chairman Bowen has been keeping his head down, refusing to comment.
Martin Harvey, secretary of the Garrick, points out that private clubs are not covered by Britain's Sex Discrimination Act.
``We shall not be considering the possibility of women's membership for many years to come,'' he says. ``There is legislation in the United States, but not here.''
Some London clubs have happily begun to admit women. The Reform Club began to do so way back in 1981. Other clubs are less enlightened, however: A female voice at Brooks's Club said firmly that the institution was strictly ``for men only.'' But that was ``not a problem,'' she added.
The secretary of the Carlton Club, whose members must be declared supporters of the Conservative Party, said women were allowed to join as ``lady associates,'' but had to accept restricted use of the club's rooms.
The Carlton's rules also require, however, that all leaders of the Conservative Party automatically become members for life.
This poses an interesting problem in the case of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the club's only full female member since its foundation in 1832.
Michael Hodges, a leading author, puts the Oxford and Cambridge's unyielding line on women members into an international perspective.
When he invited a female visitor from the Middle East to meet him at the club, he had to explain that she was not allowed to enter the library. The woman, from Oman, said such segregation had now ended in the main commercial club in Muscat.
``Let us hope,'' says Mr. Hodges, ``that the Oxford and Cambridge can speedily follow Oman into the 20th century.''