A Donna Quixote Takes on Augusta National


Who is Dr. Martha Gertrude Burk, and does she understand the height of the windmill at which she tilts?
Her engaging southern drawl is the product of a childhood in Tyler, Texas, and years in and around Dallas. She is 59 years old and heavily decorated with the rewards of academic effort. The doctorate is a Ph.D. in political psychology; she got that from the University of Texas in 1974. She is licensed as a psychologist in Texas. She has been on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women (1988-1990). She is chair of the National Council of Womens Organizations and president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, both of which require her to be in Washington, D.C. a lot. She is a Democrat. She has two sons from her first marriage, which ended in divorce. She has since remarried.
By her own admission, she knows very little about golf, and has neither enthusiasm nor distaste for it. But she has a profound distaste for anything that she believes to be discrimination.
Martha BurkOn June 12, Dr. Burk sent a letter to William W. Hootie Johnson, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club. She urged him to have his club review its practice of not admitting women as members now, so that this is not an issue when the [Masters] tournament is staged next year.
Mr. Johnson, feeling the heat of threatened sponsor boycotts rising from the letter, issued a two-page statement in which he promised that whatever the clubs future agenda may be, the club will decide it and will not be browbeaten into someone elses schedule. It relied on the solidity of the law of private association in America.
Mr. Johnson and his board, sources say, considered their response long and hard, over a period of weeks. Even after that stretch of time, the response, while elegantly written, smoldered with the anger of indignation familiar to anyone who feels he has been unjustly interfered with.
There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, the statement said, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet. We do not intend to be further distracted by this matter.
Martha Burk intends to mount a number of distractions, the clubs resolve notwithstanding. But does she understand that Johnsons statement put the ball back in her court? And whats next?
Yes, I do, Burk said from her Washington office July 11. We dont know when well hit it back. We want [our response] to be measured and well thought out. I need to confer with my board and some of the groups that have a high interest in the outcome here.
Thats an important point to recall about the National Council of Womens Organizations. Its an umbrella group of 160 organizations whose missions are related to the rights, welfare and advancement of women around the world. Whether the women in the member organizations consider the NCQO to be their representative in this matter remains to be seen. But so far, Dr. Burk isnt worried. Many supportive e-mails have come to her already, she says.
This is not going to go away, Dr. Burk said. Weve touched a chord in the press here, even more than I expected.
Mr. Johnsons response predicted everything from boycotts to t-shirts to bumper stickers, as well as Internet chat rooms, as possible components of a campaign for womens membership at Augusta.
He actually gave me a few ideas I hadnt thought of, Burk said.
All Dr. Burk will promise now is that the campaign will continue, even if she is not yet sure how. The next likely steps, she says, will be conversations with the chief executives of the companies that sponsor the Masters: Douglas N. Daft of Coca-Cola, Sandy Weill of Citigroup and Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. of IBM.
Augusta National does not reveal such matters, but sources close to the club or those companies claim that some or all of those CEOs may be members.
When this story broke, the question that burned with so many golf fans and reporters, and the one that Burk was prepared for, was this: As chief of an organization that champions womens rights in Afghanistan, monitors efforts toward equality in the workplace, and concerns itself with womens health the world over ' and thats just on a light day ' isnt discrimination at Augusta National a relatively small fish to fry?
A very small fish, yes, Dr. Burk said. Give me rights for Afghani women or memberships at Augusta and Ill take Afghanistan every time. But I think we can accomplish both.
When something like this comes up, women get mad, even if theyre not golfers. It reminds them of some other area in which theyre discriminated against, such as equal pay, or the glass ceiling, or difficulty getting hired. Men are proud of their daughters; they want them on equal footing with their sons.
Dr. Martha Burk has a new fish on the line, perhaps bigger than she thinks. But it appears she also has a devilish sense of humor.
A golf magazine is coming to photograph me Friday, she said, and I have the most lovely green jacket I plan to wear.