Happily oblivious to the currents of the game, Burk, chief of the National Council of Womens Organization in Washington, D.C., cranked up her word processor, alerted the mailroom staff, and did nothing less than steal the sports headline in the nations No. 1 circulation daily newspaper from golfs premier cup matches. Above the fold.
Burk sent letters Sept. 27 to seven prominent members of Augusta National Golf Club, which she is trying to compel to admit women members after 70 years as a rampart in the fort of all-maleness.
(The letters went to Lloyd Ward, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee; Sandy Weill, CEO of Citigroup, until lately a Masters telecast sponsor; Rep. Amory Houghton (R-N.Y.); former Georgia senator Sam Nunn; Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express; William Harrison, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.; and Christopher Galvin, CEO of Motorola.)
Here, from a letter to one of the CEOs, is an example of Dr. Burks bayonet:
Your willingness to accept an award next month from the Business Womens Network for your work fostering diversity would indicate that you value womens opinions. We are asking you for an on-the-record statement as to how you reconcile your company policies against discrimination, and your marketing practices to women, with your membership in Augusta National Golf Club.
Hootie has heart surgery. Martha goes right for the heart.
More newsworthy within the golf world than the letters was what accompanied the story about them in Fridays USA Today: A complete (says that paper) membership list for the club. Augusta National officials had no public comment on the letters or the list, but a source close to the club said that the home of the Masters is stunned that the list was published. Reticence about the details of membership, even the fact that someone is a member, has long been a hallmark of Augusta National. No one knows how USA Today got the names, but it is likely that a member, or someone in a members family, turned over a membership directory. A complete roster of members is not known to be published anywhere else.
Listing the names of people who have been generally accused of discrimination exposes some of the loftiest executives in America to the derision of a populist public. Many members of that public are not too high on CEOs right now, regardless of what their legal rights to association in private may be.
That is one of the reasons Dr. Burk is currently winning this battle. She quickly bypassed the legal issue by admitting that the kind of discrimination Augusta National practices ' that is, the kind that does not deny anyone a fundamental right such as housing, education, or access to other basic rights of all persons ' is not a legal wrong. She proceeded immediately to moral wrong, and those who stayed with her over that mental speed bump appear to want to ride out the issue to the end.
And if Dr. Burk can, as it appears, get the populist press on her side, it doesnt matter that her true breadth of public support remains unclear. Critics questioned from the start whether American women truly felt represented by Dr. Burk on this issue, or cared about it all. And indeed, e-mails and letters to various editors betrayed some shoulder-shrugging among some women. But others said, You go to the first tee, girl. Not even Rick Reillys justifiable question in his Sports Illustrated column about the obnoxious women-only golf club in Toronto could derail the train Dr. Burk has fired up.
Good inside authority supports the notion that before Dr. Burk began this public battle, private sentiment within the club was swinging toward admitting women. The primary source of the clubs consternation has not been the idea of admitting women, but the prospect of being dictated to. These are men who do not like to be told what to do, no matter how right it may be.
Bullheaded as some might think that to be, it is the crux of the issue. Equal rights and the human dignity they protect are vital, to be sure. So too are the privacy and association rights on which the club relies. The undeniable moral aspect of the issue requires that we decide once and for all whether the indignation we feel over racial exclusion should indeed extend to gender-based segregation, especially when it comes to discrimination over non-fundamental rights. Golf, through its most famous private club, will help decide whether there should even be any distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental rights. The decisions effects could reach much farther than we imagine now.
That complexity, plus the notion that a token female membership at Augusta will be only a symbolic victory that will not change the gender landscape at other exclusive clubs, makes it hard to take a side on this issue. I confess to being as conflicted as anyone. And I suspect that the columnists who have chosen one side of the fence on this are no less conflicted, just less honest.
But this much I do know: Talk softens issues that seem intractable. Lets hope that if some lesson comes out of this (and a lesson would be better than, say, picket lines on Washington Road, a pay-per-view Masters, or no Masters), it is that when letters change hands in the future, even ones with bayonets between the lines, the recipient will pick up the phone. One phone call, one meeting, might have led to some timetable compromise ' some situation in which were congratulating people instead of seeing which one is in the lead over the other.
What are your thoughts on Augusta National and Dr. Burk?