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FromTheIssue

Women of the Year 2003

Martha Burk
by Mariah Burton Nelson

It seemed, at first, an unlikely feminist furor, especially as it began with a highly reasonable and polite letter.

“Our member groups are very concerned that the nation’s premier golf event, the Masters, is hosted by a club that discriminates against women by excluding them from membership,” wrote Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), to William “Hootie” Johnson, chair of Augusta National Golf Club, on June 12, 2002. Noting that she represented160 member organizations and 7 million women, Burk urged Johnson to open the membership to women “now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year.”

“We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated,” Johnson responded in a press release. “We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.”

Thus the “real” tournament—Martha vs. Hootie—had begun. Like Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs nearly 30 years earlier, this competition featured money, power, sex, sports and a colorful, antagonistic struggle between a strong, stubborn feminist and a strong, stubborn chauvinist.

Burk scored an early victory when corporate sponsors wavered in their support of the tournament. Johnson countered by staging a commercial-free Masters, a move that cost the club an estimated $7 million.

Before it was over—and it’s not over yet—the contest got nasty. “I got called a man hater, anti-family, lesbian, all the usual things,” reports Burk. “I’ve been in the women’s rights movement for 30 years, so that was nothing new.”

But the fans’ passion for this lively sport was new. Hundreds of e-mails flooded NCWO’s mailbox. Reporters phoned from Europe, Japan, Australia. It also got scary. “We received death threats,” reports Burk. “Someone said he was coming after us with his AK-47.” She alerted the FBI and hired bodyguards. What was this fanaticism really about? “Keeping women out of power,” says Burk, a Texan with the drawl to prove it. A political psychologist, women’s equity expert, and president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, a research and policy analysis organization in Washington, D.C., Burk has chaired the NCWO since 2000.

Augusta’s membership has excluded women since its inception in 1932. The current list includes about 300 men. About 40 are CEOs. Burk sent each a letter, asking them to confirm Johnson’s contention that all of the club’s members agree with the all-male policy. None has responded. “Few people realize the extent to which prominent, powerful men endorse sexism,” she says.

So far, two Augusta National members have publicly resigned. Thomas H. Wyman, a former CEO of CBS, resigned in late 2002, and John Snow left in December 2002, when President George W. Bush nominated him to serve as Secretary of the Treasury. “This was a tipping point,” says Burk. “I don’t think they’ll ever appoint another cabinet official who holds membership in a sex-discriminatory club, just as they would never appoint a member who holds membership in a race-discriminatory club.”

In April 2003 the Masters took place in Augusta, Georgia. A Canadian named Mike Weir won. His victory was overshadowed—not by NCWO’s small demonstration down the street, but by the counterdemonstration (the most telling sign: “make me dinner”), the 100-plus reporters and the 100-plus police officers.

“We have won—but the final scorecard is not in,” adds Burk. She and the NCWO are now strategizing with senior executive women. “These women work for men who belong to Augusta, and they’re very unhappy. We’re waiting for a high-profile CEO to say, ‘We value our female customers and employees too much to retain membership in this sexist club.’ When this man resigns, others will follow suit. What we need is a leader with guts.”

What corporate America needs, in other words, is a leader like Martha Burk.

For a list of corporations that sanction sex discrimination at Augusta National Golf Club, click here.

Photo by Heather Conley

 
           
     

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009