Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Augusta National: it's no longer a boy's club

Title IX revolutionized athletic opportunities for women (see a previous blog post here), but the world of sports is still not equal. I grew up in a small town where not enough girls played soccer to form a soccer team, so a handful of other girls and I played on the boys teams until high school. When we played against boys teams from larger towns, the shock and embarrassment the other teams felt when one of the girls scored a goal showed that the boys believed girls were inferior. When I was older, playing golf also provided me with similar moments. Apparently I am not the only one, as it took until this year for one of golf's most famous clubs to open its membership to women.
While women's professional sports do not receive the attention they deserve, as described in previous posts here and here, professional women's golf is relatively successful. Even so, it was not until this past August that Augusta National Golf Club invited its first two female members: former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore. Augusta National is a prestigious golf club located in Augusta, Georgia, with a membership list that exudes elitism; other notable members include Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. It is home to the Masters Golf Tournament, which is arguably the most prestigious major golf tournament. As a private club, Augusta National has a strict and secretive membership policy. One can become a member by invitation only and the club has approximately 300 members, which is relatively small for a golf club. In 2009, the annual membership fees were around $10,000. According to the New York Times, a small committee identifies prospective members, and the vetting process can take several years.

The invitations came ten years after Martha Burk, an American psychologist and feminist, openly criticized the Masters Tournament for being sexist because a men-only club hosted the tournament. More recently, the issue came to a head when last spring IBM, one of the tournament’s three main sponsors, made Virginia Rometty its chief executive. Augusta National has made the past four IBM chief executives members. However, Ms. Rometty did not receive an invitation, which resulted in a national debate that had even Mitt Romney stating the club should open its doors to women. Before Ms. Rice and Ms. Moore gained membership, women were only allowed to play as guests.

Why did the club wait so long to send invitations to women? The club apparently likes to move at its own speed. It took until 1990 for the club to invite its first black member. The former president of CBS Sports, Neal Pilson, said the decision to announce the women's membership at a time other than during the Masters Tournament likely was because Augusta National did not want to appear as though the media was pressuring it- they wanted to make it clear they were making a decision on their own timetable. Despite criticism from 2002 to 2012 from golf's top players, its network broadcast sponsor, tournament sponsors, and even the PGA Tour- which does not allow discriminatory courses to host its tournaments- Augusta National decided to move at a glacial pace

Augusta National has used the argument that it is a private club to defend its discriminatory policies. Should our legal system allow private, non-religious entities to restrict their memberships to one gender? I believe they should not. If a girl wants to join the Boy Scouts she should be able to and if a boy wants to join the Girl Scouts, why not let him? Even if membership is invitation-only, private entities should have some required diversity. Otherwise, institutions like Augusta National will be a place of convergence only for while male elites. Private organizations should not be allowed to continue to make women feel less worthy or able.

While this is a milestone, it is minor in the movement for greater equality. Many other golf clubs have been open to women members for many years. In addition, Augusta National is only open to the most elite and wealthy in our nation. While I am happy that one of the women selected was a woman of color, it is unlikely the opening of Augusta National's membership to Condi will help to advance athletic and other opportunities for all women of color in our nation.

Part of me wants to believe that this event only shows the anachronistic nature of Augusta National. However, when a friend told me a story recently about her father complaining about playing behind a women's golf tournament because women play too slow and chat on the putting green (implying women do not know how to or deserve to play golf), my heart sank. I only wish more men could play golf with Annika Sorenstam; then they would probably wish they could swing like a girl. Undoubtedly there are men who still think that women are inferior when it comes to golf and other sports. Maybe with that in mind this change is more important than I initially thought, and maybe it is a sign that the most stubborn of men are slowly starting to alter their views. If such discrimination was illegal in the first place, however, change may have come more quickly. Hopefully more positive changes are on the horizon.

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