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Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It Excerpt from Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It

by Martha Burk

It all started routinely enough -- with a simple three-paragraph letter, addressing a little-noticed issue in the eternal battle for gender equity. But it exploded into a cause célèbre that laid bare the ways in which, and the reasons why, women are still systematically barred from the highest echelons of power -- in government, social and religious organizations, and most importantly, in corporate America. We would see all too starkly how corporate elites enforce the code of behavior that maintains their control, the strength of the conspiracy of silence that surrounds sex discrimination at high levels, and the depth of corporate hypocrisy with all its fancy rhetoric about fairness and how women are valued as equals. Far from being about a few rich females gaining admittance to one club, the gates of Augusta National Golf Club became symbolic of all the ways women are still kept out of power where it counts, and how and why we must change the system to break in.

But back to the beginning.

In April 2002, I was traveling to Texas from my home in Washington, D.C., to visit my adult children, and I picked up a copy of USA Today. Unlike many women who unceremoniously toss the sports section, I usually thumb through it to get an idea of how much coverage is given to female athletes and women's teams. This day was an attention grabber. Columnist Christine Brennan had a piece titled "Augusta Equality Fight: Pass It On," with an accompanying story by Debbie Becker headlined "Augusta faces push for women." The subject was the exclusion of women at Augusta National Golf Club. Augusta National, host of the prestigious Masters Golf Tournament opening that day, was one of the most venerated golf clubs in the world. It was also highly secretive. No one outside the clan of three hundred or so who got in "by invitation only" knew who the members were -- but everyone knew there had never been a female among them. Brennan credited a compelling story by Marcia Chambers in Golf for Women as the reason she chose to devote her column -- for the third year in a row -- to the sex discrimination at Augusta, even though she felt her earlier efforts had been like "beating my head against a brick wall about the issue."

Brennan made it clear that corporate sponsors of the Masters (Coca-Cola, IBM, and Citigroup) were part of the problem, since they were willing to underwrite an event at a club that practiced sex discrimination, even though it went without saying they wouldn't go near a club that kept out blacks, Asians, or Hispanics. She called it acceptable discrimination versus unacceptable discrimination. Little did I know how deeply true that statement would turn out to be. Brennan had interviewed Lloyd Ward, an African American and one of only a handful of publicly known names on the secret membership list at Augusta National. Ward, who was head of the United States Olympic Committee, told her that rather than resign in protest, he was going to work from the inside to change the policy. I believed him.

As chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), the nation's oldest and largest coalition of women's groups, I take any report of discrimination seriously, and this was no exception. I tore the stories out of the paper, thinking we should help Ward's efforts along by writing to the club. I reasoned that if they thought their practices were getting attention outside the cloisters of the golf establishment, it would hurry their decision to open to women. Sitting in front of the television watching the end of the Masters two days later, I casually mentioned to my daughter-in-law that the club didn't admit women, and we were going to try to put some pressure on them to change.

It was not a new area of controversy. Private clubs and secret societies have existed in the United States since before the country's founding; some of them, like the Freemasons, were brought over by the colonists. The issue of whether those that restrict membership to certain groups -- by definition, keeping out other groups -- are harmful to society and infringe on the rights of the have-nots had emerged in a large way for women in the late twentieth century. Women were entering the business world in sufficient numbers to question exclusionary club policies as detrimental to their ability to advance on the same footing as men. The New York Times put it this way back in 1980, when women were litigating to open the doors of private clubs in New York:

This disadvantage [in business] stems from the summary exclusion of women from membership in men's clubs, wholly on the basis of their sex. Evidence strongly suggests that these clubs can be essential to professional achievement. In fact, approximately one-third of all businessmen obtain their jobs through personal contacts, and these clubs strive to create an atmosphere that cultivates business deals and contacts.

In theory, private clubs may be extensions of a person's home, and therefore thoroughly private places. But in practice . . . they are often extensions of the marketplace and world affairs. The current effort in many places to strike down barriers against . . . women and others is not just an effort by once excluded groups to find new company where they aren't wanted. It is an effort to throw open the meeting grounds of business and politics and to eliminate, once and for all, barriers that are unquestionably rooted in discrimination.

The New York case is illustrative of the history of private club discrimination, and legal efforts to end or amend it. It goes to the heart of the question of women's (and, earlier, minority men's) struggle to be accepted as equals in the business world. Private "social" clubs where business was done were particularly disdainful of the few women who made it to the upper echelons of business, and their policies were personally and professionally humiliating.

Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own her own seat on the New York Stock Exchange and at the time Superintendent of Banks for the State of New York, testified in 1973 before the New York City Commission on Human Rights that as a trainee she had for years been passed over when her bosses sent male colleagues to seminars and meetings at private clubs because they knew she would be excluded, and of current experiences such as having to enter the all-male Union League Club through the kitchen in order to attend board meetings of the Sales Executive Club.

When attending functions at the Locust Club in Philadelphia, a female member of the Philadelphia City Council was forced to eat in the basement, since female guests were seated separately from men for dining.

Jacqueline Wexler, president of Hunter College in New York, was removed from the lobby of the University Club by a doorman and ordered to wait in the vestibule to the ladies' room.

A black woman foundation trustee, also escorted out of the lobby of the University Club, observed that the insult was the same as she had experienced in being evicted from restaurants in the South, despite the genteel surroundings and absence of armed sheriffs.

A female executive of one of the country's largest public relations firms was barred from walking down the main stairway at Pittsburgh's Duquense Club with her CEO and the Fortune 500 board chairman to whom she had just made a presentation.

Female oil executives at the Lafayette Petroleum Club were forced to lunch alone while their colleagues joined other men in the main dining room. They were also forced to sit in the hallways to listen to speakers at monthly professional society meetings.

Perhaps because Augusta National seemed a throwback that would surely follow other clubs into the twenty-first century with a little gentle persuasion, confronting the club was not a front-burner issue with me. NCWO has a broad agenda, and we were concentrating on a number of areas such as affirmative action, Social Security, child care, reproductive rights, and equality for women worldwide. Augusta could wait. I threw the clips in a folder for my next steering committee meeting, a month away. A couple of weeks later I met a woman named Rae Evans at a formal dinner in Washington. She told me she was a new member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) board, and I mentioned to her that we were probably going to write to Augusta National about their exclusion of women. She asked me to keep her in the loop.

When NCWO's steering committee met, the Augusta letter was the last thing on the agenda, and it was barely discussed. None of the steering committee members were golfers, and few followed sports other than Title IX issues. I explained the situation, including Ward's statement that he was going to work for change, and my conclusion that we could help his efforts along. Everyone said, "Okay, write a letter." It was so minor and so routine there was no reason even to take a formal vote.

I called Rae Evans and asked for a meeting because we didn't want to interfere if the LPGA already had some kind of dialogue going with Augusta National on opening to women. As an activist, I couldn't imagine that they wouldn't be protesting the situation. At our meeting, she told me that the LPGA did not have anything contemplated, and that she would not like to see street protests. I replied that we could do it either way -- in quiet negotiations or in the streets -- but that we intended to begin with a private letter. Although I truly didn't believe it would be necessary (I was still assuming the club would do the right thing), I did tell Evans that we were fully prepared to go to the sponsors. I knew that she could pass this information along to the golf establishment, and again I thought it would only hurry Augusta National's decision. She suggested that we copy the letter to James Singerling at the Club Managers Association of America, in addition to Lloyd Ward.

It took another month for me to get the letter written and distributed to the steering committee before mailing. It went out on June 12, 2002, and I pretty much forgot about it.

William Johnson
Chairman, Augusta National Golf Club
2604 Washington Road
Augusta, GA 30904

Dear Mr. Johnson:

The National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) is the nation's oldest and largest coalition of women's groups. Our 160 member organizations represent women from all socioeconomic and demographic groups, and collectively represent over seven million women nationwide.

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. While we understand that there is no written policy barring women, Augusta National's record speaks for itself. As you know, no woman has been invited to join since the club was formed in 1932.

We know that Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination against any group, including women. We urge you to review your policies and practices in this regard, and open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year. Our leadership would be pleased to discuss this matter with you personally or by telephone. I will contact you in the next few weeks.


Martha Burk, Ph.D., Chair
CC: James Singerling, Club Managers Association of America
CC: Lloyd Ward, United States Olympic Committee

When a letter arrived by FedEx from Augusta National on July 9, I was so busy I almost didn't open it. It was a terse three-sentence reply:

Dear Dr. Burk:

As you are aware, Augusta National Golf Club is a distinctly private club and, as such, cannot talk about its membership and practices with those outside the organization. I have found your letter's several references to discrimination, allusions to the sponsors and your setting of deadlines to be both offensive and coercive. I hope you will understand why any further communication between us would not be productive.


William W. Johnson

I tossed it aside, figuring I would deal with it later, mentioning to my assistant in passing that we got a kiss-off letter from Augusta National.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang. It was Doug Ferguson at the Associated Press, asking about Hootie Johnson's response to my letter. I was surprised to be getting any press call on this, much less from the AP, because try as we might to get attention for "women's issues," the press doesn't ring very often. Social Security and child care just aren't sexy enough topics. Anyway, I told Ferguson that I really hadn't had time to think about it, and that it was only three sentences telling me Johnson didn't want to communicate with me. Ferguson said he didn't mean that response, but the three-page press release the club had sent out. I told him I was unaware of a press release, so he read it to me for my reaction. (He also faxed it at my request after the interview, a tremendous help for what was to come.)

We have been contacted by Martha Burk, Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), and strongly urged to radically change our membership. Dr. Burk said this change should take place before the Masters Tournament next spring in order to avoid it becoming "an issue." She suggested that NCWO's leadership "discuss this matter" with us.

We want the American public to be aware of this action right from the beginning. We have advised Dr. Burk that we do not intend to participate in such backroom discussions.

We take our membership very seriously. It is the very fabric of our club. Our members are people who enjoy each other's company and the game of golf. Our membership alone decides our membership -- not any outside group with its own agenda.

We are not unmindful of the good work undertaken by Dr. Burk's organization in global human rights, Social Security reform, reproductive health, education, spousal abuse and workplace equity, among others. We are therefore puzzled as to why they have targeted our private golf club.

Dr. Burk's letter incorporates a deadline tied to the Masters and refers to sponsors of the tournament's telecast. These references make it abundantly clear that Augusta National Golf Club is being threatened with a public campaign designed to use economic pressure to achieve a goal of NCWO.

Augusta National and the Masters -- while happily entwined -- are quite different. One is a private club. The other is a world-class sports event of great public interest. It is insidious to attempt to use one to alter the essence of the other. The essence of a private club is privacy.

Nevertheless, the threatening tone of Dr. Burk's letter signals the probability of a full-scale effort to force Augusta National to yield to NCWO's will.

We expect such a campaign would attempt to depict the members of our club as insensitive bigots and coerce the sponsors of the Masters to disassociate themselves under threat -- real or implied -- of boycotts and other economic pressures.

We might see "celebrity" interviews and talk show guests discussing the "morality" of private clubs. We could also anticipate op-ed articles and editorials.

There could be attempts at direct contact with board members of sponsoring corporations and inflammatory mailings to stockholders and investment institutions. We might see everything from picketing and boycotts to T-shirts and bumper stickers. On the internet, there could be active chat rooms and email messaging. These are all elements of such campaigns.

We certainly hope none of that happens. However, the message delivered to us was clearly coercive.

We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated.

Obviously, Dr. Burk and her colleagues view themselves as agents of change and feel any organization that has stood the test of time and has strong roots in tradition -- and does not fit their profile -- needs to be changed.

We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.

There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership 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. We will not make additional comments or respond to the taunts and gripes artificially generated by the corporate campaign.

We shall continue our traditions and prepare Augusta National Golf Club to host the Masters as we have since 1934.

With all due respect, we hope Dr. Burk and her colleagues recognize the sanctity of our privacy and continue their good work in a more appropriate arena.

I was astounded by the tone and language in the press release, but I went ahead and did the AP interview, it's fair to say with zero preparation. Being only a casual golf fan and knowing some tournaments moved around year to year, I made one mistake: I said if Augusta National didn't open to women, perhaps the tournament should be moved. I didn't know, of course, that the club owns the Masters and it never moves, while the other PGA Tour events move every year. Ferguson printed the gaffe, and it was used against me repeatedly by those who disagreed with our position. Though the language differed, the essence was "What is she doing sticking her nose into golf? The dumb bitch doesn't even know Augusta National owns the Masters." Just in case anyone doubts that a double standard is alive and well, Jesse Jackson made the same mistake on television a month or so later, and not a single member of the press made an issue of it, or dared call him dumb or uninformed.

My phone continued to ring all afternoon. The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and many others called. I was on the radio and CNN by evening, but I still thought it was a one-day story. Boy, was I wrong. The media firestorm would continue for most of the next year. For better or worse, I would become a central figure in the controversy about power, money, gender, and exclusion that played out on hundreds of talk radio shows, dozens of television debates on all the major networks, and in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and People magazine, not to mention in kitchen table discussions and family arguments around the country.

Those that didn't get it thought we were making a big deal out of nothing -- what difference does it make if a few rich guys get together and chase a little ball around? As feminists, it went without saying that we knew this was never about golf. It was about power, about keeping women out of places where important business is done, and most of all, about how sex discrimination is viewed in business circles and by extension in society at large. The press knew it, the club knew it, and judging from our e-mails, most of the public knew it too.

Tirades from both sides of the gender divide poured into our office -- close to five hundred e-mails a day. Not all the men were against us, nor all the women for us. But all had strong opinions. On the one hand, it wasn't about golf, it was about why women ought not to serve in combat. It was about the Equal Rights Amendment that would emasculate men, and everyone being forced to use unisex toilets. It was about men wanting to pee behind the trees without women seeing them. It was about women being physically weaker, that's why they shouldn't be firefighters. It was about my wife (whom I'm speaking for), who doesn't make as much money as I do, so yes, she has to do the dishes after her workday; that's fair. It was about you feminists are on the wrong track because I'm a female college student and all this gender stuff was settled ages ago. It was about you cunts destroying the world for whites and red-blooded men who hate fags.

On the other side, it was about all the crap I have to put up with at work from that sorry guy who I trained and now makes more than I do. It was about why my husband picks up his socks when the maid comes but not when I'm doing the housework. It was about my wife getting docked for having to leave early to pick up our kid, but the guy next to her could leave to get his car fixed without penalty. It was that this will forevermore be about men and boys not wanting to give up any modicum of power, and our willingness, as women -- like the frog in the pan of warm water on the stove -- to remain comfy and confident in our pan of warm water, waiting . . . well, we all know what happened to the frog.

Copyright © 2005 Martha Burk