Back to the past at Augusta: women still outsiders

April 10, 2012

As host of the Masters, the Augusta National Golf Club takes pride in preserving traditions, even to the point of anachronism: pimento cheese sandwiches selling for $1.50 at the snack venues, caddies in white overalls, nostalgic music and minimal ads on the tournament telecasts.

And then there's that other throwback - exclusion of women from the club's elite, CEO-studded membership. It's retro, but not necessarily in a way that inspires warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia.

''They're clearly living in a time warp,'' said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy for the American Association of University Women, who evoked the sexist mindsets of 50 years ago on display in the TV series ''Mad Men.''

''In a culture where `Mad Men' has become such a hit, it feels like we're falling back into some of those policies,'' Maatz added. ''It's resulting in a lot of mad women.''


Augusta National - which took its time before admitting black and Jewish men as members - was targeted by angry women before, in 2002. Martha Burk, then head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, led a protest campaign that riled the club's leadership and failed to break the gender barrier.

This time is different - notably because one of the Masters' longtime sponsors, IBM, has a new female CEO, Virginia Rometty. The last four CEOs at IBM, all male, were invited to be members, so whether Rometty will be offered the same status is an inevitable question.

Augusta National's chairman, Billy Payne, has refused to provide a substantive answer, saying the club's membership decisions are private. The players competing in this year's Masters - which concludes Sunday - have generally dodged the subject. IBM and other major sponsors have declined to comment.

''Their silence sent a message loud and clear: `We respect the boys at Augusta National Golf Club more than we respect our female CEO,'' Burk wrote Friday in an online column for WeNews.

There's been ample high-level comment elsewhere, even from the White House.

President Barack Obama's ''personal opinion is that women should be admitted'' to the golf club, according to his press secretary, Jay Carney.

''We're kind of long past the time when women should be excluded from anything,'' Carney said.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Obama's likely challenger in the fall, said ''of course'' he would allow women in ''if I could run Augusta.''

For feminist leaders, this debate has never been focused on the right of women to play rounds of golf on a particular course, however legendary and photogenic. Rather, it's about the acceptance of women at the highest levels of corporate leadership - the informal old-boy network of CEOs, financiers and other powerbrokers whose camaraderie is reinforced on the links and in the grill room.

''It's the old clubhouse door with the sign that says, `No girls allowed,''' said Kathy Spiller, executive editor of Ms. magazine.

Beyond question, American women have made huge strides since the feminist movement of the 1960s. Women now make up close to half the enrollment in U.S. law and medical schools, up from less than 25 percent a few decades ago, and three women sit on the Supreme Court.

Yet in Congress, women hold less than 17 percent of the seats - 73 of 435 in the House and 17 of 100 in the Senate. Only a tiny percentage of major American corporations have women as CEOs.

''What you're seeing with Augusta - women have not broken the glass ceiling in corporate America,'' said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. ''These companies do this because they don't have enough women on their boards.''

O'Neill expressed empathy with Rometty, who has not spoken publicly about the Augusta controversy.

''We should all be cheering that this remarkable woman has risen to the top, and yet here she has this embarrassing situation to face,'' O'Neill said. ''It's not fair to her.''

It's a tricky debate for many of those caught up in it. Payne, for example, was grilled by reporters about the male-only membership only moments after stressing Augusta National's interest in enticing more young people - presumably girls as well as boys - to play golf.

Among the reporters at Payne's news conference Wednesday was New York Times golf writer Karen Crouse, who later told, ''If it were left to me ... I'd probably not come cover this event again until there is a woman member.''

Contacted by The Associated Press, Times sports editor Joe Sexton said Crouse's comments were ''completely inappropriate and she has been spoken to.''

Even for Obama, who's both an avid golfer and staunch backer of women's rights, questions of gender equity have arisen. According to Mark Knoller of CBS News - who keeps close track of such matters - Obama has included women among his playing partners only twice in 93 rounds of golf since taking office.

Lisa Maatz, of the university women's association, said she worked with Martha Burk on the Augusta protest campaign 10 years ago and was now experiencing deja vu as calls mounted for Rometty to be offered membership.

''There's definitely a sense of `Here we go again,''' Maatz said. ''I hope the leadership of the club is thinking, this isn't going away ... Do it and be done with it, and look forward to next year when you won't have to talk about it.''