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Martha Burk takes a swing.

This year's Masters tournament has come and gone, but Martha Burk and her cause have not vanished. "Today, we are protesting with placards," she said, as the tournament got under way. "Tomorrow, women will be protesting with their pocketbooks."

Burk has been leading the fight to end the men-only membership rule at Augusta National Golf Club. For years, I'd seen William "Hootie" Johnson preside over the Masters, acting every bit the Southern gentleman. But last July, Burk cracked Hootie's folksy facade.

"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," Johnson announced. "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."

Most of NCWO's short letter, written by Burk, seemed tame in comparison. "Our member groups are very concerned that the nation's premiere golf event, the Masters, is hosted by a club that discriminates against women by barring them from membership," the letter stated.

From that time on, for the weeks and months leading up to this year's Masters tournament, the most recognizable face on the feminist frontline wasn't Gloria Steinem or Naomi Wolf or Alice Walker. It was Martha Burk. As Associated Press sports writer Paul Newberry wrote, "[Burk] might be the most symbolic female in the American sports world since tennis player Billie Jean King in 1973. That's when, in the so-called Battle of the Sexes, King defeated Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match at the dawning of the women's movement."

Much like the watershed "Battle of the Sexes," the campaign to address sexism at Augusta National began rather innocently.

"It wasn't really designed to bring it to the public attention," Burk told me during a phone interview a few weeks before the Masters. "When we wrote to them it was a private letter, and we intended for it to remain that way. We had read about the discrimination in USA Today, so it was already in the media. We had read that Lloyd Ward--who was at that time the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and an African American man who's a member of Augusta--was willing to work from the inside to get the policy changed. So our board decided to just write a letter to Augusta and copy it to Ward in an effort to help leverage those inside advocates. The club decided to make the letter public in a rather inflammatory press release saying that we had them at the point of a bayonet, we wanted a trophy in our trophy case, and lots of that sort of rhetoric."

Johnson maintained a studied silence on the subject for a while after that. But as the tournament date approached, Johnson began to offer more details on his position. Tiger Woods, after being pressured to take a stance, let it be known that he opposes Augusta's current membership policy. Johnson's reply basically was that Tiger should stay in his place. "I won't tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn't tell us how to run our private club," he said. Johnson also indicated that Augusta would likely have a woman member at some point, but that it would be on a timeline of the club's choosing. But by the time tournament week arrived, Johnson was singing a different and much more strident tune: "If I dropped dead right now, our position will not change on this issue. It's not my issue alone. Single gender [association] is an important fabric of the American scene."

Burk actually offered qualified agreement on that point. "It depends on the club," she tells me. "If it's a Friday night poker group, of course there's a difference. That's clearly a private association, and we hold those values dear in this country for women and men. But when you're holding a public event, as they are, you're raking in millions of dollars from the public, you're on the public airwaves, it's an entirely different thing. And their membership is composed of the CEOs of America's largest corporations so this is not about a few friends getting together on the back nine. This is about power and keeping people out."

Burk had hit a nerve. Was she surprised by the vehement negative response she immediately received not just from Hootie Johnson but by many in the general public? "Well, yes and no. When you work on behalf of women's rights for nearly thirty years, as I have, you've pretty much been called everything and accused of everything. I am surprised that mere equality and the right to be part of a club whose membership includes America's largest corporations does bring the kind of hate mail that we're getting."

Burk's thirty years of fighting for women's rights have covered a lot of territory. She grew up in Tyler, Texas, in a relatively affluent and golf-loving family. Her mother was a college graduate, and both of Burk's parents were partners in the family business, which was a retail clothing store. Early on, Burk had aspirations of becoming a marine biologist. Unfortunately, she came of age during the gender-restrictive 1950s when women's career choices were limited to three major options: teacher, nurse, and secretary. Burk got married and had two kids before she turned twenty-five but eventually earned a degree in psychology.

Her feminist consciousness began to flower after being asked to take a typing test at one job interview and further bloomed when she discovered that she wasn't making as much money as her male counterparts who worked as researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington. She complained to her department head then and hasn't stopped voicing her opposition to gender discrimination since.

After divorcing her first husband, Burk moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she joined a local NOW chapter and took up a place on the frontlines of the abortion battle. Since those days Burk's resume has continued to expand. She has served as a university research director, management professor, and adviser, consultant, or board member for an array of political campaigns and organizations. As chair of NCWO, Burk coordinates a network of more than 100 national groups collectively representing six million women. NCWO focuses on such issues as Social Security, child care, pay equity, and economic security for women. "I cannot overemphasize what a small thing this letter [to Augusta National] was in terms of our overall program of action," Burk told The Palm Beach Post.

Still, she feels the issue of gender discrimination at a club like Augusta National is important. "So many people do not believe that this needs to be taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination, and they really don't get it," she says. "Part of my job is to make sure that from now on people do get it--to let folks know that there is no difference between race and sex discrimination. They are both discrimination."

Burk points a sharp finger at the corporate executives who are a part of Augusta National's membership. "This is about corporate power. It's about corporate disdain for women. Any time you have the likes of ExxonMobil, American Express, J.P. Morgan Chase, GE, Motorola marketing to women every day while at the same time their CEOs are the members of a club like this, we think consumers need to know about it."

Burk successfully pressured some corporations to pull their ads from this year's event. That's when Johnson decided to go sponsor-free. "Coca-Cola, Cadillac, and Citigroup had already pulled out because they were talking to me," she explained, "and Augusta was trying to preempt that to keep from getting embarrassed."

In the end, the tournament and accompanying protests were less eventful than the preceding buildup. After much legal wrangling, demonstrators on both sides of the debate were confined to a muddy field about a half mile from Augusta's front door, far away from the golf stars and visiting patrons. "Even Bush let us get closer than a half-mile away," Burk said at a sparsely attended rally during the tournament, though as Burk pointed out to me, "We don't think we need huge numbers of people to make our point."

Pro-Augusta protesters were also on site, including a representative from the Ku Klux Klan. Someone was selling T-shirts with a red slash through the word "Burk." Another person held up a sheet depicting a boy pissing on her name. That's the one aspect of the issue that seems to personally anger Burk. "What aggravates me more than anything are the people who are trying to make money off of this by putting my face on golf balls and T-shirts and things like that," she told me.

Tiger Woods didn't win three green jackets in a row, and most sports programs I caught commented more on the commercial-free golf than on the protests happening up the road. After the tournament, Hootie Johnson, for his part, became more entrenched than ever. Sounding like Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond, or George Wallace, he said, "There never will be a female member, six months after the Masters, a year after, ten years, ever."

But Burk is not backing down. She plans on launching a "corporate accountability campaign" that will turn up the heat on Augusta's members. "I don't think they can remain silent any longer," she said. "The choice is too stark."

The battle at Augusta National may not have a direct effect in changing women's lives, but thanks to Martha Burk, many people will not be able to look at the Masters without thinking of its history of gender discrimination and our culture's continued inability to address it seriously.

I'm a golfer myself, and I've learned how closely golf and the business world are intertwined. The major golf magazines frequently run features on topics such as "The Best Golfing CEOs in the Country" and "The Etiquette of Conducting Business During a Round of Golf." It's clear that many important business decisions are made on the fairways and in the clubhouse, and that women aren't allowed in. Through the years, I've heard (and heard about) a number of sexist comments from male golfers directed at women. The attitudes behind those kinds of comments are the same as those that lead to policies that create pay inequity and foster domestic violence. By generally treating women as second-class citizens in the world of golf, clubs deny women the opportunity to participate equally in the business world and be treated fairly in the larger world.

Martha Burk's battle at Augusta is not just about "some privileged lady of leisure" seeking an expensive golf membership, as Greg Cote wrote in a Miami Herald column. It's about discrimination, pure and simple.

Some of Martha Burk's critics have labeled her a meddlesome troublemaker. I proudly call her a hero.

Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California.
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Title Annotation:protests men-only policy at Augusta National home of the Masters Golf Tournament
Author:Lewis, Andrea
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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