From the Archives: Augusta National, Women, and Social Norms (April 5, 2009)

Augusta National, Women, and Social Norms

NOTE: Augusta admitted its first female members, Darla Moore and Condoleeza Rice, in August 2012.  Virginia Rometty was not invited to join.

A pretty big golf tournament kicked off this morning in Augusta, Georgia, at the course Bobby Jones built.  This is one of the most prestigious major tournaments for professional players at perhaps the single most exclusive private golf club in the world. The club has no membership application process, and the only way to join is by invitation.  Until 1990, Augusta had never invited a black person, and did so then only after the three organizations that govern professional golf said it would no longer permit clubs which discriminate to host tournaments.  This was a pretty big deal, and the bid deal today is that the club still has no female members.

This could change very soon.  This very tradition-oriented club has one that will force a decision on admitting women: it has always offered membership to the incumbent CEO of International Business Machines.  IBM recently promoted a woman, Virginia Rometty, to that position.  Augusta will now have to admit a female member or break this long-standing tradition, exposing the club as worried at least as much about the gender of its members as their positions in the corporate world or place in society.

Sally Jenkins pointed out this in an opinion piece last Friday in the Washington Post.  But then she defended Augusta National as a private club which should be left alone to admit whomever its present membership pleases, and criticized Martha Burk for attempting to shame the club into changing this policy.  Jenkins characterized Burk’s efforts as “blackmailed social engineering” and more offensive than the idea that Augusta might refuse to invite Ms. Rometty to join.  Demanding that the venerable private club admit women, she claims, requires “saying the same” to the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, college sororities and African American fraternities.  It’s not clear why it makes sense to compare a o private golf club for wealthy men to these kinds of service organizations, and anyone who can donate fifty bucks can be a member of PFLAG.

Jenkins rejects an argument for inclusion of women at Augusta that depends on “some lame idea of sameness for the good of all” and criticizes Ms. Burk for “appointing herself the People’s Deputy for Monitoring the Fruits of the Revolution.”  Martha Burk of course did no such thing — she never said that everyone is the same, nor that everyone should be treated equally by the club.  Nor did she advocate some Communist idea that the People should destroy the Bourgeoise Private Club in the name of some revolution.  After all, Burk did not demand admission of poor people, subsidized by the wealthy members, nor of collective ownership.

No, Marth Burk pointed out that Augusta National Golf Club refused admittance of women because it clung to an outdated social norm that permits exclusion of certain types of people, in this case everyone except wealthy white males.   She then set out to change that norm by shaming the club into adopting a new one: that women are just as capable, and should not be shut out of important venues of social engagement solely because they have no penis.  Augusta gives a very important collection of elites a place to gather, interact, relax, network, and make plans.  That’s fine, and they of course have a free association right to exclude women if they believe that no woman can effectively contribute to their discussions.  But they have no right to protection from criticism for this, and those of us who object have a right to shame them for it.

Jenkins must agree that this is the reason for exclusive clubs like this.  She notes that the “best way to become a member is to shark your way to the top of a large American company” and goes on to say that if Augusta admits Ms. Rometty it will do so because the members “want to know what she thinks.”  But she doesn’t explain, however, why the club has not extended membership invitations to any of the other females at “the top of a large American company.”  Women run companies like Kraft FoodsPepsico, and Arthur Daniels Midland, and these particular three all rate as having more influence than Virginia Rometty.  If Augusta’s members want to find some female corporate sharks they now have a target-rich environment, and if engaging powerful people is the goal, Ms. Rometty isn’t even the fattest target, at least according to CNN.  It’s not clear, for example, why the membership values the input of Frank Broyles, who claims fame as a former football coach at the University of Arkansas more than it would that of Irene Rosenfeld.  Maybe sharking your way to the top isn’t all that important after all, if your chromosomes line up the right way.

I’m frankly a bit surprised to hear a woman who succeeded in a profession controlled by the same sort of paternalistic social norms — sports writing — argue that Augusta’s record reflects a history of seeking expertise and capability rather than one of discrimination.  I’m more shocked at her suggestion that Martha Burk should not have pointed out the obvious: that the sole criteria driving membership policies at Augusta National has always been that wealthy white men get invited to the party,  and the worthies who already enjoy the privilege of membership adjusted their criteria when pressured.  Augusta members — including Bill Gates and Melvin Laird according to reports — simply do not want to include women.  IBM may have forced their hand, and I have to wonder if anyone — perhaps her predecessor — thought of this when the firm chose her for the position.  Until they make a change, however, others may rightly shame them.  This is, after all, how social norms change, and a female sportswriter like Sally Jenkins should understand this better than most.


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