By Nancy Cook Lauer
Monday, April 7, 2003
Martha Burk begins her protest this week against the Augusta National Golf Club for refusing to allow women to become members.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)--The war in Iraq notwithstanding, the Masters Tournament begins this week and so does Martha Burk's protest.
Burk, in a recent speech here at the Capital Tiger Bay political club, responded to criticism by some sports columnists that it would be "unseemly" to continue the planned protest outside the gates of the elite Augusta National Golf Club while America is at war.
"Isn't it unseemly to have a golf tournament that's much more than a golf match? It's one long corporate party; the liquor flows freely; there's always entertainment in front of you," Burk said. "Is that unseemly in light of a war? If it is not, than neither is protest. It is 100 percent up to the club whether we'll be there or not."
Martha Burk is chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, a network of more than 160 national women's groups collectively representing 6 million women. Burk is also active on a number of advisory boards, including that of Women's eNews.
Since the summer, Burk has gained nationwide and international attention for her efforts to urge the most prestigious golf club in the United States to allow women to become members.
Burk's battle has extended to the city of Augusta and Augusta Sheriff Ronald Strength. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit in federal court on her behalf because city officials have denied Burk's request to picket near the gates of Augusta National but instead moved the protest to a 5-acre lot blocks away.
Augusta Mayor Bob Young was quoted March 18 on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," saying it might be best if Burk and other protesters are neither seen nor heard by golfers and the public. Burk argued that comment shows an intention of prior restraint on constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights.
Other women's groups and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition are expected to join her on April 12. The Ku Klux Klan and other groups are expected to demonstrate against her.
As Women's eNews is being published, neither side has shown signs of blinking. Burk has said she'll call off her protest if Augusta National admits just one female member between now and the tournament. Augusta, home to one of the last remaining boys-only clubhouses in the nation, allows women to play the course, but won't admit them as members.
"Yes, she will be a token. The first person through the door is always a token. Jesse Owens was a token; Billie Jean King was a token," Burk said. "Yeah, she'll be a token. But it is necessary for her to walk through that door so that others can follow."
Augusta National Golf Club chair William "Hootie" Johnson touched off a firestorm last July when he issued a strongly worded statement denying Burk's request.
"We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case," Johnson said then. "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."
The Masters has been canceled only once before. It was not held from 1943 to 1945 because of World War II. Glenn Greenspan, spokesperson for Augusta National, declined an opportunity to speak with Women's eNews.
Barry White, executive director of the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Women's eNews that interest in the tournament is at an all-time high. As of March 21, motel and hotel bookings were up 44 percent over last year, White said.
"It's the best year we've ever had," White added. "We're anticipating a great year for the tournament."
White said he hasn't heard of anyone canceling their plans because of the furor over the club's all-male membership policy.
"They're a great corporate and community citizen, and I respect their right to conduct their business the way they see fit," White said.
That might be true if August National were merely an ordinary private club, Burk responded. But because it has thrust itself into the international spotlight by playing host to one of the premier golf tournaments of the day, it should "abide by the values of the public" and shouldn't discriminate, she said.
"We know if we discovered a secret society today that included members of Congress, the treasurer of Harvard, the 50 or so most prominent CEOs in the United States--including the richest man on the planet--the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, coaches of major public universities. . . if we discovered such a secret society that they have all belonged to for many years and still do and that it barred African Americans, we'd be pretty outraged," Burk said."It would be a national scandal.
"But because it's only women, just a game of golf," Burk shrugged and then drew a laugh from the Tiger Bay audience by mimicking a common line from the race discrimination days of the 1960s: "Why don't they want to start their own club?"
Although the effort to integrate Augusta is the most visible issue Burk has campaigned on, it is hardly the first. From serving on the board of directors of Wider Opportunities for Women to coaching her son's baseball team, Burk has always strived to push women to where they belonged, but weren't always welcome.
Burk is a psychologist and women's equity expert who co-founded and now heads the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, a research and policy analysis organization in Washington. She has served on the Commission for Responsive Democracy, the Advisory Committee of Americans for Workplace Fairness, the Sex Equity Caucus of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the board of directors for the National Organization for Women.
Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.
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