In 1962, during the tenure of Governor Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, the state had registered its hesitation about the dawning civil-rights movement by raising the Confederate battle flag over the statehouse, in Columbia. That decision became an issue in the 2000 Presidential campaign, bringing threats of boycotts. Johnson pushed hard for the removal of the flag, and was credited with helping to shape the compromise that did so. “The fact is, slavery was wrong, which was why we had the war,” Johnson says, explaining his position on the flag. “Pure and simple. It was wrong.”
I asked Johnson how he reconciled this record with his insistence on the issue of women’s membership at Augusta. “I don’t believe it’s a moral issue at all,” he said. “I think that’s the way that human beings are. Women and men, they have this, I don’t know, inclination or need–I wish I was more articulate on it–this need to be together, and just, for men, sometimes, to just be men.”
“It is a contradiction in the man, I’ll have to say that,” says Martha Burk, speaking of Johnson’s progressive deeds back home. “There’s a contradiction there that I don’t understand, on a personal or professional level.”
However, Burk (who doesn’t golf) is willing to speculate as to why Johnson and, for that matter, the member of any all-male club, might wish to exclude women. “I am a psychologist,” she says. “I once heard someone say that men don’t actually like women. Men like men, and they tolerate women. I think there’s the sort of cult of manhood at work. Certainly at Augusta, there’s more. There’s the cult of money; that is not a controlling factor, but a large contributing factor. There’s the cult of exclusiveness. . . . It makes some people in the world feel better if they can always be one up on somebody else.”
Over the winter, I had several lengthy conversations with Burk about Augusta, and I confessed to her early on that I didn’t quite see how the denial of membership in a private golf club, however narrow-minded the practice might be, amounted to rank bigotry (or “gender apartheid,” as Jesse Jackson phrased it). At one point, I asked her to help me to understand the benefit to society that would result from a woman joining Augusta National. She responded with what has been, throughout her campaign, her case-closing line: “You wouldn’t ask me what was the benefit to society if we were talking about excluding people on race.”
No, but this wasn’t race. I wondered, “Can there exist such a thing as a benign exclusion of one gender or the other in a private social setting?”
Her answer surprised me. “I myself have what I call the ‘girls’ dinner,’ ” she said. “Just some of the women in the women’s movement, and we get together for dinner. Women in Congress do it, too.”
The difference, she explained, has to do with the conditioned behavior of men and women. “Here’s the difference. And it’s interesting that you should ask this, and it’s just now come to me, pretty clearly. It is because, when men get together, denigrating women is often a part of the social interaction. When women get together, denigrating men is rarely done. It’s just not even on the radar screen. Even among the so-called strident feminists of the women’s movement. We don’t have anything to hide in that way, and men seem to.”
Burk grew up in Pasadena, outside Houston, with two younger brothers, who tagged her with the childhood nickname that now seems almost too unlikely–“They called me Hootie,” she says. When she was a student at the University of Houston, she married Ed Talley, a pharmacist, and had a child. The young couple settled near Dallas, where Ed and a partner established a small chain of drug stores. Martha had a second child in 1965, but the life of housewifery rankled. “The most radicalizing experience in my life was being a stay-at-home mother,” she says. “It’s an unhealthy model, for the kids and the mother. It forced isolation for women in that situation. . . . I knew there was something wrong with this picture.”
She returned to school, earning a master’s degree at the University of Texas at Arlington. There she met Ralph Estes, a professor of accounting who needed an assistant for a commercial venture he was undertaking, a computerized system of handicapping Texas high-school football games. Nothing much came of the venture, but Burk developed computer skills, and created an educational-software program that eventually brought her financial independence. It was also the time of Burk’s political awakening. Estes was something of a figure in local social-activism circles (he later headed the Texas A.C.L.U.), and Burk was drawn into the antiwar protest movement. “It was in the sixties, early seventies,” she recalls. “We were part of the same social-action, antiwar network.”
In 1985, her boys grown, Martha and Ed divorced, and Burk looked to get out of Texas. Ralph Estes had taken an endowed chair at Wichita State University, and involved himself in local politics. Burk travelled to Wichita on business, and decided to stay. She and Estes were married in 1986. Wichita turned out to be the ideal place for Burk’s developing feminist activism. It was the home of Dr. George Tiller, who operated one of the few late-term abortion clinics in the nation. The clinic attracted fierce pro-life opposition and pro-choice defense, and Burk joined in the battle to defend Tiller. “I didn’t like what he did to women, the way he treated women,” she says. “But, at the same time, I believed in what he was doing in the larger sense. I thought that abortion should be legal, it should be accessible. And he allowed that to be true.”
Burk became president of the Wichita chapter of NOW, and in 1990 she and Estes moved to Washington, in order to engage in full-time political advocacy. They established the Center for the Advancement of Public Policy, running it out of a DuPont Circle town house. Burk began a feminist newsletter, and in 2000 was elected chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan, against the privatization of Social Security, and, since last summer, for the inclusion of women on the membership rolls of the Augusta National Golf Club.
Meanwhile, a new golf season has commenced, and the campaign against Augusta National has waned, and waxed. The Times’ enthusiasm for the story brought some embarrassment to the paper, when editors spiked two columns that deviated slightly from the perceived party line; Raines eventually ordered the columns published, but the paper has since been covering the story with noticeably less zeal, or, at least, less frequency. Augusta National hired a crisis-management specialist, Jim McCarthy, who is based in Washington, and whose aggressive policing of news coverage seems to have tempered its tone. On the other hand, as Burk suggests, the campaign has clearly succeeded in its strategy of tainting the club. The charge of sexism is now being used as a weapon against some members by their business competitors, whom Burk refers to as “whistle-blowers.” When John Snow was being mentioned for the Treasury Department, a former colleague of his telephoned Burk’s office to make sure that she knew of his Augusta membership. A rival of the Bassett Furniture magnate Robert H Spilman, Jr., made a similar call, as did several people from the academy, who informed Burk of the membership at Augusta of three members of a Harvard University board. The whistle-blowers had one thing in common. “In all three cases,” Burk says, “these were men.”
One evening in early January, I received a call from the Reverend Dr. Deborah Little, telling me that Tom Wyman was seriously ill in a Boston hospital. He’d had surgery, and was stricken by a sudden, devastating infection. A few nights later, with Deborah at his side, he died.
In our most recent conversation, Wyman had told me that, since his public resignation from Augusta, he had received hundreds of letters, telephone calls, and electronic-mail messages from people extending him their gratitude and support for his gesture. “It wasn’t a role I would have forecast,” he said. “I have to confess to you, I’m really surprised and proud to have touched people.”
I told Wyman that I was curious about one aspect of his decision to resign from the club, and the pointed manner in which he’d done it. He’d been a member of Augusta for twenty-five years, including a long stretch when the club had neither women nor blacks as members. Wasn’t it inconsistent, even a bit hypocritical, for him to now claim the moral high ground on the issue?
“They were pretty comfortable,” he told me, “and I was, too. Certainly, there was no worry about losing the tournament. There wasn’t any issue anywhere near the table, as far as one could see, that was raised by anybody. And Martha Burk, well, she brought out the microscope and turned it on the issue, and, with a conviction and a resolve, has changed the formula.”
Wyman said that he continued to believe in the right to freely associate, but that when two principles collide something has to yield. “You know, all things being equal, the idea that a club could pick its members–that principle sounds O.K., as long as there isn’t something bigger,” he said. “Now there’s something bigger. That is, times have changed. We didn’t get it, for a long time. And now it’s there.”