Camels, Gnats, and Golf

October 10, 2002

Trevor Matich


There is an admonition in the Bible about the folly of straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel.  It refers to focusing on something relatively small and insignificant, while ignoring something else of great import. 

In her current crusade, National Council of Women’s Organizations president Martha Burk is focused intimately on a gnat, while having camels for breakfast with juice and toast.

Ms. Burk, as the head of NCWO, wields immense power to focus media attention, financial resources, and organizational strength on issues important to women.  She and NCWO are to be commended for many of their efforts, especially those relative to health care.  But amazingly, she has recently chosen to focus her power on a tiny gnat (um, I mean, a terrible injustice)--that monstrous destroyer of women’s lives:  Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National is a 300-member private club for men.  Wives of members can play golf there, as well as female guests of members.  Membership itself is restricted to men.

Ms. Burk has decided that women should be allowed to become full members at Augusta--even though Supreme Court interpretations of constitutional protections allow wide latitude to small private clubs.  So she has appeared on television and radio, using her bully pulpit to pressure the club’s Chairman, William “Hootie” Johnson, to change policy.  When he wouldn’t surrender under duress, she threatened to organize a boycott of commercial sponsors of the CBS broadcast of The Masters--an invitational golf tournament hosted by Augusta National, which attracts the best players on the PGA tour.  Chairman Johnson responded by proactively recalling all sponsorships, and replacing lost advertising revenue with private funds.  Ms. Burk then threatened CBS itself with a boycott.  Brick wall there, too.

She then acquired the club’s supposedly private membership list, and is contacting members individually.  The implied threat seems to be that she could turn her publicity and boycott machine onto the members’ personal places of employment in an effort to pressure them to vote for change.

Said Martha Burk:  "Augusta has to open up or it has to stop wanting to be what it is, which is the premier golf venue and a club of great influence. The CEOs who are members are going to be under extreme scrutiny."

In Martha Burk’s world, it seems that rights of free association apply to all American citizens…except, of course, to those who become successful male CEOs. 

It is ironic that if Augusta National moved to alter its protocol, the several dozens of women who might eventually join would already have to be very rich, very powerful, or both in order to even qualify for membership—these people are certainly neither helpless nor voiceless nor victims. 

Even women who might seem most eager to join are not necessarily welcoming NCWO’s advocacy on their behalf.  Nancy Lopez, a three-time Ladies Pro Golfers Association champion, was asked her opinion.  Much to the consternation of Ms. Burk, Lopez said that Augusta should be allowed to remain as it is. 

(By the way, LPGA membership is restricted to people who were “born a woman.”  Somehow, though, I don’t feel oppressed by my exclusion from the LPGA, even though there are definite business advantages that can only be found there.  Even so, maybe Ms. Burk will take up that cause next.)

Ms. Burk’s actions remind me of a similar incident about twelve years ago.  On Long Island, NY, the operators of a pet cemetery had been selling private plots for the burial of deceased pets.  It turned out that the owners were tossing Muffy and Bootsie into a common hole out back.  When this was discovered, the pet owners were beside themselves with anger, and the media had a field day (more like a week, actually) airing tearful interviews.

Well, into the fray sashays La Toya Jackson--yes, Michael’s sister.  She shows up on local television expressing her solidarity with the grieving pet owners, offering herself up as a spokesperson to give voice to their victimization.

The pet owners were incredulous.  They took barely a moment to laugh her out of town before returning to their lives.

A la La Toya, Ms. Burk has presented herself as the heroic advocate for voiceless victims of oppression.  In some milieus I’m sure she is just that.  But once again, any potential “victims” here would have to be among the richest or most powerful American women to even qualify for Augusta membership.  It is hard to imagine that they are relieved to see Ms. Burk riding to their "rescue."

This would be amusing if it didn’t have a serious flip-side.

We can fairly assume that NCWO is actively engaged in good causes.  But in terms of resources, it’s a zero sum game.  Every dollar and every minute invested on millionaire women is a dollar and a minute that could have been invested helping women who are truly voiceless and victimized.

As long as there continue to be women who are battered into submission by abusive partners, who need shelter and counseling and a sympathetic ear (a true “camel”), why on earth is Ms. Burk diverting financial and media resources to help a few rich and powerful women play golf at this country club instead of that one (a “gnat” if there ever was one)?

As long as there continue to be countries where women are bought and sold into slavery (a massive “camel”), why is Ms. Burk diluting precious organizational resources to pressure corporations to divest themselves of a small, private golf club?  Why not use those same resources to pressure corporations to divest themselves of involvement in those countries which currently allow enslavement of women--as was done with apartheid-era South Africa?

Can’t you just hear a battered woman say:  “Don’t you worry about me, Martha.  You go on and help Barbara Streisand and Mrs. Fields.  I’ll be just fine over here.”

Ms. Burk, bless your heart.  Now that you have such a fine gnat to examine, how do you like your camel—poached or sunny-side up?





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