When Will Augusta National Offer a Woman Club Membership?

Thirteen years after women gained the right to vote in the United States through the Nineteenth Amendment, and in the same year that the country’s unemployment rate hit its highest percentage in history, the pristine greens of Augusta National opened for play.  Since its opening day in January 1933, the club, most recognized for hosting The Master’s annually, has limited its membership to men. 

However, that may soon change.

In recent decades, the club has come under scrutiny for its all-male membership.  Membership to Augusta National is obtained strictly by invitation.  Up until 1990, no African-American had been extended a membership invitation.  At the turn of the 21st century, conversation over Augusta National’s membership policies turned from whether it would admit African-American members to whether it would admit female members. 

The female membership debate was largely punctuated by a public campaign led by the former chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, Martha Burk.  Burk began her campaign in 2002 by sending Augusta National’s chairman Hootie Johnson a letter suggesting that the club admit female letters.  It later boiled over when sponsors were pressured to pull their advertisements from The Masters.  In response to this campaign, Johnson said, “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” and proceeded to pull all advertising for the 2003 Master’s broadcast.

In the meantime, Augusta National has continued to offer membership to select groups of individuals, including CEO’s of IBM–one of its sponsors.  Reports indicate that all four of IBM’s most recent CEO’s received membership to the club.  While this fact may not seem noteworthy, it is important, because in January of this year, IBM named Ginny Rommety its new CEO.  Rommety is a woman.

For a club which has dictated that it will not offer a woman membership “. . . at the point of a bayonet,” perhaps Rommety’s IBM CEO status provides Augusta National the perfect opportunity to break with tradition and accept its first female member.

However, if Augusta National opts not to break with tradition and offer Rommety membership to the club, what options are there to persuade, without the use of the point of a bayonet, Augusta National to accept a female member?

The Law

Augusta National’s long-standing male-only membership is legal. 

In a 1958 case, NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court found that the right to freely associate with others is a fundamental right under the First Amendment.  Subsequently, the Supreme Court in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, held that a group may not grant certain people membership whose presence would hurt the group’s ability to promote its interests.  Thus, Augusta National has a fundamental right to only allow men into its club under the freedom of association.

In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled on a group of five cases more commonly known as the Civil Rights Cases.  In those cases, the Supreme Court held that citizens are protected from discrimination by the government, but not by private entities.  In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.  Heralded as one of the greatest pieces of legislation in recent times, the law failed to protect one key group from discrimination in public facilities:  women.  Subsequent to the Civil Rights Act, states have enacted individual civil rights laws which protect various groups, including women.  While Georgia has enacted civil rights legislature related to employment and housing, it does not have an overarching civil rights law which protects against discrimination in public places.  However, even if Georgia had such legislature in place, it is unlikely that it would apply to Augusta National, since it is a private club.

Economics

From the Selma Bus Boycott to Martin Luther King’s call to boycott companies like Coca-Cola, the Civil Rights movement largely relied upon economic boycotts to gain ground.  However, in the case of women gaining membership to male-only golf clubs, similar efforts have not gained positive ground.

As noted above, when Burk and the National Council of Women’s Organizations called for a sponsorship advertising boycott of The Master’s, Augusta National circumvented this movement by pulling advertising from the 2003 Master’s altogether.  That August National had enough funds to not feel the pinch from not receiving sponsorship income signifies that economic boycotts may not be the best method for women to use to gain club membership.

The Olympics

Golf has not been an Olympic sport since 1904.  In 2016, however, golf will make its return to the Olympics.  This move came after the International Olympic Committee voted in 2009 to approve golf and rugby sevens as Olympic sports beginning with the 2016 Olympics.

The Olympic charter sets forth the role of the IOC.  In relevant part, the charter provides that the IOC is
“to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement” and “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”

The IOC’s votes for golf and rugby sevens are telling.  The IOC voted 63-27 with two abstentions to approve golf, and  81-8 with one abstention to approve rugby sevens.  That a sport which has less worldwide viewership and participation received 18 more votes than golf, signifies discriminatory hurdles that golf faces in integrating women into the sport. 

Ultimately, the addition of golf to the 2016 Olympics came as the result of a year-long study of the sport and its role in the Olympics by the IOC.  However, given that it does not appear that the law nor economics are enough to grant women membership access to one of the sport’s greatest courses, perhaps reconsideration of the sport’s Olympic presence by the IOC would be enough for Augusta National to open its membership to women.

Or, maybe, tomorrow Augusta National will be true to its word, and without a bayonet pointed at it, grant IBM’s new female CEO, Ginny Rommety, membership.

 

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