Celebration, surprise, humor after Augusta National admits first women

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 8:00am

The offices of SPARK, a nationwide coalition of girls-only programs, were abuzz Monday as news spread about Augusta National's decision to allow female members for the first time in its 80-year history.

"Shock" was a common sentiment, the organization's executive director said -- not because the famed Augusta, Georgia, club finally decided to open its doors to another gender, but because they hadn't done so until now.

"The girls honestly were pretty surprised that Augusta had been discriminating against women like this," said Dana Edell, referring to the teenagers that comprise much of SPARK's staff. "They are horrified that (the club) could legally and blatantly (exclude women)."

Most of these girls were in elementary school when women's rights activist Martha Burk first ratcheted up public pressure on what was then probably America's best known men's-only club. Yet the majority of those women's rights activists responding to Monday's news were well aware of Augusta National's history and that of the decade-long fight to force it to reverse its policy, not to mention the even longer campaign for gender equality.

For them, hearing former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore can now hang out in Augusta's clubhouse with corporate and other leaders from around the southeast and nation was cause for celebration.

Burk admitted that her first reaction, upon hearing of Augusta National chairman Billy Payne's statement, was "we won -- and we did."

"By we, I mean the women's movement and women in the United States, particularly those in business," she said.

But Burk, the co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy women's equity advocacy group, also admitted feeling personally vindicated.

She recalled receiving death threats after she began challenging Augusta National's membership policies in 2002, hoping to give more female leaders an "in" in one of the most exclusive clubs.

"It wasn't a lack of worthy women" that prevented women from being part of the club, said Gloria Feldt, an activist and author who calls herself a friend of Burk's. "It was really about keeping an old, now outdated power structure in place."

Many women who had a rooting interest in the fight, albeit not on the frontlines like Burk, cheered Monday's announcement.

They included Billie Jean King, the tennis player known by some as much for her Battle of the Sexes matches with Bobby Riggs as her 39 grand slam singles and doubles titles.

"Slowly but surely lots of crumbs (add) up to a cake," she said, on Twitter, of how the announcement was a milestone in women's quest for equality.

Others used social media to add a dose of perspective, and humor.

Sports Illustrated columnist Steve Rushin was one of a few who suggested that "the ladies' club championship at Augusta" -- featuring Rice, Moore and no one else -- "should be a doozy." Then there was satirist Andy Borowitz, who offered a reality check along with his characteristic sarcasm.

"Totally stoked about Augusta National's diversity now that it's .6% female," he wrote on Twitter.

Women's rights advocates readily admitted the fact the club hosting the prestigious Masters golf tournament let two women in doesn't mean their effort to achieve gender equality is over -- or that even a fraction of women will ever join Rice and Moore at Augusta. That's especially true when it comes to the makeup of corporate America's leadership, said Feldt, a former president of Planned Parenthood.

"It's a long road ahead because women remain in less than 20% of the top leadership positions across all sectors of business," she said.

Still, Edell -- from SPARK, which bills itself as a "girls-fueled activist movement" -- said she feels more optimistic today about opportunities for her young team members and others girls like them than she did before Augusta National's announcement.

"This just gives them optimism and hope that the world is changing," Edell said. "And hopefully, for the next generation, it will be totally unacceptable and intolerable and unprofitable for clubs like that to exclude girls."

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