The Washington Post Column

Teeing Up For the Wrong Cause

Perhaps it’s because I lived for 10 years in London, where professional women long ago discovered the secret of competing with men who belong to all-male eating clubs (they go to restaurants). Perhaps it’s because I don’t play golf. In any case, until this weekend, I couldn’t see why I should care one way or the other about the New York Times’ extended campaign to force the Augusta National Golf Club to admit female members in advance of the Masters golf tournament next April — a campaign that (infamously) involved censoring two of the paper’s sports columnists when they disagreed with the newspaper’s editorial line, and has now led Treasury secretary nominee John Snow to resign his Augusta membership.

Having now read the formerly censored columns, which appeared over the weekend, I find my lack of interest turning into genuine indignation at the amount of ink spilled on this issue. One of the columns argues that the leader of the campaign against Augusta, Martha Burk, should apply her talents to more important projects — such as rescuing women’s softball, which is threatened with elimination from the Olympics.

This was worth censoring?

Leaving aside all the world’s more obvious afflictions — crime, poverty, terrorism — it does seem there are also a few more significant women’s issues that a group such as Martha Burk’s National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) could profitably interest itself in (and a newspaper could sensibly campaign upon) other than the admission of a handful of millionaire women to a men’s golf club or the continued existence of Olympic women’s softball. The systematic rape of Iraqi women comes to mind, for example, as well as female circumcision: Recent figures from the World Health Organization estimate that 138 million women around the world are still subjected to genital mutilation, including some in Britain and the United States. The situation of Afghan women, who are still illiterate and lacking health care, is another issue of desperate importance. But although the subject is featured on the Web site of the NCWO, alongside the Augusta golf club, there are no linked letters from Burk, no evidence of a media campaign, just the standard call for “more attention to this subject, please.”

I can see, of course, that an American women’s group such as the NCWO (which says it represents some 6 million women) might not want to handle these kinds of subjects, far away from home as they are and involving the sort of women who might not even want to join the National Council of Women’s Organizations, once they had been liberated. But closer to home there are less extreme problems that nevertheless torment middle-class women too. Washingtonians laughed at Jack Grubman, the star Wall Street analyst who was allegedly willing to upgrade a stock to get his twins into a New York preschool. Even here, however, it is possible to call up a preschool in September and discover that the class list is already closed for the following year: I know, I’ve done it. Yet although the paucity and variable quality of preschools and day care is of enormous concern to women — particularly the ones who can’t afford preschool at all — the early education advocates are the people pushing for higher standards and expanded funding, not women’s organizations.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining the polling statistics on American women’s views of feminism, which have been fairly consistent over the past couple of decades. Ask women whether they are feminists and no more than a third ever say yes (only 28%, according to a Time/CNN/Yankelovich poll in 1998). But ask people — men and women — whether, for example, they think men and women should be paid equally, and the majority say yes.

The explanation: Women no longer associate feminists and feminism with the causes they care most about, like equal pay. Which is hardly surprising, given the degree of interest that major women’s organizations have shown in the membership of an archaic club whose 300-odd members pay up to $50,000 a year in dues, just to have the privilege, every so often, of hitting a small white ball across a manicured green lawn.

Let the CEOs of Augusta have their private club. Most American women would be far too busy juggling their working lives with their families and their friends and their other financial obligations to join them anyway.