Sexism, Activism, and All-Male Clubs

September 28, 2012

In a TED talk on "Reinventing Feminism" I saw on YouTube, writer Courtney Martin discussed her middle-class Colorado upbringing by two social activists, saying that her mother founded a women's film festival-and that she was not the only feminist in the house. For example:

"My dad actually resigned from the male-only business club in my hometown because he said he would never be part of an organization that would one day welcome his son but not his daughter" (1:50 into the video).

This prompted a roar of applause from the audience as the camera found Mr. Martin seated in the auditorium. Courtney Martin went on to give an interesting talk, but a question lingered in my head: Why was her feminist father in a male-only business club in the first place? You can't resign from an organization without being a member.

I don't know Mr. Martin, nor anything about the club or its history or rules, but if we are to applaud him for resigning from a male-only club out of gender equality principles, it seems a fair question to ask why joined that club in the first place. Presumably the club didn't suddenly change its policy to exclude women; it always had sexist policies-including when Mr. Martin chose to join it. Obviously (despite Courtney Martin's statement) her father did in fact choose to be part of an organization that would one day welcome his son but not his daughter.

I was reminded of the issue earlier this year when Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters tournament, finally agreed to include female players after excluding women as members throughout its 80-year history.

Tiger Woods and other minorities have played at Augusta for years; Woods and others have urged the club to admit women, but never did much about it. It would have been nice if male professional golfers had politely declined to participate at Augusta until their sexist policies were dropped, but that's their business. I don't know much about golf, but I suspect that refusing to play the Masters could have cost them millions of dollars and possibly brought professional sanctions. (I know that in the world of tennis, players are expected to play in a certain number of Grand Slam tournaments to keep their rankings up, and boycotting one of them-for whatever reason including social justice- could potentially damage a player's career.)

I'm not necessarily saying that Woods and other golfers should have boycotted Augusta National Golf Club until they accepted women, nor that Mr. Martin should not have joined a male-only club (perhaps they thought they could change their sexist policies from within). In an ideal world it would have been nice if they had taken a principled stand, but I'm not in their positions, and each person needs to pick their battles. I would not join-nor resign from-an organization that excluded women, but I don't know if I'd be willing to risk my professional golfing career to pressure Augusta into doing something it had resisted for most of a century.


It's amazing that groups are able to openly engage in gender bias and discrimination in 2012, but they get away with it because they are private, not public. Ironically, Courtney Martin was educated at Barnard, a women's college that does not accept men. Barnard--as a private institution just like Augusta National Golf Club or the Colorado business club Mr. Martin was a member of--has every right to exclude one gender. And those who feel strongly that both sexes should be treated equally can choose whether or not to join and support those organizations. 


#1 first time caller on Friday September 28, 2012 at 10:02am

I understand your point about the irony of Barnard not accepting men as students. But it was a college that was started because women were not allowed into other universities at the time. Have there ever been any protests there, by either men or women, about not admitting men? I couldn’t find anything in a very quick internet search, but it is a curiosity.  Have any other women’s colleges changed their admission policies?  It’s interesting if it is the case that there has never been anyone who questioned women-only organizations and in particular, if no men have ever wanted to infiltrate or gain admission. Is it that boys have no need or desire to enter a girl’s clubhouse? Or is it more nuanced than that?

#2 Benjamin Radford on Sunday September 30, 2012 at 10:08am

You bring up an interesting point. I don’t know if there have been any organized protests about the female-only sex discrimination policies at women’s colleges. I don’t know if men have ever asked to be included, and for that matter, we don’t know if any women ever asked to be included in the all-male business club that Mr. Martin joined (and later resigned from). And I’m guessing that Augusta would claim that for most of the first half-century of their policies, no women asked to be included in their golf club either.

I didn’t really get into the topic of women’s colleges, it was just a passing mention about Barnard. All of these groups had their policies formed generations ago, when the world was a different place and such gender discrimination was more tolerated. To me the real question is why they have not changed with the world around them (or taken so long to do so).

#3 Kevin Slaughter (Guest) on Sunday September 30, 2012 at 11:01am

We’re seeing a strong push for segregation from various liberal and identity groups under the premise that “minorities” (however that is defined to suit a purpose) need “safe spaces”. This is creating racial, sexual, gender and religiously segregated groups.

#4 Kitty Mervine (Guest) on Sunday September 30, 2012 at 12:10pm

When my daughter was accepted at Dartmouth, my very liberal, very active, and very judgmental neighbor said she should not go.  Dartmouth was one of the last of the Ivy Leagues to open up to women.  She still felt they needed to be “punished” and she would NEVER allow any of her children to attend.
She was a child of luxury, she has a trust fund.  Her children at birth had a full ride to any college they ever wished to attend (her father set up a fund for each child).

She’s never bought a car.  Dad only keeps his cars for 2 years, and then doles them out to his children.  Her birthday gift was a mini van one year.  Her children have the “grandfathered in” acceptance to any school, as the extended family has attended only the best schools and been generous with donations.

Our family, middle class with many members never having attended college, did not have the luxury of “oh well, we’ll turn down that school on principle.  We have other choices!”  No, this was our choice.  When given one choice, or the other choice a very nice state school…but not Dartmouth, we picked Dartmouth.  That choice led to her being accepted to a very good internship in Florida, and to her being accepted for graduate school at MIT.  In the real world, where you attend school does matter depending on what your goals are.  Her goal was a paid graduate school. 

My neighbor is still mad we sent out daughter to “that school”.  Other choices I have made, she has complained about…not understanding my choices are made from necessity.

#5 Derek Colanduno (Guest) on Monday October 01, 2012 at 3:58am

Kitty brings up something that always continues to bug me about these types of issues. When activist groups never allow whatever group, business, or people to actually ‘fix’ what is wrong.

Unless you then allow people to go to a place of business, or join a group which has fixed, or is obviously fixing, whatever the problems might be. Then, there is pretty much zero reason to even get mad about any issue such as this. Since, the reason for the ‘boycott’ or ‘ban’ must then be for some other reason, and not the stated position.

#6 Iamcuriousblue (Guest) on Monday October 01, 2012 at 6:55am


Not only have there been no significant protests against female-only admission policies at women’s colleges, in May 1990, Mills College had a *huge* student strike over its decision to admit male undergrads (it has long admitted male grad students), and the Mills board reversed the decision. I suspect the student body of most women’s colleges even today would react similarly.

Per #3, the “safe space” argument is indeed used to justify things like women-only colleges while attacking male-only institutions. And while I think the concept of safe spaces is valid when you’re talking about small clubs, websites, or spaces, I think the idea of having any major institution being a single-group “safe space” is pretty dodgy.

#7 Michael Cornett (Guest) on Monday October 01, 2012 at 11:04am

Just as an FYI, a number of women’s colleges now admit men; Notre Dame in Ohio, Seton Hill in PA, Chestnut Hill in PA, and others. There were protests at Wells College in NY when coeducation was proposed; eventually, the protestors lost and it became coed. Mount Vernon College for Women in DC flailed financially for years and closed in 1999, and was taken over by George Washington University. There are claims that single-sex colleges are not financially feasible but naturally there is disagreement.

#8 Michael Cornett (Guest) on Monday October 01, 2012 at 11:10am

As a point of curiosity, I should throw in that two of the so-called “Seven Sisters” colleges (the prestigious women’s institutions) are no longer single-sex. Vassar has been coed since 1969, and Radcliffe really no longer exists as an independent entity, having been taken over by Harvard.

#9 Benjamin Radford on Monday October 01, 2012 at 11:47am

Interesting information, everyone! The issue of womens-only colleges was just an aside to my piece, but it’s an interesting angle on it!

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