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.