Here’s a Tuesday morning thought experiment. If a private club of stodgy white guys had barred membership to people of your gender since its 1933 founding, and then suddenly it changed its mind and offered you a spot, would you take it? What if the very exclusive, very prestigious club had resisted calls to admit black members until it finally accepted one African-American man in 1990? What if it had raised eyebrows because all its caddies (it’s a golf club, natch) were black? Also, what if Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, had penned a letter to the club’s then-chairman (let’s call him Hootie Johnson) in 2002, challenging the club’s sexism, but the chairman clung to the old restrictions, even as advertisers withdrew their sponsorship from a very famous golf tournament held every year at the very exclusive club in protest?* What if the chairman had sworn that he would not admit women “at the point of a bayonet“?
By now you’ve already figured out I’m talking about Augusta National’s announcement yesterday that it would welcome two women, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore (she’s the founder and chair of a think tank called the Palmetto Institute, and one of Fortune’s 50 most powerful American businesswomen) into its hallowed ranks. Augusta is the site of the Masters Tournament; this past April, the Georgia club sparked a media firestorm when it refused to roll out a symbolic green jacket for Ginni Rometty, the first female CEO of IBM. (Per tradition, the presidents of IBM and other major tournament sponsors automatically become Augusta members.)
But chairman Billy Payne changed his tune yesterday morning, in a warmly worded statement:
These accomplished women [Rice and Moore] share our passion for the game of golf and both are well known and respected by our membership … This is a significant and positive time in our club’s history and, on behalf of our membership, I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome them and all of our new members into the Augusta National family.
Yikes, the Augusta National family. That is one Thanksgiving dinner I would want to skip. I’m picturing an heirloom table crammed with elderly white men making inappropriate comments about “the poors” and the “coloreds” and how it’s a shame girls these days are too busy hollering about the wage gap to learn how to cook right. It’s this vision of unrepentant bigotry, I think, that has given rise to the condemnations of Rice and Brown as traitors to their gender. Comments trickling into the lady blogosphere yesterday—“What is wrong with Condi?” “Screw those guys … I don’t understand Condoleezza’s reasoning behind this at all”—hint that Rice and Moore are endorsing a racist, sexist institution out of personal vanity. And to be fair, if admitting a few token women in 2012 buys the club a pass for years to come, the new inductees won’t have done much for equality. (Augusta does not release its membership lists, so there’s no way to check how many black golfers since Ron Townsend have donned the green jacket, but it’s certain that the media gave the club a break about its racism after 1990.)
There are plenty of signs that Augusta remains stubbornly backward. Rometty, for instance, has still not been offered a spot. No one should imagine that Augusta’s work is done just because it’s opened its doors this once to a pair of women.
Nonetheless, I prefer to see the gesture toward Rice and Moore as a positive one, and their acceptance of the invitation as a step forward for the club and equality (let’s not forget: Rice isn’t just a woman, she’s a black woman). A bastion of unapologetic sexism is finally bending a little to the times; the two new members are helping it transcend its past. While it would be delicious to hear an enlightened lady informing Augustans she didn’t want any part in their bigoted set, the organization will never be able to do what we want it to do—embrace female members—without … actual female members to embrace. Maybe Rice and Moore are actually taking one for the team. After all, we armchair critics don’t have to socialize with Augusta National dinosaurs for 18 holes.
*Correction, August 21, 2012: This piece originally misspelled the last name of women’s rights activist Martha Burk.