Activist Martha Burk today encouraged women not to patronize corporations whose top executives are members of the all-male Augusta National Golf Club, host of The Masters tournament.
Burk stopped short of calling for an outright boycott, saying after a news conference here that she opted for a "consumer education campaign" because the bylaws of some groups that are members of her umbrella coalition, the National Council of Women's Organizations, prohibit boycotts.
"It doesn't make any difference whether you call it a boycott or not; consumer action is the key here," said Burk, who used the occasion of the tournament's scheduled opening round, which was postponed by rain, to challenge chief executives who are members of the club to either publicly declare their positions about the male-only policy or to resign from the club.
"I want women to be smart about where they spend their money. . . . Some people protest with signs; other people protest with their pocketbooks."
Burk also said she will petition publicly held pension funds to divest themselves of stocks in companies that support membership in male-only clubs and will seek stockholder resolutions banning top executives from holding memberships in all-male clubs. Many corporations "take women for fools," she said, by publicly expressing support for equal pay and promotions, while simultaneously allowing executives to join clubs that ban women.
Burk's announcement was the latest salvo in her Washington-based group's 10-month campaign to end the male-only policy at Augusta National, which counts some of the world's wealthiest and most influential businessmen among its members. Her remarks were, in part, a response to the defiant stance taken Wednesday by Augusta National Chairman William W. "Hootie" Johnson, who boasted of broad support from members and declared: "If I drop dead right now, our position will not change."
Jim McCarthy, an Augusta public relations consultant, today cited several opinion polls that show support for the club's membership policy and called Burk's comments "misguided and frivolous.
"From the start, this campaign has been about threats, insults and invective," McCarthy said.
Burk's announcement today was designed for maximum symbolic effect. She chose the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site to deliver her remarks, standing in bitter cold alongside Martin Luther King III, who compared the fight to end the all-male policy at Augusta with the civil rights struggle undertaken by his martyred father.
"I'm saddened that in 2003, we still have to come forward to suppress any kind of discrimination," he said.
Race has emerged in recent weeks as an increasingly significant aspect in the debate over Augusta's membership. Burk's supporters were incensed that their request to demonstrate at the front gate of the Augusta course was rejected in a narrow vote of the Augusta County Commission when all the white members voted against her proposal and all the black members supported it. Burk accused the commission's white members of conspiring with the club and the county's white sheriff to force her to hold demonstrations Saturday at a site about a half-mile from the entrance.
But her sharpest complaints today were directed at the corporate executives in the club, whom she accused of spending lavishly on limousines, liquor and entertainment during The Masters during a time of mass layoffs. She singled out club members Louis Gerstner and Samuel Palmisano of IBM, and Ray Robinson, southern region president of AT&T, for spending heavily at The Masters not long after their firms laid off thousands of workers.
Sue Fleming, an AT&T spokeswoman, said Robinson's membership dues are not paid by the company and that "this is a private matter."
She also excoriated William Clay Ford Sr., retired chairman of Ford Motor Co., saying the typical woman would have to work months to earn the $90,000 that she says he recently spent on a Masters entertainment package "that includes breakfast, lunch, liquor and appetizers, but no dinner."
Burk's criticism of the business leaders comes months after the club took steps to shield its corporate friends from public criticism. Johnson decided to run The Masters this year without sponsors -- and CBS will broadcast the tournament without commercials -- but said yesterday that he may once again seek sponsors next year, a notion at which Burk scoffed.
Burk says she has made no attempt to recruit the handful of women chief executives at Fortune 500 companies to support her cause, though that option has been considered. She said some supporters have suggested she reach out to Carly Fiorina, the charismatic chief executive of Hewlett Packard, but that she decided instead to concentrate on less high-profile women.
After her news conference, Burk also sought to clarify her much-criticized remarks questioning the male-only policy Augusta during a time when thousands of American women are involved in the war against Iraq.
"Why should women not be able to be equal at home when they're fighting for liberty abroad?" she said.
As she spoke, a chilly drizzle moistened the overcoat that someone slung across her shoulders to shield her from the same storm that, 140 miles to the east in Augusta, forced the first cancellation of an opening round at The Masters in 63 years.
"We think the goddess is watching," Burk said, smiling. "Maybe she's not happy."