One woman who's keeping her eye on the green

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Threatening calls wake her and her husband in the middle of the night. Piles of hate letters, most of them addressed to her personally, arrive at her office every day. And although she's always kept her personal e-mail address private, her in-box is now filled with insulting messages. Martha Burk, petite, 60, a stranger to the game of golf, is in the midst of a maelstrom -- all about, of all things, a sport.

It began three months ago, when Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, zeroed in on Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia -- host of the prestigious Masters golf tournament -- urging it to admit its first female member. William "Hootie" Johnson, chairman of Augusta National, immediately fired back, saying he would not be "bullied" by Burk and the NCWO into changing the club's membership practices.

Augusta National has no written policy prohibiting female members, but the unwritten rule has applied for 69 years. Johnson and his fellow members argue that, as a private club, they have the right to exclude whomever they choose -- a stance they made clear in a caustic letter to Burk.

In response, Burk went to the Masters' TV sponsors -- IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup -- to chastise them for their association with a club that excludes women. Johnson and Augusta countered by dropping all of their Masters' sponsors, to keep them out of the controversy. Now, Burk is pressuring CBS, which has broadcast the widely watched Masters for 46 years, to drop the tournament from its schedule this April. The latest from the network is that it plans to air the tournament -- protests notwithstanding.

This uproar has made Burk a woman both reviled and revered. She's got everyone from golfers and stay-at-home moms to corporate executives and sports enthusiasts shouting at each other.

Of course, they're also shouting at her.

Yet on a recent Tuesday morning at her home in a leafy section of Northwest Washington, Burk appears extraordinarily calm. She doesn't rant and rave. Nor does she pace the room, madly gesticulating. Instead, cozied up in a plush armchair, she speaks in a measured tone (with a touch of her native Texan drawl) about the controversy surrounding her current cause.

"I've never been involved in something that's received this much media attention," says Burk, who has cropped gray hair and expressive brown eyes. "But honestly, I'd be happy if all of our other causes were attacked like this one."

Longtime activist

Burk speaks with the authority of a veteran women's activist -- one who keeps Gloria Steinem books scattered about her house and praises Alice Paul, a leader of the women's suffrage movement. Although this is the first time she's made headlines, Burk has been a force in the women's movement since 1975, the year she earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington.

"It was really difficult for women to get a job in those days. Everywhere I interviewed, they asked me to take a typing test. I realized that all they wanted from us was secretarial work."

Burk finally found work at an organization for women's equality in Wichita, Kan., then at the local office of the National Organization for Women, where she eventually became president. In 1990, she and her husband, Ralph Estes, also a longtime women's activist, moved to Washington to start a nonprofit agency called the Center for Advancement of Public Policy. Still run by Estes, the center promotes women's equality and corporate responsibility. Two years ago, Burk left to head NCWO.

Burk says a lifetime of activism has made her somewhat inured to what she calls "standard" hate speech. "It comes with the territory when you do what I do. I've been called everything -- man-hater, anti-family -- you name it." Still, she admits that this time around, she seems to have struck a different nerve, one that's made things much more personal than she ever imagined. Does Burk fear for her personal safety?

"The thought has certainly occurred to me," she says. "The vitriol of these people is astounding. It's something that's usually reserved for debates like abortion."

Fortunately, Burk has the unbending support of her husband and her two sons, ages 37 and 40 -- and both golfers. In addition, she says, she's thriving off the feedback from women who thank her for challenging Augusta National.

"I've gotten letters from women who've told me that all this has reminded them that they're doing the laundry and taking care of the kids while their husbands are watching golf on TV," she says. "It's a reminder that this is emblematic of much greater issues."

The greater issues, however, are exactly what Burk's most vocal critics are using to assail her. Forget golf, they say. Go take on women's rights in Afghanistan, or women's wages.

Keeping eyes on issues

Burk's response?

"Sex discrimination is a core women's issue. Folks keep asking how it will help to let one woman on the golf course. Did they ask that when Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court? This is not about golf."

It can't be about the sport for Burk, who admits she hasn't set foot on a green since her 20s. She even pokes fun at her limited knowledge of golf: "It's the first team with the most touchdowns who wins, right?"

For now, there's only one battle Burk is intent on. Her campaign has meant many 10-hour workdays, crammed full of interviews for newspapers, radio and TV. Her only break, she says, has been a few sailing dates with her husband on their 34-foot yacht, aptly named Alice Paul. Even then, she says, she makes time for the occasional phone interview from the deck.

Beneath her calm veneer, it's apparent that Burk has all the fiery spirit of a flag-waving feminist. Despite the fact that Augusta National declares it won't give her an inch, Burk vows not to give up on her fight until women are admitted.

At the end of her first interview of the day, Burk pauses on her way out the door and adds: "There is, you know, only one way for this story to end."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°