Before 2002, relatively few people had heard of Martha Burk. Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, she had been toiling away in the trenches of the feminist movement for several decades in relative anonymity. But then she sent a letter to William "Hootie" Johnson, president of the Augusta National Golf Club, objecting to the club's exclusion of female members. It was a "simple three-paragraph letter, addressing a little-noticed issue in the eternal battle for gender equality," Burk writes in her new book Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It. Soon Howell Raines would "flood the zone" at The New York Times with stories about the incident, CBS, which annually televises the Masters tournament from Augusta, would be dragged into the controversy, and Burk's "simple three-paragraph letter" would escalate into a national spectacle. Many argued at the time, and presumably many still believe, that all this attention on, in Burk's words, "a few rich females gaining admittance to one club" was misplaced. Cult of Power is an implicit rebuttal to that argument.
The book's first half, which narrates the Augusta firestorm, seems intended to clear the air about which party in this dispute was guilty of grandstanding. Burk, frequently depicted by sports columnists and conservative commentators as an attention-starved egomaniac, makes a convincing case that the barrage of media exposure was triggered not by her but by Hootie Johnson. After receiving a private letter from Burk urging the club to "review [its] policies and practices ... and open [its] membership to women now," Johnson--who comes off, not surprisingly, as what our president might call a "major-league asshole"--issued an indignant press release to the national media. "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership," Johnson seethed, "but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of the bayonet."
In its second half, Cult of Power attempts to explain why the club's sponsors and big-shot members--titans of industry like Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, and Sanford Weill--closed ranks so furiously and what that says about the status of women in contemporary corporate America. Burk uses Augusta as a jumping off point for a kind of crash course in the mechanics of patriarchy. She covers the history of private clubs excluding women and minorities and the ways in which business culture, with its emphasis on long hours, continues to put many women at a disadvantage. She looks at the persistent wage gap, the domination by men of top corporate positions, and the absurd contortions companies go through to put on the appearance of being female-friendly while maintaining the clubby status quo. To anyone versed in second-wave feminism, this bill of indictments may ring familiar. But in Burk's telling, its link to Augusta seems legitimate and clear.
Yet one of the most valuable contributions of Burk's book has nothing to do with feminism, and everything to do with debunking a particularly disingenuous style of argumentation. Burk does a good job of showing that for all the ways in which her efforts surrounding Augusta were trivialized, the battle itself was far from trivial. In doing so, she exposes, perhaps unintentionally, the fundamental flaw of an argument often used against activists of all kinds: that symbolic but small causes are a waste of time when weighed against the opportunity cost of focusing on larger concerns. Those who advance this logic can always find another cause--or ten--more worthy of attention than the situation that is actually on the table. Back in 2003, for instance, Tiger Woods defended his decision not to become involved in a campaign against Augusta by saying, "We have a lot more important things going on in our country."
Sound familiar? It should. This logic was frequently on display during the Terri Schiavo drama. Liberal commentators chided conservative protestors for focusing on one brain-damaged woman instead of pushing for legislation to clarify end-of-life decisions. I myself, in conversations with friends, offered that exact line of argument. But Burk's book puts us on guard against this kind of topic shifting. If you think, as I do, that the right-wing activists in the Schiavo case were wrong on the merits, then they ought to be challenged on the merits, not attacked for using a symbolic issue to address larger themes. "I think that the Congress has more important things to discuss," said Michael Schiavo, reacting to Washington's intervention in his wife's case. You can believe that he was right to withdraw his wife's feeding tube and that Tiger was wrong to play the Masters--and still concede that neither was well served by this particular line of argument. Cult of Power is a reminder that just because there are "more important things" doesn't mean something isn't important.