Furor rages about whether the Augusta National Golf Club, a private club that hosts the Masters Golf Tournament, should admit women as members.
But the continuing flood of commentary misses a key aspect of the debate: the woman's group pushing for admission is not using governmental might but the strategy of "nonviolent action" -- and they are using it superlatively.
The women's group in question, the National Council of Women's Organizations is winning the publicity war, which is what the issue was always about. They are winning despite the fact that ANGC's chair, William "Hootie" Johnson, is correct that private organizations have a right to set their own policies.
The NCWO is simply running rings around him. NCWO has taken no inappropriate action. It is publicizing "unacceptable" behavior; corporate sponsors have been asked to reconsider their connection with Masters; it has announced intentions to try and persuade ANGC members to advocate the admission of women. In short, NCWO is using moral suasion -- one of the most peaceful and powerful strategies for social change.
Hootie's cries of "coercion!" are understandable but incorrect. Understandable, because it is remarkable for any women's group not to use legal threats. (The fact that no recourse in law is available undoubtedly contributed to NCWO's choice of strategy.) In fact, the organization has shown no past reluctance to enforce affirmative action through governmental means such as Congressional briefings.
Those who use the "nonviolent action" to achieve social change benefit immensely from any over-reaction from whomever is targeted. A main goal of certain types of nonviolent action is to provoke a response while retaining the "high" ground. And NCWO must be delighted with Hootie's response.
On June 12, NCWO sent a brief and rather muted letter to AGNC. It made no specific threats and asked to discuss the admission of women.
On July 9, Hootie went public with the private correspondence in a press statement that garnered widespread media. He engaged in hyperbole in stating, "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership...but not at the point of a bayonet."
He acted hyperbolically as well. Although NCWO claims no consumer boycott of Masters' sponsors (Citigroup, IBM and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola) was contemplated, the AGNC pre-emptively jettisoned commercials from the broadcast of next year's Masters tournament. Perhaps Hootie thought that embracing "a worst case scenario" would bring the conflict to an abrupt end.
Instead he guaranteed the escalation of confrontation. The encouraged NCWO now knows it is being effective. And the media has correctly interpreted Hootie's move as a NCWO victory. As far away as Australia news headlines read "Women's group forces advertising freeze on U.S. Masters."
Then, in his strategic naivete, Hootie handed NCWO the blueprint of a winning strategy by expressing his fears. The press statement speculated on NCWO's future actions against ANGC, including celebrity interviews, articles, op-eds and talk shows on the morality of private clubs -- events virtually ensured by the press statement itself. He conjectured further, "There could be attempts at direct contact with board members of sponsoring corporations and inflammatory mailings to stockholders and investment institutions."
Martha Burk, chair of the NCWO, responded as though on cue and grabbed the high ground as she did so. In an interview with the New York Times, Burk demurely expressed surprise at Hootie's "extreme reaction," calling it "ballistic" and him "Neanderthal." She added, "I thought the club was already leaning in the direction of adding women, and I thought that this could be a quiet discussion." Thus, Burk claimed the invaluable appearance of reason and moderation for her side.
And what specific strategies did Burk mention? Precisely the ones over which Hootie expressed concern. She contacted past corporate sponsors, declaring herself particularly pleased with Coca-Cola's response.
She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she planned to learn more about members of the male-only ANGC. "I'd be very interested to know who pays their dues," she declared, "whether it's a corporate perk and whether it's paid by the corporations they represent."
Like twisting a knife, Burk commented with obvious glee, "He [Hootie] absolutely dug himself a hole that is now going to cost the members millions of dollars to save face [for] one guy who used extremely bad judgment."
The AJC article was entitled, "Women's group warns CBS not to air Masters" -- indicating NCWO's next target. The emboldened Burk stated, "I think if I were in charge at CBS, I'd take a hard look at how this is going to look to my consuming public. I'm going to be talking to them about airing something that is clearly underwriting discrimination."
A spokeswoman for CBS subsequently told the Associated Press that CBS would air the Masters, which draws more viewers than any other golf event. And, mercifully, ANGC spokesman Glenn Greenspan responded with "no comment."
A word to the wise for Hootie. When your opponent is gleeful, change strategies. And, please, someone buy the man a copy of Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action before he speaks again.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.