A year ago, the focus of attention at the Masters Tournament was Martha Burk’s crusade against the Augusta National golf club’s men-only policy. This year, America’s attention will be back where it belongs, with all eyes focused on the leader board. Controversy is more likely to swirl around an ill-chosen club on the holes known as “Amen Corner” than on any policy issue.
It’s tempting to forget the fight and return to appreciating the quiet dignity of the game. But Burk’s crusade deserves closer scrutiny. She is reportedly now focusing her energies on a book about how Augusta National’s “discrimination” exemplifies the challenges women face in corporate America. Yet the Masters controversy is emblematic of another social phenomenon: the traditional feminist movement’s drift toward irrelevance.
Once upon a time, feminism was about equality of opportunity. Activists fought to ensure that women had the right to vote, could compete for jobs, and enjoyed access to a quality education. Pioneering feminists also sought to challenge the once-prevalent view that women were ill-suited for work outside of the home, and proved that women can excel as doctors, lawyers, scientists, and in other professions once viewed as the domain of men.
American women today stand as testament to the success of early feminism. Women now earn more than half of bachelors’ and masters’ degrees; four in 10 PhDs and MDs are awarded to women. Women are entering the workplace in record numbers and becoming leaders in the economy — from Meg Whitman, president and CEO of eBay Technologies, to Carly Fiorina, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Today, more than 8.5 million American women own businesses.
Of course, balancing work and family remains an undeniable challenge for women. Fathers may be more actively involved in parenting, but women, owing to both biology and tradition, are (and will continue to be) the ones most torn between the desire for hands-on parenting and a career. However, there is reason for optimism that innovations — like telecommuting and flexible work arrangements — will ease the tradeoff between job and family.
Businesses are also increasingly recognizing that flexibility can be good business. A recent Time article, for example, described Deloitte Touche Tohatsu’s plan to offer some employees up to five years unpaid leave, during which time the firm will continue to pay licensing fees and provide seminars to keep employees up to speed with industry changes. These policies are testimony to women’s value to their employers and the market’s ability to develop mutually beneficial work arrangements for women.
Unfortunately, traditional feminist organizations ignore such progress in order to chase sexist phantoms. They whine that the unadjusted income of full-time working women is on average about three-quarters of that of working men. Yet they ignore the reality that this disparity shrinks when variables such as education, occupation, age, and years of experience are factored in. Instead of considering how women’s individual preferences — such as a willingness to forgo money for a flexible work schedule — affect these statistics, they scream “discrimination!” and call for federal action.
This victim mentality was at the heart of Burk’s campaign against Augusta National. She argued that women are harmed by being barred entry as members of this prestigious golf club, and suggested that this harm outweighed men’s right to a private, men-only association. To her credit, Burk sought to sway public opinion instead of pressing for government action. That was her right — and it was the right of the public to yawn.
But Burk’s National Council of Women’s Organizations and its allies, such as the National Organization for Women, rarely refrain from petitioning government to address the slew of perceived ills suffered by women. They want Washington to force companies to justify wage rates to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They press for federal regulations to require paid maternity leave and childcare services. They argue for steeply progressive tax rates and a federal takeover of America’s healthcare system. They oppose measures to empower individuals, such as adding private savings accounts to Social Security or creating school vouchers.
Their view of women as helpless without Uncle Sam is as outdated as beehive hairdos and bustles on dresses. Most women don’t feel oppressed, which might explain why the Augusta National protest failed to capture public sympathy. Its crumbling suggest that other efforts to paint women-as-victim might also wither away — something worth applauding as you watch golf’s top tournament.