Augusta National, welcome to the 20th century

Martha Burk holds a news briefing during a protest outside Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters in 2003 in Georgia.

Story highlights

  • For 10 years, Martha Burk and others fought to get Augusta golf club to accept women
  • Burk: Through decade of protests, taunts, CEOs have fought bitterly to ban women
  • She says the more important club is the corporate boardroom, where women are scarce
  • Burk is relieved, but now the struggle is to get women into the top ranks of businesses

Well, look at that. The boys at Augusta National Golf Club finally came into the 20th century, only 12 years after the millennium. With the admission of Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore into their previously male-only club, one more gender barrier has been cracked. But it remains to be seen whether it has been truly broken.

Augusta National was forced to open to black men way back in 1990, when a controversy erupted at the Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama. The club was all white, and PGA tour sponsors balked. So the PGA changed the rules -- meaning clubs that discriminated on the basis of race or gender would no longer be allowed to host a tournament.

Some -- like Shoal Creek -- changed their policies and opened the membership.

Others said "no thanks," valuing their right to discriminate above hosting a tournament. But there was one exception -- Augusta National. It did open to black men "after being pistol-whipped behind closed doors," according to one major golf writer who was around at the time. But it drew the line on the girls.

That's why the Masters Golf Tournament hasn't been an "official" PGA tour event since then, even though the results count, and everybody knows the PGA is officially ignoring its own policies and looking the other way.

Martha Burk

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When the National Council of Women's Organizations asked the club in a polite letter in 2002 to reconsider its stand against women, then-Chairman Hootie Johnson went ballistic. It became a national argument over where women ought to be allowed to go, and who had the right to openly and proudly discriminate.

And when NCWO made the membership roster public for the first time since the club was formed, it became clear that while race discrimination was viewed by the Fortune 500 CEOs who made up the membership as a no-no, they saw nothing wrong with sex discrimination. They cowered behind their mahogany desks and refused to make a statement -- never mind resign from the club. IBM, the major sponsor of the Masters, even had a representative call me as chairwoman of NCWO and bawl me out for making a fuss.

    Celebration, surprise, humor after Augusta National admits first women

    Confined to a muddy field far from the gates, the protest we staged in 2003 was widely reported as a failure. But time and persistence have proved that version wrong.

    Had the women's groups backed down then, we wouldn't be celebrating the admission of Rice and Moore now. Had we not changed the conversation about sex discrimination and kept it front and center every year at tournament time -- while behind the scenes facilitating $80 million in legal settlements on behalf of women working at companies whose CEOs were club members -- the issue would have quietly died away. Maybe for another century.

    While no one save the club leadership is privy to the decision-making, it's long past due, and the exact process doesn't matter. What does matter is that the women's movement once again succeeded. And of course after enduring taunts, insults, and even death threats, which have never stopped over the past 10 years, my personal feelings are tremendous relief and vindication. But that's tempered with concern.

    The challenge now moves to the CEOs of those corporations who so stubbornly hung together 10 years ago and now say it's a joyous occasion to welcome women to the golf club. Will Moore and Rice be marginalized and tokenized, like the two or three black men who were admitted after Shoal Creek? Or will the members step up to the plate and get a real plan for reaching parity?

    Augusta National no longer just a 'boys club'

    And a far more important club these same guys belong to is the business world at large. Do they welcome women into their boardrooms and the highest ranks of their companies? Not yet.

    Women make up only 16% of Fortune 500 board members and not even 5% of CEOs. Our research in 2005 showed that through interlocking business relationships and corporate board seats, the members of Augusta National reach into over 1,300 companies and major charities. That's a hell of a lot of influence. Let's hope they use it right before the turn of another century.

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