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Willing To Go It Alone Women are often forced to pay a painful price for demanding equality at their country clubs

March 02, 1998
March 02, 1998

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March 2, 1998

College Basketball [bonus Piece]

Willing To Go It Alone Women are often forced to pay a painful price for demanding equality at their country clubs

Solitary golf has its rewards. When Midge Martin plays at
Longmeadow Country Club, she is, like Thoreau at Walden Pond,
free to appreciate the surroundings. The lush fairways and the
merging ranks of evergreens and hardwoods resemble the
photographs in coffee-table books--all morning mist and dew with
greens as yet untrod. "It's lovely across the road," Martin
says, referring to a stretch of the front nine that can't be
seen from the clubhouse. "I hit my ball and find it and hit it
again. There's a lake there, and I talk to the ducks."

This is an article from the March 2, 1998 issue Original Layout

But Midge Martin is a 72-year-old widow. She doesn't want her
rounds of golf to echo the song from Carmelina--one more walk
around the garden, one more stroll upon the shore. "I'm a people
person," she says, her eyes radiating warmth. "I enjoy the
company of all kinds of people, and most people seem to like me."

Most people not only like her, they admire her. In May, at the
50th reunion of her Boston University class of '47, Martin
received a plaque acknowledging her character and fortitude. In
Longmeadow (pop. 15,500), a western Massachusetts municipality
of church steeples and town meetings, her face at a post office
window or a gas pump draws smiles and a "Hi, darlin'." In her
office in downtown Longmeadow--she is an insurance broker and
financial planner--Martin dispenses advice to clients who are as
loyal as family members.

It's only at the club--her club--that she is shunned. Most
weekend mornings during the golf season she tees off around
7:30, ignored by the handful of men putting on the practice
green behind the 1st tee. Typically her drive skids to a halt
about 175 yards out. Martin then gets in a cart and rides off,
her clubs rattling behind her. Ten minutes later the first male
foursome tees off, and Longmeadow's day begins.

Social pioneering has its rewards, but universal gratitude is
not one of them. In the last decade private clubs in the U.S.,
under pressure from lawyers and crusading women like Midge
Martin, have dismantled a system of gender discrimination rooted
in 19th-century attitudes and early 20th-century practice. With
the aid of state antibias commissions and laws broadly construed
to define most so-called private clubs as public accommodations,
women have won case after case.

Club rules denying women in Kansas access to prime weekend tee
times? Scrapped. Women expelled from clubs in Arizona upon
divorce or the death of a husband? Reinstated. MEN ONLY signs
outside club bars and grill rooms in California? Handed over to
club historians for the archives.

It hasn't been a particularly bloody revolution. Many clubs have
dodged litigation--and publicity--by quietly rewriting their
bylaws. Now on weekend mornings the men at Florida's
ultraexclusive Seminole Golf Club, in Juno Beach, share the
fairways with their wives, while at Milburn Golf and Country
Club in Overland Park, Kans., a wife can inherit a membership.
In 1995 the Phoenix Country Club elected its first woman
president, and at Springfield Country Club, only three miles
from Martin's office, single women can have full voting rights
and serve on the greens and membership committees.

Nevertheless, while most clubs move easily into compliance with
the new rules, a few are mired in anger and retribution. At
Longmeadow, for instance, Martin--a member for 33 years--is a
pariah. In 1990 she took the club to court because she couldn't
play with her husband on weekend mornings and couldn't share a
sandwich with male guests after a round because she was barred
from the grill. The gender barriers fell in '91, and the club
settled with Martin earlier last year, paying her $45,000.
Racial and religious bias bit the dust as well (under the
watchful eyes of the Massachusetts attorney general), and today
Longmeadow has African-American and Jewish members. "We now have
a policy of not discriminating that works very well," says
Martin, constrained by the settlement from discussing her case.
"Hopefully, as time goes on, attitudes and feelings will change
as well."

This, her friends and supporters contend, is Martin's polite
description of a club that won't forgive. In the last seven
years only one Longmeadow member has joined Martin for a round
of golf on a Saturday or Sunday morning. In supermarkets women
who once enjoyed her friendship and hospitality scurry to other
aisles to avoid her. When the lawsuit was active, crank callers
filled the answering machines at her home and office with
obscene language and anonymous messages. ("If you don't like it
at the club, why don't you leave?") Someone poisoned her cat.
Vandals sneaked into her garden and destroyed her blooming crab
apple trees.

"Midge Martin's case is one of the most profoundly upsetting
I've studied," says Marcia Chambers, author of The Unplayable
Lie: The Untold Story of Women and Discrimination in American
Golf. "It's stunning to me that she stayed at the club."
According to Chambers, most women who take legal action against
their clubs wind up leaving--even if they win their suits. "Most
leave because it becomes difficult for them and their families.
They don't want to stay in a place where they are the objects of
hostility."

Judging from a sample of gender discrimination cases, the
half-life of private-club hostility is roughly that of uranium
238. The courts are still gnawing on The People of the State of
New York v. Forman, a sometimes violent brouhaha that dates back
to the summer of 1988. That's when Lee and Sy Lowell, a former
art teacher and her physicist-author husband, joined the Cedar
Brook Golf and Tennis Club in Old Brookville, N.Y. According to
the Lowells, a club employee, a woman, assured Lee that women
could play on weekend mornings no later than nine. "If it had
been otherwise, I simply would have found a different club,"
says Lee. "We were shown the policy on tee times in the rule
book, which said simply that the women followed the men on
weekends."

When Lee teed off one Saturday around noon, she says she soon
found herself encircled by male golfers in electric carts, some
of them calling her "bitch" and "whore." She broke free and
found other holes to play, but Ron Forman, a member of the
club's golf committee, pursued her, kicking her ball off a tee
and threatening her. Another man, she claims, took out his penis
in front of her and urinated under a tree. ("If they had tried
to murder me, I probably would have stupidly let them," she
says, "because I knew I was in the right.") After about 12 holes
Lowell fled to a rest room on the course, where she cried. "And
then," she says, "I went out to the next hole."

The posse finally disappeared, and after being assured by the
club manager and the starter that it was safe to continue,
Lowell finished her round. That evening she and her husband
filed a harassment complaint at the Old Brookville police
station. The police notified Cedar Brook of the incident. The
club manager acted quickly--suspending Lee Lowell for three
weeks for playing without permission.

"They took away my pride and dignity and tried to make me feel
like I was nothing, like I was a dog," she says. Members who
were privately sympathetic, she adds, refused to stand up for
her. "The most disappointing thing to me was the weakness of all
the other women at the club. I asked one of them, 'Would you
urinate on your couch just to keep your Mercedes?' And she said
yes."

Shunned by other members, the Lowells played Cedar Brook on
weekdays until their membership came up for renewal--or, as in
their case, nonrenewal. Forman was acquitted of harassment
charges in November 1989. The district court judge, in a
nine-page decision, criticized the club for its "invidious
discrimination against women" but said the prosecution had not
proved that Forman acted with criminal intent. Dissatisfied with
that result Lowell filed a complaint with the New York State
Division of Human Rights. Years later the case came up for
arbitration. When the club and the Lowells could not reach a
settlement, the arbitrator passed the case on for trial. There
is still no court date. "The delay is in the system," says
Lowell's attorney, Alan Boockvar. "They have a large caseload."

If the case ever reaches the courtroom, it should be a
crowd-pleaser. Two years ago the Lowells ran into Forman again,
this time by the starter's shed at their new club, the Wycliffe
Golf and Country Club in Lake Worth, Fla. Lee says Forman, who
was the guest of another member, called her "a c---." Forman
says Lee spit at him. Whatever happened, everyone agrees that an
enraged Sy Lowell tried to grab Forman by the throat. "It took
five people to pull me off," says the bookworm husband, still
awed by his caveman response. "I got a letter of reprimand," he
says.

Lee insists that she never sought to be a martyr for a political
cause--not at Cedar Brook and certainly not at Wycliffe, where
she socializes freely and plays golf at times of her choosing,
sometimes scoring in the 70s. "If a place is truly private," she
adds, "they have every right to discriminate."

Cedar Brook, meanwhile, now allows women access to prime tee
times on weekends and advertises itself as one of the few
women-friendly clubs on Long Island.

Although the major battles are over, some combatants are unable
to give up the fight. A decade-old quarrel divides the Haverhill
Golf and Country Club of Haverhill, Mass., an unpretentious burg
40 miles north of Boston. Both sides claim to be gender neutral
and accuse the other of bias. Furthermore, both sides agree that
in the not-so-distant past their club discriminated against
women. "Before 1990 the club had separate categories for men and
women," says Anthony Kilbridge, an attorney who had worked at
Lane Altman & Owens, the club's outside counsel. "Women did not
have access to all the facilities of the club."

Specifically, women had limited playing privileges, no voting
rights and were barred from an upstairs card room and the 19th
Hole, a bar area. (To get a drink or a snack, a woman had to
knock on the window and ask a man to pass something out.) In
1989 several Haverhill women and the Massachusetts attorney
general filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission
Against Discrimination. As a result of those complaints, the
club adopted gender-neutral policies. Memberships were no longer
defined as male or female, but as primary and limited, with
primary members paying a higher fee in return for voting rights
and other privileges.

Instead of concord, however, one now has Commonwealth of
Massachusetts and Judith Borne, et al. v. Haverhill Golf and
Country Club, Inc., a civil action filed at the end of 1996. In
this complaint 10 Haverhill women charge that between 1990 and
mid-1995, only one woman had been accepted as a primary member,
leaving men with a 326-7 majority. As limited members, it is
further alleged, the women's access to the golf course is
"unfairly restricted," and their complaints are met by
"degrading, vulgar, abusive and derogatory statements by male
members."

The legal documents only begin to hint at the low-boil animosity
that permeates the Haverhill case. The plaintiffs' attorney,
Marsha Kazarosian, contends that the club is controlled by a
coterie of fortysomething men with adolescent attitudes. "It's
like an old high school football team that grew up together and
moved to the country club," she says. "If you cross them, you're
blacklisted at the club." The defendants respond with
unflattering characterizations of the rebels as selfish women in
league with a barracuda attorney. "Someone's fibbing here, and
someone isn't," says Scott Gleason, a Haverhill member and
lawyer who serves as club counsel. "These women accuse us of
everything short of stealing the Lindbergh baby," echoes Steve
Callahan, the club's president.

To an outsider, the case resembles a marital spat. Each party
can justify its anger by citing past slights and insults. Karen
Richardson, one of the most outspoken of the Haverhill "rebels,"
was once suspended from the course for 21 days for arguing with
club officials who interfered with her management of the annual
husband-wife tournament. "Golf is very important to me," says
Richardson, a high school golf coach and a two handicap who has
won six club championships and two Massachusetts women's amateur
titles, including last year's. "I've run into friends at
national amateur tournaments who can't believe that this sort of
stuff is going on in the '90s."

Borne was once reprimanded for using profanity in the pro shop
when she complained about a male foursome that teed off before
the course had opened, even though the men had been told not to.
The day after the incident two male members confronted her while
she waited on the 1st tee with two guests. "Why don't you go
jump off the roof," one of the men reportedly screamed in her
face. "You've ruined the club." The man drew a five-day
suspension, but Borne hasn't let go of the incident. "I'm
Jewish, and I feel like I'm in Nazi Germany," she says. "There's
a gestapo at the club."

The defendants vigorously deny these characterizations and
complain that the media consistently turns a deaf ear to them.
"Haverhill country club is not like that," says club vice
president Barry Spears, an African-American and a member since
1983. "Discrimination and bigotry is a hell of a thing, and if
you've ever experienced it, you recognize it."

So the case careers toward a court showdown, which could come as
early as next spring. Three of the original 13 plaintiffs have
dropped out--one to accept a primary membership on the club's
terms, two others under pressure from family and club members.
One of them is Pam Corcoran, who says she still supports the
plaintiffs wholeheartedly but opted out because the social
pressure got too intense. "It was uncomfortable for me around
the club. You always had the feeling when you walked into the
19th Hole that all eyes were on you."

Midge Martin knows the feeling. For six years she had her
husband to share it with, and they made a companionable couple
when they teed off at Longmeadow on weekend mornings. But
Charlie Martin died suddenly in September 1996 of an aneurysm,
and that left Midge alone. Her friends and family advised her to
give up the fight. Instead, she carries on her motorized widow's
walk--a haunting symbol of the recalcitrance of private clubs.

Martin has tried to meet the other members halfway. This summer
she signed up three or four times for ladies' day golf, a
weekday tradition. The women who were assigned to play with her
were clearly uncomfortable. "This is stodgy old New England,"
Martin says. "We're very slow to change."

Slow or not, the direction of this change is unmistakable, which
is why the few bitter gender battles look like rearguard actions
by clubs jealous of their prerogatives. Fewer than two dozen
golf clubs in the U.S. remain all-male enclaves, and they do so
by assiduously avoiding social and business activities that
might draw the attention of state governments or the IRS.
(Augusta National Golf Club walks a provocative line by selling
millions of dollars' worth of Masters souvenirs to the public
every April.) To legally exclude women, such clubs must forgo
business entertainment, course rentals, pro shop sales and in
some cases, liquor licenses. Few of the country's 4,700 private
golf clubs can afford to be that private, so they bow to the
inevitable, while sometimes killing the messenger.

Midge still has the ducks and the dells, and for now she seems
willing to put up with the demonization. "It feels so good every
Saturday and Sunday morning to know that I have the choice of
when I play and that I'm no longer treated like a second-class
citizen," she says. "It's good for my mind and spirit."

The pursuit of principle, apparently, is its own reward.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL POLO SOLE SURVIVOR Having taken her club to court, Martin is now forced to play a onesome. [Midge Martin]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL POLO "This is stodgy old New England," says Martin. "We're very slow to change." [Midge Martin]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Lowell says she was surrounded by men in carts, some of them calling her "bitch" and "whore." [Lee Lowell]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL POLO Kazarosian (center) and her Haverhill clients are expected to have their day in court this spring. [Marsha Kazarosian and seven other women]