Man the Bunkers

Man the Bunkers

Burning Tree Club and the last stand against women

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I was in college in 1979 when The New Yorker published a cartoon depicting two well-dressed, middle-aged white men poised outside the door of a city edifice.

“So long, Bill,” one man said to the other. “This is my club. You can’t come in.”

The cartoon was funny in part because the club member looked so pleased with himself for excluding the other man. It was also funny to me at the time because the narrow world of exclusion depicted in that cartoon seemed to be sinking over the horizon, as doomed as the Titanic.

Growing up in the suburbs in the 1960s, I didn’t need a sociologist to tell me that American values were transforming radically. Demand for all kinds of rights, including self-expression, exploded. Conformity’s pull waned. Acceptance of sexual diversity and pluralism—religious, racial, ethnic—burgeoned. In May 1987, the U.S.

Supreme Court ruled that the Rotary Club—Main Street itself—couldn’t exclude women from membership on the basis of gender. But that didn’t settle the matter.

Some posh private clubs—including Burning Tree Club in Bethesda and Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia—still use their clout today to exclude women from membership. News from the Masters Tournament at Augusta this past spring read like the minutes from a long-ago club meeting, discovered decaying in some time capsule. Augusta National traditionally invites corporate sponsors’ chief executives to join the club—but this year, IBM CEO Virginia Rometty hit the grass ceiling.

Maybe I’ve been too much a child of the live-and-let-live ’60s, but I’ve never mustered much outrage over golf clubs clinging to their all-male monocultures. I could have cared less how they played with their little white balls.

Now I’m not so sure.

Bethesda’s last bastion of stag golfing sits off Burdette Road on 200-plus acres assessed at more than $15 million. A sign at the gate reads: “Members Only. No Trespassing.” A fence topped with barbed wire assures privacy. Club members are further sheltered from public view by woodlands and abutting multimillion-dollar homes. A club spokesman declined to be interviewed or allow me to visit.

Burning Tree Club was founded in the 1920s. Its privileged members and their golfing buddies have included presidents and their advisers, foreign leaders, business magnates, congressmen, military leaders, judges and journalists—but no women. According to club lore, the only woman to hit their links was in a light plane that made an emergency landing near the 18th hole during the 1950s. She was hustled off the grounds.

As national pressure mounted in the 1970s for women to have equal access in all of life’s arenas, Maryland advocates focused on a state law that offered golf clubs lucrative tax breaks, ostensibly for preserving open spaces. Many clubs voluntarily ended discriminatory practices. But Burning Tree waged a decadelong battle to preserve both its insularity and its tax break.

At one point, lawmakers passed a provision that effectively offered a tax break to Burning Tree alone. One could almost admire the chutzpah of the golfing lawmakers and lobbyists who pulled that off—except that it meant female taxpayers were still underwriting a club they couldn’t join.

Burning Tree’s right to discriminate while enjoying a tax break was still in the courts in 1981 when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice. Burning Tree, which traditionally had offered honorary memberships to justices, did not extend one to O’Connor, according to published reports.

In 1983, then-U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a member of the club, wrote Maryland’s governor complaining that efforts to strip Burning Tree of its state tax break violated the constitutional right of free assembly.

In 1985, a female U.S. Secret Service agent arrived at Burning Tree to conduct a security review in advance of the Australian prime minister playing golf there. Burning Tree refused to let her in. She had to stand in the parking lot and communicate with male agents by radio. It’s one measure of how fiercely Burning Tree has preserved its insularity that the incident didn’t become public until The Washington Post broke the story the following year.

In 1989, Maryland’s highest court upheld a law that would revoke Burning Tree’s property tax break unless it accepted women. The club appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Burning Tree chose to remain male only and pay up.

The club slipped from the headlines. Occasionally, a public figure like House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, admits to belonging to the men-only club. Others have chosen to lie low, like Bryant Gumbel, who failed to disclose his membership in Burning Tree while interviewing the chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations in 2002 about the male-only policy of Augusta National.

These days, membership in Burning Tree is most often publicly claimed in obituaries, a fact that suggests the issue of all-male private clubs might eventually be self-correcting. As James Brown sang: “Money won’t change you. But time will take you on.”

Although I like to think that time is on our side, I’m having difficulty now seeing exclusionary clubs such as Burning Tree as mere artifacts of a fading time, as culturally irrelevant as that old New Yorker cartoon. Maybe that’s because exclusion isn’t an artifact of culture or era. It’s a base human impulse that must be struggled against in every arena every day—especially in our own hearts and actions.  

Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was killed while visiting a gated community, at least in part because the neighborhood watch volunteer who gunned him down thought he looked like he didn’t belong there.

Bully, a new documentary, tells of children and youths hounded by classmates who viewed them as “different.” Some of those bullied kids committed suicide.

Some might view the connection between bullies, gated-community vigilantes and country club exclusion as a stretch, but I have to wonder: Do our post-’60s, live-and-let-live values mean that we now see almost any behavior, even bullying and exclusion, as somehow acceptable? You do your thing, I’ll do mine?

In 2012, belonging to a private golf club that excludes women may seem cartoonish. But it isn’t funny.

April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send column ideas to aprilwitt@hotmail.com.

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