The Case for All-male Golf Clubs

Marion Hollins, the captain of the first American Curtis Cup team and the founder of Women's National Golf & Tennis Club. (Photo by Puttnam/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Marion Hollins, the captain of the first American Curtis Cup team and the founder of Women’s National Golf & Tennis Club. (Photo by Puttnam/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The men-only membership policy of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was scandalous and indefensible, since the R & A is the main worldwide governing body for all of golf. But the men-only membership policy of Muirfield is not, since the tournament it will no longer be allowed to host, the British Open, is also men-only. Why shouldn’t a sports event whose participants are all of one sex be held at a sports club whose members are also all of that sex?

I wrote about this issue in Golf Digest thirteen years ago, when the controversy involved Augusta National and the Masters. The bitterest argument then was that the absence of women from the membership of any golf club is, ipso facto, the sexual equivalent of racism. At that time, the Rev. Jesse Jackson described men-only membership as “gender apartheid,” and said, “The gender bigotry is as offensive as racial bigotry or religious bigotry.” Others made essentially the same claim: that operating a social club whose membership includes no women is morally indistinguishable from operating a social club (or a society) that excludes blacks or Jews.

Yet Jackson’s accusation depended on a false analogy, and on his own (willful) muddling of the possible reasons for making distinctions between human beings. Racism is a belief in nonexistent racial differences, especially ones that imply the inferiority of one race in comparison with another. Sexism is more complicated, because genuine, non-prejudicial differences between men and women really do exist. (Maintaining separate restrooms for whites and blacks is morally repugnant; maintaining separate restrooms for males and females is not—and the current debate about restroom access for transgender people underscores that truth, since the one thing both sides agree about is that the differences are monumentally important.) Indeed, one of the transforming accomplishments of American feminism has been to foster a broader appreciation of the meaningful ways in which men and women are not the same. Women who prefer to be treated by female physicians, or to join women-only health clubs, or to be represented by female divorce attorneys aren’t guilty of “gender apartheid”; their preferences merely reflect the fact that they, like men, have needs and emotions and desires that are not sex blind.

If you aren’t tired of this issue already, you can read my entire argument here.

Marion Hollins and Maureen Orcutt, 1932.(Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Marion Hollins and Maureen Orcutt, in England for the first Curtis Cup, 1932. (Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

6 thoughts on “The Case for All-male Golf Clubs

  1. The R&A announced women were eligible for the Open way back in 2005. None having qualified is not the same as saying that the Open is men only. You’re starting from a faulty premise.

    • Very good point (and there’s no rule that would prevent a woman from qualifying for the Masters, either) — although until a woman does qualify I would defend the inclusion of a men-only club in the rota.

        • That is not my argument. Read my essay.
          There are meaningful differences between the sexes, and for that reason it is not disgusting or immoral to conduct separate sporting events for men and women. Should the NCAA prohibit Smith College from holding intercollegiate women’s basketball games on its campus because Smith College isn’t co-ed? That’s YOUR argument.

  2. Take a personal quality you find dear and substitute it for the group being “excluded”. Ok… “golfer” does not work here, but being of Korean Heritage, that is the quality I use.

    The statement becomes “Muirfield members vote to prevent Koreans from becoming members of the club”.

    You can change the action as well and say,”Muirfield members vote to prevent women from owning property”.

    I find it helpful if you actually say the words out loud. If you have even a moments pause, then there is a problem. In my opinion, the decision by Muirfield members fails both of these tests.

    Is it their right to choose to prevent women from joining as members? Yes, it is.

    Does it make it right that they have elected to prevent women from joining as members? No, it does not.

  3. I loved your Golf Digest article on the gender based permutations of golf, but had forgotten it until your link to the old article.

    I’m a devoted, crappy, male golfer who identifies more with the professional women’s game than the men’s (the same is true of tennis), and I love playing with a competitive woman golfer. I also love playing with all guys, where the game at its best involves everyone being competitive, relaxed, sardonic, and fun. Men need their own spaces where they can be playful boys.

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