After 18 years, the Women’s Center’s annual leadership conference attracted a different kind of attention Saturday when a group of men gathered outside the Hilton McLean to protest the voice that is challenging Augusta National Golf Club’s policy of excluding women.
One of the men, members of the National Coalition of Free Men (NCFM), wore a homemade sash with the title “Duffragettes” to protest the presence of Martha Burk, president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Last June, she challenged Augusta National and asked that women be admitted before this year’s Masters Golf Tournament in Georgia.
“We are primarily against Dr. Burk,” said Stanley B. Gaver, an IT consultant from McLean, who was among the protesters.
When she arrived at the Hilton on Saturday and saw the protest, Burk stopped her car to take a photo of the men.
They moved forward and lobbied her briefly by handing her a flier, then waved at her as she drove into the hotel parking lot.
Gaver said he and others will take their protest to Augusta next month; the Masters begins April 7 with competitive play April 10-13.
Burk said she believes the policy at Augusta National, which opened in 1932 with a national membership, will change to include women.
“I had no idea they’d be this stubborn. I had no idea they’d be this backward,” said Burk before her address. “They’ve actually fallen on their sword to continue to discriminate against women.”
Last June, Burk wrote to William “Hootie” Johnson, chairman of Augusta National, to ask that women be invited to join the club before the Masters Tournament begins on April 7, 2003.
Johnson went public, first refusing her request and one month later declining national commercial sponsors for television coverage of the Masters, rather than expose them to pressure from Burk.
In the intervening months, Burk’s challenge has become a cause celebre, thanks to relentless national coverage from the media.
But locally, “You know the event has really arrived when picketers show up,” said Betty Thompson of McLean, a Realtor for McEnearney Associates, who attended the Leadership Conference.
“AS I’VE WATCHED the parade of Mercedes pull in here this morning, I’ve wondered how oppressed these women are,” said Sim Hall of Vienna, one of the protesters organized by the NCFM in Washington.
“We are primarily against Dr. Burk,” said Gaver. But we are also protesting against the Women’s Center, not only for hosting Dr. Burk, but because they receive funding from Fairfax County and the United Way.”
“We feel if Martha Burk and feminists in general claim a men’s club cannot exclude women, it’s not proper that any organization, particular one that is publicly funded or funded by corporations, focus on one sex. “Men need social services too. What we want [the Women’s Center] to do is reach out to men. A lot of them are being pushed to the edge.”
Although men have a higher rate of suicide, government seems “unresponsive to the needs of our citizens,” said Hall.
“There are a lot of men out there who are being pushed to the edge; they are taken from their families, have their homes taken from them, and are committing suicide because they don’t know what else to do.
As an example, Gaver cited workshops on anger management, offered at the Women’s Center, that are separated by gender. “There’s is an underlying sexism to that,” he said.
The NCFM, he said, “focuses on some of the unreasonable aspects of feminism. We think feminism has lost its way. Radical feminism is damaging men, families, and women, for that matter.”
“WE ARE NOT A FEMINIST organization,” said Suzanne Klein, media relations manager for the Women’s Center. “By having speakers like Dr. Burk, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is our opinion.”
“We do receive funding from Fairfax County, from corporations, and from foundations, said Cynthia Huheey, executive director and CEO of the Women’s Center. “In the last two years of demographic data, 19 percent of our clientele are men,” she added.
“Men are part of the unit known as a family. There has never been a time when we have turned a man away from services at the Women’s Center. Our services are just as open to men as they are to women,” Huheey said.
Melanie Sisson, a Women’s Center volunteer from Great Falls, who has two young daughters, said Burk came to speak not about the Masters and golf, but about Title IX.
“It is fascinating that the picketing group was there. Once you came in, [the conference] was in no way, shape or form what the stereotype of feminism is. The women were dressed to the nines, and obviously, if you read their badges, from very many important corporations. They were educated and polished.
“They are going to get so much press regarding that far-right group (NCFM) and the women’s group (NCWO) that tends to be a lighting rod,” Sisson said.
“The Women’s Center is a resource center for all women, and families, and men, in any kind of transition, like divorce, and careers, and relationships between parents and kids,” she said.
“It is pretty amazing. It would be a wonderful prototype for centers across the country. It is not there to take stands on political issues,” said Sisson.
GARY POWERS JR., president of the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he was “one of three or four” men who attended the conference.
“Other than the press cameramen, I saw a total of three other men in attendance,” said Powers. He was already inside the Hilton before the Coalition of Free Men staged its outdoor protest.
“Let’s see. They’re the Women’s Center. Is there a Men’s Center?” he asked rhetorically later. “If there’s not, instead of protesting, they should form one,” Powers said.
As president of the Chamber, he said he attended for two reasons: to show support for the Women’s Center, one of the Chamber’s members, and to reach potential members.
The conference, Powers said, “is an ideal target market for growing our Chamber membership. We are targeting business people in the Vienna-Tysons regional area,” he said.
On Saturday, “We got three new members as a result of our participation.”
Powers said the conference “does a lot to show how the rights of women have advanced over the last 50 years through women like Madeleine Albright and Martha Burk. It goes to show that strides have been made.”
Powers is the son of the late U2 pilot who was shot down over Russia during the Cold War, imprisoned, and later traded for a Russian spy.
Powers Jr. was born after his father returned to the United States in 1962 and worked at the CIA in McLean, where he met and married another CIA employee. That was Powers Jr.’s mother, who became a housewife after she married. “She was always involved in charitable activities in Southern California,” Powers recalls.
“Powerful might not be the right word” for his mother; “involved might be better,” he said.
“She’d drop the kids off at school and get involved in one of the local charities.”
SINCE WOMEN’S CENTER PRESIDENT Judith Mueller organized the first Leadership Conference 18 years ago, it has grown. On Saturday, the Hilton McLean’s grand ballroom filled with almost 1,000 women and a few men, leaving standing room only.
Each of them paid from $145 to $165 to attend; some corporations also underwrite portions of the event, said Klein. And 30 exhibitors, including Nordstrom, American Express, and Long & Foster, also paid fees to be there.
Hardly powerless now, many of the women who crowded into the meeting have achieved prominence in their careers and have trouble taking a whole day off, even on Saturday. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Kate Hanley participated, as did Virginia Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd).
“Being gone that long on a Saturday is difficult. I kept having to leave and make some calls,” said McEnearney Realtor Betty Thompson of McLean. “Fortunately, I sold a $1 million house last Saturday,” she said.
The women held hands and sang “God Bless America” after an address from Elizabeth Campbell, now 100 years old. She founded WETA in 1961, the same year Powers’ father was shot down over Russia.
“It was a day full of emotion. That’s what it’s supposed to be,” said Mueller.
America Online founder Jim Kimsey, who spoke after Campbell, commented that “women should lead, because they know where they are going.”
After hearing Campbell, Kimsey said, he would know what to do whenever he was confused or disoriented: “I’ll just get behind a woman.”
“What always strikes me is the conversations that I hear” at the conference said Sisson, the volunteer.
“You hear women at one moment talking about something of great political or economic import to women, and then saying, ‘I can only stay until 2. because I have to go to my son’s soccer game.’
“You see women talking about very pertinent issues from judicial appointments to Title IX.
“[But] the vast majority of those keynote speakers are moms. They were constantly coming back to the essence of being mothers — talking about their children and grandchildren.
“Their two roles were married.”