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 out-spoken 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 the 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."