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."
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 ultra-exclusive Seminole Coif 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."