Doors open, close for women

The week began with a big win for American women. Within hours a development occurred in a broader political arena that demonstrates how tenuous their societal gains are, or can be; and leaves to them, mostly, to decide whether they’ll incur a significant loss in status. In all of this there is a decided Arkansas angle.

Let’s begin with the encouraging news.

Imagine the headline: “Pope Admits Women to Priesthood.”

Except this is bigger: “Augusta National Admits Women Members.”

It had to happen. Evidently it happened in the days preceding Monday’s announcement, though some sportswriters who cover the game suggest the seed was planted a few years back, with the retirement of Hootie Johnson, a South Carolina banker, as chairman of the club, the most coveted course in golf. There are other prestigious courses, sure: St. Andrews in Scotland, where the game originated; Burning Tree, in suburban Washington, D.C.; Pebble Beach on the California coast. Oh, and let’s not omit Alotian, in west Pulaski County, the private paradise of Little Rock financier Warren Stephens, who admits to membership those he chooses (provided they can pony up an initiation fee that neither he nor anyone who has paid it will disclose for the record).

None, however, is Augusta. None carry the legend of Augusta, where they Masters is played, where only the titans of American business and public life are considered for membership. Stephens is a member of Augusta National, as was his father, the late Jack Stephens, co-founder of the investment banking empire headquartered in Little Rock. Joe Ford, who built Arkansas-based Alltel into a communications behemoth before selling, is also a member, as is Frank Broyles, athletic director emeritus at the University of Arkansas. What they paid, and pay, in fees and dues is as closely guarded as the Pentagon’s nuclear launch codes. Indeed, membership at August requires strict adherence to an oath that prohibits the lucky few from discussing the club or its affairs; only its chairman is permitted public comment.

Sure enough, and as I expected, “Only the chairman speaks for the club” was the response of Warren Stephens, through his press representative, when I called for comment on Augusta’s decision to admit its first women. (The fortunate two are former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore, a South Carolina banker. Well, fine — let them keep their secrets; the important thing was that another barrier to women, one of enormous cultural significance, finally had fallen. Within hours, however, the political arena had coughed up the spectacle of the Missouri congressman, Rep. Todd Akin, who is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, opining that rape rarely results in pregnancy because the stress of assault brings on hormonal surges — something like that — that renders conception wholly improbable. Flashback: it is 1998, and I’m sitting across from State Rep. Fay Boozman, the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate from Arkansas. I had been tipped that Boozman, in a campaign speech the day before at Conway, had said essentially the same thing as Akin would say a dozen years later.

Rather than backtrack in the interview, as I had anticipated, Boozman, an otherwise compassionate and thoughtful conservative, blandly repeated his assertion. You will recall that his Democratic opponent, a woman named Blanche Lincoln, grabbed Boozman’s loopy comment and ran with it all the way to victory. Boozman, who would later provide admirable service as state health director before his death in a farm accident, soon enough recanted and apologized, but the damage was done. And, as it happens, Akin’s Democratic opponent is a woman, incumbent Claire McCaskill, and her previously, decidedly uncertain re-election bid has been given a gift that may keep on giving through November.

Now Akin is apologizing, too, sort of; he says he got his words wrong. What were the right words? To national Republican leaders, presidential nominee Mitt Romney included, the proper apology would have been “I am resigning as a candidate to allow my party to choose another nominee.”

But Akin vows to fight on. And why not? The attitude toward women he expressed is not that far removed — if at all — from the Republican platform plank demanding a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The demands by GOP strategists that Akin step aside plainly were based not on compassion for rape victims but the impact his remarks would have on the party’s fortunes at the polls.

I have two granddaughters who are ace golfers. I am delighted they live in a country where playing the storied fairways of Augusta is no longer not so wild a dream. I am horrified at the thought of them living in a country that would impose on them a barbarous penalty should they fall victim to an unspeakable act. And I hope I’m not in a minority.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.