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The New Members At Augusta

February 29, 2012

To a female eye, the green jacket looks like something a salesman would wear, unless the person sporting it is particularly wide, in which case it looks like the flag of Mauritania. As garments go, the Augusta National blazer is an essay in hemmed, single-breasted dowdiness, and the alterations Condi Rice and Darla Moore will make to it are welcome.

When Rice and Moore wear their Augusta membership jackets in public for the first time at the Masters Tournament, the moment will seem to mean something, but what exactly? The fallacy in the decade-long public controversy over Augusta's men-only membership was that the admission of a woman to the private club would strike a blow for feminism. As if one woman's crested pocket defines progress for all women. The even bigger fallacy is that belonging to Augusta is an accomplishment. No, it's not.

It's an indulgence.

What, then, is the real significance of Rice and Moore's entry into the green-jacket club? Perhaps it's the fact that membership for these women is so nonessential to their status—and that Augusta needs them more than they need it. Virginia Rometty's ascendance to the top of IBM made it clear that Augusta's exclusion of women was only going to become more and more awkward for the companies that sponsor the Masters. In all the years of speculation over whom Augusta would finally invite to break the gender barrier, it was assumed that she would have to be a woman of a certain type, one with enough fortitude, credentials and generosity to be comfortable in an all-male room. But Rice, the first female national security advisor, and Moore, who became the highest paid woman in the banking industry, don't have to worry about the room. Like Rometty, they've already conquered the world.

In a speech at the Republican National Convention delivered nine days after receiving her invitation to join Augusta, Rice gave us a clue as to what membership does—and doesn't—mean to her. "Self-esteem comes from achievement, not from lax standards and false praise," she said. Clearly, this is not a woman in need of lame gestures of affirmation.

"And on a personal note," she continued, "a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham—the most segregated big city in America; her parents can't take her to a movie theater or a restaurant—but they make her believe that even though she can't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter, she can be president of the United States, and she becomes Secretary of State. Yes, America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect."

In that last line, Rice hit on what is meaningful to all of us about a couple of women strolling across the veranda in green jackets. Rice and Moore are so formidable that they make "the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect." They've handled bigotry and discrimination with equanimity while charging across lines that previously seemed impassable for women, without an audible word of complaint that life isn't fair.

It's an old maxim that at work, all women's suits are suits of armor. Armor is an image Rice has employed many times over her career. Her parents, descended from slaves, "were convinced that education was a kind of armor shielding me against everything—even the deep racism in Birmingham and across America," she wrote in her autobiography.

But at this point, Rice and Moore have acquired so much armor that it's they who provide the shield to Augusta. Ten years ago, the membership debate framed by activist Martha Burk was all about grievance, a cry through a megaphone demanding Augusta admit a woman as an important symbol. But there is activism, and then there is action, and there is symbol, and there is substance. Everything about Rice and Moore seems to say, "Screw symbolism." There is only one sure way to change things for women, and it's by winning. Whether you like Rice's politics, or approve of Moore's financial sharking, they win. They win cold wars, and win the terms of a deal. It's an approach best summed up by the late, great Nora Ephron. "Above all," Ephron said, "be the heroine of your life, not the victim."