Green Jackets in Men's Sizes Only: Gender Discrimination at Private Country Clubs

Article excerpt


On November 3, 2009, the Supreme Court of Ireland held that the Portmarnock Golf Club could maintain its rule prohibiting female membership free from the sanctions of Ireland's antidiscrimination laws. Portmarnock is representative of the numerous private golf clubs that continue to promote discrimination against women. Despite significant advances in gender equality, private country clubs in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland remain bastions of codified gender discrimination. Many of the most prominent golf clubs hold firmly to discriminatory policies established generations ago. Opposition to these policies has come in various forms of protest and litigation, with mixed results. The private clubs have frequently asserted the right to free and exclusive association to defend their actions. Moreover, some of golf's most famous private clubs continue to practice egregious forms of discrimination against women largely free from legal challenges. This Note examines the existing legal status of gender discrimination at private country clubs in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland and offers a three-prong approach to litigation against clubs engaging in disparate treatment of women.


     A. Women's Roles at the British and American
        Country Clubs in the Early 1900s
     B. Augusta National and Other Prominent
        Male-Only Clubs in the United States
     C. Notable Male-Only Clubs in Ireland and
        the United Kingdom
     D. Impact of Male-Only Clubs

     A. Litigation in the United States
     B. Litigation and Legislation in the
        United Kingdom
     C. Litigation in Ireland
        i. Portmarnock Golf Club Rules and the
           Equal Status Act of Ireland
       ii. Litigation Against Portmarnock

     A. Strategic and Sympathetic Plaintiffs
     B. Targeting the Well-Known Country Clubs
     C. Liquor Licensing


Throughout the twentieth century, the women's rights movements in the United States and Europe made great strides in the fight against gender discrimination. Landmark victories included advancement in the fields of voting rights, education, and employment. (1) However, at certain country clubs in the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, discrimination against women remains par for the course. (2) Many private clubs continue to cling to decades-old, or even century-old, policies that deny women equal access to club facilities. (3) Even clubs that are home to golfs most revered courses continue to prohibit women from becoming members or even setting foot on the tee as players. (4)

The last two decades have witnessed a growth in litigation challenging various gender-biased practices at country clubs in the United States and Ireland. (5) The cases illustrate the tension between public policies favoring gender equality and the traditional claims of private clubs to freedom of association. (6) While numerous private country clubs have voluntarily granted equal status to women, many still stand firm behind exclusionary policies. (7) Challenging these policies through the court system has been marginally effective in the United States, with successes limited primarily to small, local clubs. (8) In Ireland, the Supreme Court's recent decision in Equality Authority v. Portmarnock Golf Club has quelled early optimism that clubs would abandon all-male membership policies. (9) In British courts, the issue of gender discrimination at private country clubs has gone largely unaddressed. (10) As a result, world-famous country clubs on both sides of the Atlantic remain accessible to men only. (11)

Part I of this Note outlines the historical treatment of women at private golf country clubs and the emergence of women seeking membership on equal terms with men. …