A driving force for women's rights

CATCHING UP WITH ... LINDA HITT THATCHER

Linda Hitt Thatcher gets teed off about the discriminatory practices of some Maryland golf courses.

August 15, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,Sun Staff

LANDOVER -- The first thing you need to know about the woman who sues country clubs is this: When she bashes men, she isn't bashing all men, just a select few. Linda Hitt Thatcher, frankly, is fond of men. She married one, gave birth to two, and she hired another as her associate, to work alongside her, when she started her own law practice three years ago.

But these select few, sheesh. They're another matter.

Five years after Thatcher filed her first complaint against a Maryland country club, claiming it discriminated against women, she is still butting heads with the predominantly all-male power structure that tells women -- and has told them since they first swung a driver -- that they can't tee off on weekend mornings.

If it sounds juvenile, the 40-year-old lawyer believes it is. "These few men who are on the boards of directors, they abide by the rules at the workplace, but there's something that takes place after they leave their offices at 5 p.m. ... They treat their golf courses as their own private sandbox and they don't want to share it with women. That's the bottom line."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Arts & Society section of Aug. 15 incorrectly described Longwood College as a private institution for women. Longwood is a public college and has accepted men since 1976. The Sun regrets the error.

If it sounds like the kind of thing that could not still exist at the turn of this enlightened century, could not possibly happen here, in the back yard of the nation's capital, well, according to Thatcher, it is, and it does.

Consider that since she took her first case in 1994, she has signed on to represent women in complaints against two other Maryland clubs. A flap a few weekends ago at the Turf Valley Resort and Country Club in Ellicott City has her wondering if there will be another lawsuit soon. (A female guest was asked to leave the "A" course because it was reserved for men before noon.)

But the woman who sues country clubs never intended to be the one banging her head on the grass ceiling.

The daughter of a Korean mother and an Irish father, Thatcher grew up Linda Hitt, raised liberally, she says, in Virginia. A self-labeled tomboy, she attended the private, all-girl Longwood College, went to law school in Texas, did a federal clerkship with a judge in Rockville -- and stayed in Maryland.

She has worked for big firms with lots of lawyers, but now she works for herself. She has defended companies from litigious employees, but now she mostly handles cases involving people who claim to be wrongly fired or demoted from their jobs.

She stumbled upon the work that has brought NBC News and Working Woman Television to her office and led to interviews that landed her in the Marcia Chambers book, "The Unplayable Lie: The Untold Story of Women and Discrimination in American Golf."

Thatcher and her husband, David, an electrical engineer, joined the Country Club at Woodmore in Mitchellville in 1993. She wanted a nice place to have dinner, a nice place to play tennis, a place to raise the boys, 10-year-old Michael and 8-year-old Luke, in an athletic environment.

That's why Thatcher ignored the jab on the membership application that made wives into "associate members," whether she liked it or not.

But when club women approached her later, saying they were denied tee times, the right to vote, and the right to run for a spot on the board of directors, Thatcher had had enough herself. Digging around, she found a legal podium for her moral indignation:

A deal between Maryland's 28 country clubs and the state attorney general that says if clubs maintain their rolling fairways and tree-shaded grounds as "open spaces," the state, in turn, will give them a tax break that sometimes amounts to thousands of dollars.

But the deal contains a condition that clubs not discriminate, either in membership or practice, on the basis of race, color, creed, sex or national origin. Thatcher found her "hammer."

Woodmore kept its tax break when it settled the case in 1995, giving women equal membership and privileges. By that time, Thatcher had left the club. She has since been invited back, and she's thinking about it.

But in the meantime, a retired school teacher who taught advanced placement government was golfing with her husband at Manor Country Club in Rockville when she was asked to leave because women were not permitted before 11 a.m. Saturdays. Betty Flaa politely left, saying, "Manor will be very sorry."

Thatcher filed a complaint, and five years later, the Maryland attorney general still owes them a decision. The Montgomery County Human Relations Commission is supposed to give them its ruling by the end of this month.

Flaa found in Thatcher someone like her, a believer that while this kind of discrimination is not the end of the world, it's unacceptable. She also found someone, like her, who thinks the women who allow it to happen get some of the blame, too.

But you should hear the excuses from some of the men.

Excuse No. 1: Men need the weekend tee times because they work.

And women don't?

Excuse No. 2: Women are so slow they'd clog up the course.

Puh-lease.

Excuse No. 3: Members, the majority of whom are men, pay a lot for the privilege.

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