On Par with the Men

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It was hardly an auspicious week for a revival of American feminism. Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gave up the ghost. Christine Todd Whitman, a pioneering Republican governor, quit as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. More worrying, a new easy-to-apply testosterone gel was approved for sale. But by the end of last week, Annika Sorenstam emerged from these feminist shadows. Playing coolly and calmly as the first woman in a PGA tournament since 1945, the Swedish golfer provoked even chauvinist curmudgeons to relent.

There were naysayers, of course. Vijay Singh, the notoriously cranky professional golfer, avoided competing against Sorenstam, claiming she had "no business" messing it up with the guys. Piling on the charm, he added: "I hope she misses the cut. Why? Because she doesn't belong out here. What is she going to prove by playing? It's ridiculous. She's the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasize woman. We have our tour for men, and they have their tour. She's taking a spot from someone in the field." Altogether now: awwww. That poor lonely professional male golfer, denied a place in the sun by Annika. To get an idea of how poor such golfers are, consider that Annika, who dominates women's golf the way Tiger Woods dominates men's, has made as much in prize money this year as a male golfer on the PGA tour who ranks around 75th.

Other harrumphers really got in touch with their inner misogynist. "As a life-long golfer, I can attest that being AWAY from women is part of the attraction," an emailer to the conservative magazine, National Review, explained. "Furthermore, a local sports station held a survey recently and discovered that contrary to popular belief, men don't want their women interested in sports at all. It's an escape for most men. It offers a chance for men to reconnect with their manliness (or boyishness) with other men, and cast off the domestic shackles for a short time, and to have the women come along can be a burden at times." Ah, those domestic shackles. No doubt a concern for men's mental health is what's really keeping the Augusta Golf Club from admitting women.

But most of these criticisms evaporated in the face of Sorenstam's steely aplomb. She was mobbed at the scene, provoking yet more mass interest in golf, after the lucrative spectacle of Tiger. Spectators wore little green buttons in support; the press cooed over Sorenstam's decent showing. And even though she didn?t make the cut — she missed by 4 strokes — she received a raucous standing ovation from the crowd. The reason for all this, I think, is not just that everyone likes an underdog. It's that Sorenstam represents an old, pure form of feminism, a message that has been somewhat lost in the politically correct culture wars of the last decade or so.

Sorenstam, after all, is not portraying herself as a victim of male oppression. She's a fabulously successful sportswoman, a wealthy celebrity, and happily married. She's not asking for special treatment in any way. She's playing exactly the same course, under exactly the same conditions as her male peers. Despite the fact that women's courses are generally shorter and less troublesome than men's, Sorenstam is playing with the big boys — and beating many of them. And she's refreshingly free of political posturing. She's not aiming to be a feminist icon. She's trying to play golf as best she can against the best competition in the world.

She is also not attempting to deny the obvious: that there are significant differences between men and women. The more we learn about the impact of hormones such as testosterone and estrogen and the deeper our understanding of evolutionary psychology, the clearer it is that some differences — in physical strength, subtle mental attributes, emotional temperament — can vary with gender. That's why we don't have co-ed sprinting races or expect women to compete with men in the shot-put. But what we have in common as human beings vastly overwhelms what differentiates us as members of one gender or another. Sorenstam is a pioneer in accepting this, and reveling in it. She's not indistinguishable from the men; but she is competitive with them. She's different but equal.

Americans are far more comfortable with this kind of social message — and for a good reason. It's about integration, not separatism. It's about personal achievement, not group grievance. It's about merit, not complaint. It's about golf, not politics. Sorenstam cannot be accused of claiming any "special rights." She's embracing the old American virtue of doing your best against the best, and not letting anything — gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation - get in the way. That was once the core, simple, unifying message of the civil rights movement. Odd, isn't it, that it took a Swedish female golfer to remind us.