Clubs and gender bias

THE Supreme Court has removed another plank from the age-old structure of male privilege - bans against women joining large private clubs that have business-related functions. The court upheld this week the constitutionality of a New York City law barring such clubs from discriminating on the basis of sex. This brings those pillars of exclusivity under the same open-door policy that earlier rulings forced on nationwide service clubs like the Jaycees and Rotary.

Individual clubs are still free to challenge similar laws and try to prove that they are distinctly private. But the decision makes it clear this won't be easy. A number of well-known clubs, like the Cosmos Club in Washington, have already opened their membership to women - at the latest possible hour, and in anticipation of the impending legal tide.

The trend toward open membership appears irreversible. Women who see club membership as a boost to career advancement are likely to find the door open - even if some of the attitudes inside remain unchanged.

The ruling demonstrates that the civil rights impulse in the United States continues to have energy. The Rehnquist court, for all its conservative credentials, has mapped out a continually broadening path on issues related to gender bias. In the Jaycees and Rotary cases the connection to work and career was fairly obvious - club speakers addressed business issues, for instance. The connection is more tenuous when it comes to places like New York's Century Association; but the court recognized that while these organizations are private in name, their ties to the worlds of commerce and politics, though more subtle, are substantial.

In upholding New York's statute, the justices didn't buy the ``right-of-association'' argument as put forth by the clubs' lawyers. They acknowledged that such a right exists in clearly private contexts. But they held that the size of the clubs in question, regular meal service, and business connections cast doubt on how private these clubs really are. The questions the court had to wrestle with are crucial: What is public and what is private? Is the right to associate tantamount to a right to discriminate?

Admittedly, relatively few women and men are going to be affected by a decision covering the most elite of private organizations. Its symbolic significance, however, should not be dismissed. It could lead to action against race- or gender-motivated discrimination in other private settings.

The court has endorsed the right of cities to limit discrimination in what would once have been accepted as a private realm. In doing so, the justices have tightened the boundaries of what can be considered private and thus exempt from regulation. Historically, this process has been essential to rooting out the evils of discrimination. But it's a sensitive process that tests the wisdom of those who occupy the highest bench in the US.

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