Defining Privacy and Private Rights: The Question of Clubs That Bar Women

<i> Naomi Bliven is a long-time contributor to the New Yorker. </i>

Should men’s clubs be required to admit women? The issue raises other significant questions, such as what privacy means and what are the rights of private groups.

New York City tried to deal with that question by defining a “distinctly private” club--one that would be legally permitted to exclude women, or any other category of persons. However, several of what are called “elite” men’s clubs in the city can’t meet the city’s standard for privacy. They are testing the constitutionality of the law, in a case accepted for review earlier this month by the Supreme Court. The law has been upheld by the state’s highest court.

The city, of course, is not attacking the right of privacy, but rather arguing that a club that, for example, rents its facilities for strangers’ parties is no longer private--no longer an extension of its members’ own living rooms. The women who seek membership maintain that these clubs are really corners of the marketplace, and that some members’ fees are paid by their employers on the theory that membership is good for business.


The line between social and business seems impossible to draw, since hospitality and conviviality have always accompanied business. The last time I visited one such club (as a guest, of course) a member I know asked me for a business favor--a tiny favor, a natural request, not crass or outrageous. Though I suspect that women seeking admission may exaggerate the economic advantages of club membership, I dare say little favors add up.

The challenges created by the changing role of women in our society are probably too large to grasp. I am not sure we will understand what has happened and the effects of what we have done for a generation, until we have the hindsights of history. It seems to me that several issues we have thus far classified as women’s problems are broader. Child care, for instance, isn’t a harem worry, like skirt lengths. The treatment of young children foretells the future of the nation.

In general, though, Americans are on the right track. Women are in the work force for two reasons: One is their own or their family’s need for their earnings. The other is society’s need for their contributions--our health-care system, for instance, would collapse without women workers. When I say Americans are on the right track, I mean that, however belatedly, unevenly or unwillingly, we do recognize that all members of the work force ought to be treated fairly, and we are also realistic enough to see that both sexes as well as all races are in the work force to stay.

We are struggling forward together trying to offer equal opportunity in education, in vocational and professional training, in chances for jobs and promotions. These efforts are particularly difficult and complicated in the area of gender equality because the changing role of women affects primary relations--marriages and families--but there is no doubt in my mind that our society is committed to the goals of equality and inclusiveness. If the problems we have in attaining these goals are difficult and confusing, inequality and exclusiveness would be just as difficult and confusing, and would produce, besides, a lousy society.

I used to think that women’s membership in elite men’s clubs was a trivial issue. I still find many other problems more pressing. To be sure, we should all get what we’re entitled to, but some entitlements are more urgent than others. In any case, I assume that sooner or later the clubs, responding to the real world, will go looking for women members. I have not yet heard any good reason for maintaining single-sex clubs: Nobody suggests that these are homosexual groups or that their principal activity is boxing. The members who wish to continue to exclude women tend to talk about bathrooms--in the case of California’s Bohemian Grove encampment, about the lack of bathrooms. Not very persuasive.

My current feeling is that the clubs should admit women because there is a useful job they could do--pioneering or exploring ways to develop comradeship across gender barriers. During most of human history, the sexes’ experience of each other has been erotic or domestic. Work is hierarchical--a command situation. We have had little experience relating to each other in less intense and more egalitarian ways--warm but not passionate, interdependent but not demanding, collegial, cooperative, mutually intellectually stimulating. Such friendships are apt to flourish in college, where young people work together in extra-curricular activities, but tend to fade in the years devoted to mating and getting ahead.


Yet, as women appear in more and more places previously restricted to men, including the office of the CEO, we need to develop a whole range of appreciation--good-natured and pleasurable, but detached compared to love or hate. We need to learn to assess each other. The clubs could start this process. It would be valuable to society, to their present members and to the women they admit.

I want to return to the matter of privacy, not just because it has been in the news due to the Bork nomination, but because the clubs’ claim that they may have the right to discriminate because they are private is an example of a recurring intellectual embarrassment--a good argument in a bad cause. I myself think we are bound to respect the claims of privacy where they can be justified. Imagine eight or 10 people who meet in each others’ houses to read poetry. We would not think that any person or agency of government could tell this little club what poems to read, or order it to read prose. Yet we know that in our era’s assortment of despotisms--communist, fascist and other--such a little group might be forbidden, or spied upon or have its readings prescribed.

The rights of privacy and freedom of association may be abused, but they remain precious. If the clubs’ claim to be private is legally sustained, their members should be allowed to continue hiding from the 20th Century. They are probably hurting themselves more than anyone they keep out.