From time to time, I remember back to the civil rights era when the Mississippi legislature voted to donate money to the White Citizen's Council, a racist organization. There was a lot wrong with that, but what struck me as adding insult to injury was the fact that some of the money would be coming from black taxpayers. When it came to funding segregation, Mississippi did not mind integration at all.

Now we go to a less cosmic, and to some, downright humorous issue--Burning Tree Club in Bethesda. It has been an all-male preserve since its founding in 1923, and for many years it was smugly so. Now it is sort of reluctantly so--the arguments for continuing the policy running more to the expense of putting in another shower room. It is enough to make you weep.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of the Mississippi legislature, the gentlemen of Burning Tree are not above asking women to subsidize the club.

In other words, women who are not permitted to join the club, who may not--heaven forbid and may God strike me dead--even enter the premises, are nevertheless required to make a tiny contribution to the upkeep of the club. It is the law.

The law in question is called the country club assessment tax. Under it, Maryland's country clubs are taxed at a favorable rate, the rationale for this being that they provide a public service--open space.

This is, of course, a specious argument, since the open space is provided only to people who can afford the initiation fee ($12,000 to frolic in Burning Tree's open space) and the annual dues ($1,700 at Burning Tree), and who, moreover, can stomach a confrontation with the chief justice of the United States decked out in lime green and shocking pink.

Nevertheless, this is the law of Maryland. For Burning Tree, this means that what would be a tax assessment of $165,600 is reduced (for providing inner-city kids with open space) to $13,600. This is called in the country club biz a nice piece of change without which, we are told, Burning Tree would have to raise its dues so that it would become a rich man's club--and presumably have to withdraw from a bowling league.

At this point, you should be gagging on hypocrisy. Not only is Burning Tree already a rich man's club, it is one supported by all the people of Maryland, most of whom would not possibly be considered for, and could not afford, membership. But the only people specifically barred from membership on the basis of what they are at birth are--women. Rich or poor, it does not matter: Women need not apply.

Now we may pause right here and practice the fine art of blaming the victim. In this case, though, the victim--women and men who care about sexual discrimination--really do deserve some blame.

Year after year the Maryland General Assembly treats them with contempt on Burning Tree, and year after year the opponents of the measure to eliminate the club's tax break get reelected. It is inconceivable that someone could vote to have the state support a club that banned blacks or Jews or Catholics and be reelected--especially if half the electorate were black or Jewish or Catholic. Women, though, still allow themselves to get kicked around. They are the battered electorate.

And battered they were again this year. When the General Assembly was asked to eliminate the tax break to clubs that discriminate, it got tied up into procedural knots and just could not bring itself to do it. Some members of the legislature were opposed, of course, while even more, it seemed, considered this a trivial issue. G'way lady, ya bother me.

Well, in some ways it is a trivial issue. Large amounts of money are not at stake and large numbers of people would not be affected even if the club went to hell with itself and admitted women. But as a matter of principle, the issue is not trivial at all.

It is, like Mississippi's donation to the White Citizen's Council, an example of government representing just some of the people and compelling the others to support their own victimization. That has nothing to do with golf or open spaces. It has to do, instead, with fairness. In Maryland, that's sometimes as scarce as women at Burning Tree.