What a mighty thing a preposition can be. Consider the ''for'' in the title ''National Organization for Women.'' It connotes a heart as big as all outdoors. NOW is ''for'' women, all of them, unlike the people who are ''against'' women. According to NOW, the ranks of those against include Supreme Court nominee Anthony Kennedy, who NOW says is a ''sexist.''
His scarlet sins include membership, until recently, in a males-only club. His resignation from that club is a bow to the zeitgeist. That geist would be improved if everyone would read Roger Starr's ''Men's Clubs, Women's Rights'' in The Public Interest magazine. Starr argues that the drive to outlaw such clubs can destroy a valuable form of privacy.
Not long ago, men's clubs were gently ridiculed as collections of overstuffed old men in overstuffed old chairs. Now they are seen as sinister instruments of male supremacy. The battle has been joined ferociously in Manhattan, where government is unsleeping on behalf of the underprivileged. Starr's special interest is the Century, one of three private men's clubs under attack. His concern is that the term ''private'' is becoming problematic.
When the Supreme Court upheld California's law forbidding the Junior Chamber of Commerce from excluding women, it argued that the organization is explicitly vocational, not social, and makes no effort to select members with care and discrimination. Therefore, government supervision of membership practices is justifiable.
Feminists say that clubs like the Century are crucial to the contacts and deals by which business people prosper. But, says Starr, members actually belong ''because the clubs lack significance,'' meaning narrow utilitarian purposes. Members join for congenial conversation. The reasons for the male-only rule are not enumerated. But Starr says:
''The rule probably reflects the fear that informal conversation between people who do not know each other well changes when both sexes are present. When they are, the right of disparagement is impaired by traditional rules of courtesy. Such rules defy revolution, even the sexual revolution. It remains awkward for a member of one sex to disparage a member of the opposite sex whom he does not know well in the presence of strangers. Why is the disparagement important? Because, if brevity is the soul of wit, disparagement is its driving spirit.''
Starr may be mistaken. The day probably can and should come when the requirements of courtesy will be considered compatible with the vigorous exercise of the right of disparagement, regardless of the sex of the disparager or disparagee. But surely Starr and kindred spirits have a right to be wrong about this. What is under way is a bullying attempt to break another sphere of private association to the saddle of the state.
The instrument of compulsion is a cynically drawn law using fallacious reasoning and false postulates of fact. New York's City Council has concocted a legal oxymoron to justify controlling the clubs. It says these highly selective clubs (which receive no tax break or other government aid) are ''public accommodations,'' so women must be admitted on the same basis as men.
But if women were, those admitted would generally be people established in satisfying careers and seeking congeniality. They would not be struggling young women on the prowl for business opportunities. However, the city's law so strongly emphasizes the alleged business-expediting function of the clubs, that the city will be compelled to charge discrimination if a club rejects the application of a woman who frankly says she seeks membership for a reason -- commercial advantage -- inimical to the club's character. Therefore, clubs will be compelled to admit the kind of women least suitable.
Starr, who once was a colleague of The New York Times' distinguished architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, recalls his wonderment when he heard her lament that her career had been blighted because she could not join the Century. It was, Starr thought, a remarkably invisible blight on the dean of her profession, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipient of innumerable honorary degrees and invitations to lecture. Her lament is that access to the coveted status of victim is a new entitlement -- a privilege not to be denied the privileged.
If, in the end, all three targeted clubs are compelled to admit females and males in equal numbers, fewer than 100 women a year will be admitted. The other 4 million women in New York will marvel that so much has been made of this struggle by organizations and individuals eager to advertise themselves as ''for'' women, all of them.