A few years ago when a woman member of the Republican Party caucus' executive committee objected to having its meetings at the all-male Century Association in New York, she was told she could either stop complaining or resign from the committee.

The Century Association is one of the New York clubs contesting Local Law 63, which now prohibits discrimination against women and minorities by clubs that are not "distinctly private." That is, the law encompasses only clubs with more than 400 members that also provide regular meal services and "regularly receive payment for dues, fees, use of space, facilities, services, meals or beverages directly from or on behalf of non-members for the furtherance of trade or business."

When the law was being debated, the Century Association -- a haven for the best and brightest men in the arts, politics and the more refined professions and trades -- argued strenuously that no business was ever done there. Why, it was an offense against club rules to lay out business papers on any part of the premises.

Well, the one time I was a guest at the Century Association, I saw no business papers on the tables, but I heard one book sold to television and a magazine piece assigned across the way. The authors knew the editors as fellow Centurions and thereby had ready and informal access to them. Male authors not in the club who want that extra edge can try to join.

Woman authors, however, are in the position that Jews were in not so long ago with regard to memberships that were automatically closed to them. Whatever their individual attainments and strengths, women are barred as a whole, by gentlemen's agreement.

The case -- New York State Club Association, Inc., v. The City of New York -- is to be argued before the Supreme Court next week. In all the briefs, the most telling line -- though not a legal argument -- is part of a footnote in New York City's submission:

"It seems that many members of exclusionary clubs who would be embarrassed to admit that they engage in discriminatory practices against minorities are ready to admit -- indeed they proudly proclaim -- that they discriminate against women."

A main line of the legal argument will be that these sizable private clubs are much more than restorative retreats for companionable men exercising their First Amendment right of strictly private association.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg (now on the D.C. Court of Appeals) wrote in 1977, such bastions as the Century Association and the Union League Club are "settings where individuals seeking career-building opportunities can display their talents and may be helped on their way."

Of course they are. In 1973, Cyral Birckfield, who then was president of the National Club Association, acknowledged that it is "often times vital to belong {to a club} to become an executive."

In 1980, the then-president of the all-male University Club in New York wrote the membership that "it may be assumed conservatively that employers are the source of well over 50 percent of our dues and fees."

Why are employers so kind to their executives? Because they know these are hardly "distinctly private" noncommercial clubs. Conversations over brandy can be quite profitable.

The case of the private clubs comes to the Supreme Court from New York State's court of appeals, whose chief judge, Sol Wachtler, ruled that "although plaintiff's constituent members have a right to free speech and to association, they lack the right to practice invidious discrimination against women and minorities in the distribution of important business advantages and privileges."

The attempt to define "invidious discrimination" rather embarrassed the new Supreme Court justice, Anthony Kennedy, during his confirmation hearings. He was attempting to explain to Sen. Edward Kennedy why he had tarried for so many years in private clubs in San Francisco and San Diego that barred women. At least one has also deprived itself of black members.

The judge had finally resigned from the clubs, but at the hearings, he tried to differentiate between invidious discrimination ("active hostility") and the kind of "insensitivity and indifference" that is not intended to stigmatize. The clubs he used to belong to, said the judge, did not practice invidious discrimination. However, to those who know they can't belong because their kind doesn't fit, his is a distinction without a scrap of difference, as any black or woman could have told him.

Yet the judge did tell Sen. Kennedy: "I want to see a society in which young women who are professionals . . . have the same opportunity I did to join a club where they meet other professionals. I would like that . . . for my daughter."

The nation may be fortunate that Justice Kennedy is not the father only of sons.