IN 1856, the Princeton college refectory, where all students were required to eat, burned down. It remained closed for the next 50 years. At first, students took their meals in nearby boarding houses, but over time a system of eating clubs evolved. Even though there are now alternatives available through university food service, three out of four Princeton juniors and seniors still belong to clubs at which they take all their meals, organize intramural sports and participate in a wide range of social activities. There are 13 eating clubs. Eight are open, which means that students can apply to join, and admission is determined by lottery. The other five select members.

This whole system came into question after the university began accepting women in 1969. While most of the clubs welcomed the new arrivals, by 1979 three -- Cottage, Ivy and Tiger Inn -- were still all-male bastions. Sally Frank, then a junior, sued the three on the grounds that they were not truly private clubs, which are exempt from New Jersey's civil rights law, but so intimately connected to the university as to be, in fact, public accommodations subject to the law.

For 11 years, there has been a drawn-out battle characterized by calls for the preservation of privacy, fraternity and male bonding. Some adamant alumni held fast and plenty of young fogeys joined them. But Miss Frank won in the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ordered the recalcitrant clubs to admit women members. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand.

You don't need to sympathize with clubs that exclude on the basis of race, gender and so on to believe that it's always best when members see the light of their own accord. Miss Frank's suit, in addition to winning a court order, also focused attention on a very real problem for students at this great university, and it changed minds. During the course of the proceedings, in 1986, Cottage Club began admitting women; Ivy protested but accepted the state court decision last fall. Even Tiger Inn, still single-sex, has voted once (two votes are required) to open its membership.

The New Jersey court's ruling was based on that state's own statute and doesn't apply elsewhere. But the Princeton eating clubs had become symbolic of the resistance of another age, and the resolution of this suit will be of interest on other campuses as well. The acceptance of women in every aspect of college life is important for students who will be working together in the desegregated marketplace. Even the last hold-outs at Tiger Inn will, we suspect, quickly tire of resentment and begin to wonder why this logical and fair change was so long in coming.