RESOLUTIONS adopted by the American Bar Association's House of Delegates are not exactly law. But because of the ABA's standing, they often help form public opinion, and they can influence lawmakers as well. Civil rights forces and women's groups were therefore greatly encouraged by the action of the House of Delegates at its mid-year meeting last January. It voted to support federal legislation to prevent discrimination by private clubs that derive a substantial portion of their income -- more than 20 percent was the suggested figure -- from business sources. Last week, at its annual meeting in San Francisco, the ABA reversed this action. It was a mistake. Here's why.
If you and your friends, Jones and Smith, want to form a secret, all-white, male needlework club where you can sit and stitch and gossip without fear of any women listening to your jokes or commenting on your attire -- or the absence thereof -- fine. Go to it. If your bird-watching society is too birdbrained to want to accept black members, that's their decision and their loss. Your right to associate with whom you please on private matters is protected. But suppose you're an up- and-coming young lawyer in Albany, N.Y., and you can't join the Fort Orange Club, where an awful lot of important business gets done over lunch and cocktails, because you're a woman. To add insult to injury, your income taxes subsidize the membership of the very people who keep you out because of your sex.
That's right. According to the National Club Association, federal contractors alone pay $800 million a year for club dues, and this figure is probably a low one, since many members pay with their own checks and are then reimbursed by their companies. In large cities, some clubs derive more than 50 percent of their income from business memberships. The very fact that these dues are paid by employers and are deducted as business expenses seems to prove the contention of civil rights groups that important business is conducted in these presumably social settings and that excluding applicants because of race, religion and sex handicaps them in the economic marketplace.
If you're a Chicago businessman who wants to influence the mayor or the president of the University of Chicago, you'll probably be smart enough not to invite them to a meeting at any of that city's four male-only social clubs. They'd be barred at the door. But women -- and blacks -- who are not yet so prominent may not be able to influence the choice of location of business meetings. They are left out and they lose out.
It is a sad commentary that lawyers, of all people, fail to see the injustice of this. The situation is ludicrous when one contemplates the lines, "We're awfully sorry, Justice Marshall. Folks like you are allowed to work here, of course, but you can't have lunch," or "Now, now Justice O'Connor, you just sit here in the ladies' alcove and when the meeting is over, I'm sure your hubby will tell you all about it." The ABA's reversal of policy on tax-subsidized business clubs amounts to acquiescence in this ridiculous situation.