Every once in a while I come across someone who talks as if the women's movement is over, if for no other reason than that there is nothing left to do. Oh sure, there's comparable worth and other goals of either an allegedly socialist or distinctly un-American taint. But when it comes to women being treated equally, everything's done that should be done. It's good to live in the best of all possible worlds.
Comes now Laurence H. Silberman to rebut that argument. Silberman is a Reagan administration nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals. There is almost no one who would argue that Silberman is not qualified for the post. He is a former Justice Department official, general counsel of the Crocker National Bank and a graduate of all the proper schools -- Dartmouth and Harvard. More proper than that, you cannot get.
But Silberman was also a member of the Metropolitan Club, a private Washington institution with a wonderful-looking library, great location and a 122-year record of only the most grudging accommodation to the concept of equality. At one time, the club had no black or Jewish members, but it now has a few of each, presumably making some of the members feel like they have rejoined the Young Trotsky Club of their more radical youth. What it does not have -- either by policy or by 122 years of unbroken happenstance -- is women.
The Metropolitan is one member short this week. Larry Silberman has resigned. He did so only after Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) threatened to block his nomination to the bench and only after he said he preferred to retain his membership. When Simon offered Silberman a choice between his club and his career, Silberman chose his career. God knows where he'll eat now.
Some things have to be said right off. The first is that if Silberman had been a member of a club that barred blacks as members, he would not have been given a choice but the door instead. Why it is just awful to discriminate against blacks but perfectly all right to do the same to women is a question that only Silberman, in his wisdom, can answer. It smells the same to me.
The second thing to say is that we are talking about clubs and not jobs or equal pay or something that really matters. Clubs may well be the place where friendships are made, but they are no longer on the cutting edge of commerce, and it is probably possible to make a nice living and still eat your lunch in the company of women.
What makes these clubs important is that they validate sexism. They say that there really are times when women can be excluded just because they are women -- because they are threatening or distracting or whatever the reason either thought or enunciated. It not only remains permissible for someone to belong to a club that excludes women, but the forced resignation from one is made to appear as yet another burden of government service: you submit to a security check, you reveal your investments and you resign from a perfectly swell club.
Back in the early 1960s, some Kennedy administration appointees had to quit Washington clubs that would not admit blacks. The reason for that had nothing to do with the clubs themselves; they were hardly an important civil rights battleground and were inconsequential compared to, say, schools or buses. But racism was a problem in American society and the clubs -- no matter how insignificant -- were part of that problem. What's true of racism is also true of sexism. It, too, has its victims.
Maybe if the Silbermans of the world were denied their seats on the bench for belonging to clubs such as the Metropolitan in the first place, the message would get around that sex bigotry, like racial and religious bigotry, is unacceptable. You should not be able to belong to a club that discriminates when it suits you and then quit for the same reason. By joining, you have made a declaration of principle: having a place to eat downtown is more important than the fight against sexual discrimination.
In some ways, we ought to be grateful for Silberman. He and men like him seem so deaf to the argument women have been making for the last 20 years that they represent the rebuttal to the argument that the revolution has been won. They didn't even know it was fought. How could they? They were having lunch at the club.