Apparently Sonia Sotomayor’s membership in the Belizean Grove women’s club is turning into some kind of issue—with some wags purporting that it runs afoul of the canons of judicial ethics. Now, several other Supreme Court justices, male and female, have been members of men’s or women’s clubs, and it doesn’t seem to have been a confirmation dealbreaker. It is, however, fair to point out that some Democratic senators—the late Howard Metzenbaum and Paul Simon—do seem to have thought this counted as “invidious discrimination,” and at Antonin Scalia’s nomination hearing, representatives for Americans for Democratic Action and the National Organization for Women both argued that his membership in the Cosmos Club was objectionable. I think anyone who’s not a pretty crude sort of formalist about this stuff ought to recognize that having gendered social spaces just isn’t “invidious” in the same way that other forms of discriminatory segregation are, and so the folks who (unsuccessfully) raised a fuss then should probably come out and say so if they’re not going to raise a fuss about Sotomayor. Conversely, anyone who tries to argue with a straight face that Belizean Grove practices “invidious discrimination,” unless they had the same reaction during the Scalia hearings, really ought to be shamed mercilessly for suddenly finding it offensive as part of an attempt to stoke this ludicrous “racist” narrative. Here’s some of Scalia’s response to the question about his membership, which I find eminently reasonable:
I knew that it was a men’s club, and what I was going to go on to say is that I do not consider that an invidious discrimination. I think there are a lot of other people who likewise do not consider it invidious discrimination. I realize there are those that disagree, that do not like organizations like the Knights of Columbus, or for that matter, the Boy Scouts, and think that that should not be an all-male organization.
I happen not to have felt that way and thus was a member of the Cosmos Club.
These things aren’t always perfectly symmetrical, to be sure. There are excellent—and I think obvious—reasons for not regarding a black fraternity as equally offensive as a white-only fraternity. The case against regarding a men’s-only club with greater suspicion than a women’s-only club probably did make a lot more sense at one point, and it may still to some extent, insofar as the men’s groups may have helped to exclude women from networking opportunities. But an extremely elite group like Belizean Grove seems pretty directly comparable to a group like the Cosmos Club. At this stage, I think if you’re going to argue that Sotomayor’s membership is no big deal, you have to allow that Scalia’s response is reasonable also. And if you think Scalia’s response was reasonable—if you’re not going to argue he shouldn’t have been confirmed on that basis—then it seems awfully disingenuous to raise a fuss in Sotomayor’s case.
Addendum: I should say that the reasonable case to make against gender-exclusive clubs is not that there’s anything inherently offensive about the nature of the “discrimination” there, as opposed to racial exclusion based on the idea of the superiority or inferiority of certai races. A commenter makes this important distinction below. The good argument is that, however reasonable the desire for gendered space might be in itself, in the context of women’s historical exclusion from positions of professional power, gendered spaces where enormously important elite networking happens tend to perpetuate that exclusion.
The rationale for having professional norms that bar elites from membership in such groups is not that it evinces objectionable sexism on the part of the member. Rather, the rationale is that discouraging such membership either reduces the influence of such clubs, or creates pressure for them to change their rules, which helps to remedy the aggregate sexist effect of behavior that is not necessarily sexist in motive at the individual level. This justification relies in part on the fact that the elite clubs were almost all male-only, and there weren’t comparable organizations like Belizean Grove. So 20 years ago, there may have been a plausible case to make that the Cosmos Club was “invidious” in effect if not intent. Under current circumstances, we probably ought to accept both.
Addendum II: One bit of Randian jargon I think actually deserves wider exposure is the phrase “context dropping,” which I think gets at the heart of my irritation at the whole “what if a white guy said that” rhetorical move. A lot of things are objectionable not (just) because they’re intrinsically wrong, but because of how they fit into a contingent system of unfairness. Someone who insists that a men-only club and a women-only club have to be equally acceptable or equally problematic is “dropping the context” of historically unequal access to certain types of networking opportunities. The complaint about men’s clubs isn’t that it’s intrinsically sexist to want male spaces, but that there’s a huge disparity in the elite networking opportunities provided by the actual historically available gendered spaces.