Ladies' Nights and the "Cancer of Discrimination"

Should it be illegal for bars to offer discounts to women?


David Gillespie may be an unlikely Rosa Parks, but we have to take our civil rights heroes where we find them. Parks rebelled because, being black, she was told to ride in the back of an Alabama bus while whites got to sit up front. Gillespie could not tolerate paying a $5 cover price on "ladies' night" at a New Jersey bar while females were getting in free.

This being a civil rights drama, you can guess how it ends. Gillespie took legal action, and in 2004, the walls of discrimination came tumbling down. The state Division on Civil Rights ruled that giving women a special incentive to patronize a drinking establishment is illegal.

"Once a place of public accommodation makes its goods or services available to the public," the division said, "it is bound to treat all members of the public alike." To allow exceptions to the policy "would be to disregard its intended goal, which is nothing less than the eradication of the cancer of discrimination."

That last sentence brings to mind what Oscar Wilde said about an emotional scene in Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop": "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." American history holds numerous examples of discrimination that are thoroughly malignant. This is not one of them.

When it comes to relations between the sexes, a little common sense goes a long way. It's not sex discrimination to bar men from women's locker rooms. It's not sex discrimination to let only females audition for the role of Juliet. It's not sex discrimination to roughly balance males and females in an entering college class. And it should not be sex discrimination to offer favors to one sex in order to benefit people of both sexes.

Why, after all, would a bar offer discounts to women? Not because the owner harbors a deep-seated hostility toward men, perpetuating centuries of oppression. People who run such establishments understand that a lot of men patronize taverns partly to meet women, and that they will come more often and stay longer if women are abundant than if they are scarce.

Since females are generally less attracted to the bar scene, discounts may be needed to draw them out in respectable numbers. The owner of the Coastline Restaurant and Bar in Cherry Hill, the target of the complaint, said after the ruling came down that his male customers are unhappy "because they're wondering, 'Are the girls going to show up?'"

Unlike Gillespie, those guys realize that they're not victims here, because there are no victims. Women get to enjoy a night out at a bargain rate, while feeling less isolated in a sea of males. Men get to enjoy a night out with a better chance of meeting someone of the opposite sex. Pre-existing couples save some money. Misogynists have the chance to confirm their prejudices.

By contrast, it's hard to see how David Gillespie will be better off once these discounts have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Saloon managers are not likely to cut prices for men to match the specials offered to women. Gillespie will merely get to sip his beverage of choice at full price—and chances are better than before that he'll be doing it in solitude.

His supporters insist that what's important is upholding the principle of nondiscrimination. To allow ladies' nights to go on, we can deduce, would invite the return of Bull Connor and the abolition of women's suffrage. Offering a discount for women, to George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, is no more defensible than charging whites less than blacks. "Sex discrimination is wrong, no matter whose ox is being gored," he declares.

But context is crucial, and relations between the sexes are different from relations between the races. We don't accept racially segregated restrooms, but we do accept sexually segregated restrooms. All-white colleges would be offensive, but all-female schools are not.

Charging whites less than blacks would suggest a desire to drive away black customers because of racial animus. Charging women less than men suggests nothing comparable. No reasonable man is going to feel the sting of humiliation when a tavern offers women something he can't have. No reasonable woman is going to feel insulted by the differential treatment.

Only people with a rigidly dogmatic mindset and an aversion to reality could think ladies' nights are part of "the cancer of discrimination." But in New Jersey, unreasonableness rules.


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in June 2004.