Last week, Yale University's prestigious Skull and Bones society inducted its first women members in its 159-year history, prompting graduates to shut down the club and drawing national media attention.
The incident sent shock waves travelling up I-95 to Cambridge, causing many at Harvard to ask whether its nine all-male final clubs would be the next to go coed.
Members contacted this week seemed determined to stop the momentum begun by the Skull and Bones episode. Many said that if the exclusive clubs, which have no official ties to the University, do decide to admit women, it won't be anytime soon.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, members said that the Skull and Bones decision had been the subject of some discussion at the clubs, but that no formal motions had been made to select women as potential members.
"There's no formal movement," to make women members of any of the clubs, one member said. "Not yet. But who knows?"
He added, though, that he would not be surprised if some club members would support a move to admit women, arguing that clubbies are more progressive then they are popularly given credit for.
"We're not a bunch of stodgy young kids sitting around saying we won't let women in," he said. "It's not a matter of being reactionary, knee-jerk people."
Contrary to popular belief, the member said, "People in final clubs actually think."
The member said that tradition and atmosphere of the clubs make admitting women to the clubs a complicated issue.
"It would change the clubs dramatically," he said.
Traditionalist graduate boards are yet another barrier to admitting women to the clubs. The alumni generally have control over the clubhouses, and so have the final word on any major policy questions. Needless to say, the alumni tend to be a bit less progressive than their progeny.
At Yale, this generation gap has been taken to an extreme. There, members of the graduate governing board locked current members out of their New Haven "tomb" headquarters in response to the undergraduates' move to admit women to the Skull and Bones club.
At Harvard, undergraduate members of the Phoenix Club reportedly voted to admit women in the spring of 1989, but pressure from the graduate board led the club to reject the idea of going coed.
All-male clubs have come under increasing fire in recent years. At Princeton, a lawsuit forced the remaining all-male eating clubs to admit women. Three U.S. Senators who are alumni of the Yale Skull and Bones club have called for co-education at that club. Presidential candidates and federal judicial nominees routinely resign from all-male clubs.
In 1984, Harvard University cut all official ties to the clubs, including heat and telephone service, citing discrimination against women. The Radcliffe Union of Students has put action against final clubs near the top of its agenda. And in response to media reports of his connections to Harvard's all-male Pi Eta Speakers Club (not a final club), State Treasurer Joseph D. Malone '78 severed his ties with that club this week.
...If the exclusive clubs do decide to admit women, it won't be any time soon.
Still, the clubs seem to be moving at a turtle's pace, if at all, to admit women to full clubhouse privileges.
"It would never happen," one member said. He said the reason was that Harvard's final clubs serve more of a social purpose than the clubs at Yale do. He said that while most final club members support the idea of women founding their own clubs, few would support actually letting women join the existing clubs.
That sentiment was echoed by another member, who said the Skull and Bones decision had been discussed at his club as a news item, but not as a call to action.
Only one final club member interviewed this week had a different perspective on women in the clubs. He said he had talked about admitting women with members of his club and is intending to bring the matter up to the full club.
"It wouldn't be an overnight thing," the member said. "I personally don't think it would be a bad thing." The member said the first step would be to let women have free access to restricted areas of the club, and the next step would be to admit them as members.
"I think changes are going to come," he said.