Why the Fly Club Changed Its Mind On Women

Special Report

Last year, a handful of seniors who were members of the Fly Club decided it was time to admit women into an institution that had been exclusively male for 156 years.

"Who are we to deny women, [our] peers on campus, the same experience," a Fly club member who graduated last year says of the seniors' reasoning.

To them, the idea didn't seem revolutionary, but they knew they had to convince the rest of the Fly, one of Harvard's nine all-male final clubs. Last September, the matter came to a vote, and Fly members voted 28-0 to admit women, with one abstention.

They thought they'd won.

"They had weight, they were respected, cool guys," says an alumni member of the Fly who graduated more than a decade ago and supports making the club co-ed. "To do something like this takes guts--you need a core group. It may sound silly to you, but in the context of the club it takes guts."

Last month, however, the push for a co-ed Fly Club--started a year ago by that group of seniors--hit a road-block. The club announced that it had polled its members again, and there was no longer a "clear consensus" for allowing women into the Fly.

According to a statement released by the Fly after the vote, the thirty-three undergraduate members chose "club unity over women."

"This is not a negative step, just a slowing down," said Fly President Robert M. Carlock '95 in an interview the day after the vote.

Women Appealing for Change (WAC), a group that formed during the past academic year to urge a boycott of the clubs, focused its wrath on the Fly. In a letter to The Crimson, they called the decision an "embarrassment" which "undermines the values which Harvard is supposed to represent."

But, sources say, the bid to make the Fly co-ed was effectively thwarted long before last month's undergraduate vote.

Graduate members of the Fly say the club's graduate board is to blame. By deciding to delay the vote by a year instead of acting immediately, the graduate board allowed the bid to admit women into the Fly to lose critical momentum.

For some members of the graduate board, the vote to delay was a strategy intended to stop the drive for a co-ed club.

"I have no doubt that the core anti-women crowd knew it was a good tactic," says the alumni member who graduated more than a decade ago.

The board's decision also permitted the proposal's most eager backers--the Lowell seniors--to graduate before undergraduates could give final approval to a co-ed punch.

"I wish they had decided last spring while the seniors were still around," the alumni member says.


Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Fly Club member who graduated last year says he is disappointed by how the graduates handled the issue.

"They were not ready to move when we were," he says. "If they conducted their business in the way they looked at this issue, they would never get anywhere."

The recent graduate says he doesn't believe a year was needed to discuss the issue.

"It doesn't take a year to talk about some issue," he says. "We could have moved on it anytime last year. We were ready at any point."

But he says he was not surprised that last year's decision was reversed by the recent vote.

"Realistically, I didn't think it would go through again," he says. "An unanimous vote is only going to come around once."

When selecting new members last spring, the club was not concerned with the new class' attitudes about a co-ed punch, the recent graduate says.

He says he doesn't think admitting women would affect the nature of the club.

"The experience won't change," he says. Still, he acknowledges that for men who see the club as an all-male retreat, female members would be jarring.

"It is scary for those who are frightened by women, intellectually, socially--for those who are uncomfortable with women," he says.

The club's decision last month to refrain from going co-ed brought a disappointed response from at least one Harvard official. Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 says the Fly's choice was "unfortunate."

But such statements make little difference to club members. Students in the Fly are not "particularly concerned with how the school feels about it," the recent graduate says.

Also speaking on condition of anonymity, the alumni member from more than a decade ago says that delaying the issue for a year was "a big mistake."

"These things are fragile and difficult to do. If you delay, you lose momentum," he says. "They had unity last year--now it is going to take longer."

He says there is "clearly a majority in favor of taking women, among grads and undergrads."

The graduates are split about 50-50 in the abstract, but "are willing to defer to the undergrads," he says.

Some undergraduates feared alienating the graduates if they admitted women last year, he says, noting that the graduate funds support the club.

He says it "is up to the undergraduates now. The grads are on record overwhelmingly as saying--if you want to, do it."

"There are no real rules for this," he says. "You need forceful individuals. That core group hasn't emerged this year."

The "Tradition" Argument

The alumnus says he thinks the Carlock, the club president, could push the vote to admit women, if he chose.

"Carlock ought to be a leader here--if he wants to take women he has to make it happen," he says.

He compared the prospect of a coed punch with the decision to admit the first Black Fly members in the 1970's.

"I think it was the same thing with the first Black--a few members saying, look fellas its time to enter the 20th century," he says.

The alumnus says he does not support the idea that the club must uphold the 157-year tradition of all-male membership.

"That tradition stuff is a lot of bullshit. Tradition can be changed tomorrow," he says. "A much better argument is--we want a place to go without women. That is a morally, intellectually justifiable argument."

"What kind of tradition is it when 80 percent of grads say do what you want," he adds. "The Fly's own poll proves the tradition argument is silly."

Furthermore, says the alumnus, the Fly's vote could have had a profound affect on the other final clubs on campus.

"It would have put the other clubs in an awkward position," he says. "They would have hemmed and hawed, but they would have come around."

But, speaking on condition of anonymity, a punchmaster for another final club says the other clubs were "secretly hoping" that the Fly would admit women.

"It would have taken a lot of pressure off the other clubs," he says. "If the Fly had gone co-ed, it would have been easier for other clubs to say--now [women] have a place to be a member so we can take it off our agenda."

The Fly is the only club that has even come close to admitting women, he says.

"The Fly was the closest club in terms of the members' sentiments," the punchmaster says. "No other club was even coming close to that kind of sentiment. Some have by-laws that make it practically impossible to go co-ed."

He says he thinks the Fly made "a major mistake in publicizing their internal processes."

"Before you make a decision, it is never a good idea to drag their political processes through the press," he says. "it's more likely that it would have passed if it had not received such attention. Those people came under ridicule from friends and from other clubs."

"And there were some whispers that said--I hope it will ruin the club," he adds.

'Who Knows?'

Sarah E. Winters '95, co-chair of Women Appealing for Change (WAC), says she believes the change in club leadership made a big difference in the vote.

"Last year's officers were very much in favor [of female members]," she says. "The presidents have a way of pushing their agendas. [Last year's Fly President] Scott Logan was vocal about wanting it."

Logan refused to comment for this story.

Winters says she thinks this year's junior class members strongly influenced the change in vote.

"I think the composition of the vote was such--if it was unanimous last year and not this--it was this year's juniors that made the difference," she says.

Fly officials emphasize that the door is not closed to the possibility of admitting women. A statement issued by the club after last month's vote said the Fly "will continue the dialogue and establish a recommended decision-making process for the future."

What that means for the future is uncertain. But what is clear is that the best opportunity for a final club to turn co-ed has been missed.

Doug Sears '69, president of the interclub graduate council, says: "If that's what [Fly members] want, maybe this year, maybe next year--who knows?