Seneca Club Growth Signals Social Shift
All-female club fills void left by Radcliffe merger
In the front room of the Hasty Pudding building, the women of the Seneca have gathered on a frigid weekday afternoon for the first event
in their "Women's Awareness" speaker series.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the first tenured female professor at Harvard Business School, is scheduled to address the group. She is half an hour late.
The Seneca--founded last Spring as a social group for women--has tried to get the word out about this event.
Organizers sent e-mail announcements to every student group they thought might be interested, and Kanter's picture has top billing on the Seneca's new website.
A sophomore from Delta Gamma--a campus sorority--waits patiently in the second to last row of metal folding chairs. "I came because I thought this sounded interesting," Nora C. Cheng '02 says. "I hope they do more of these events."
Two tables sit heavy with trays of cookies, platters of cheese and crackers, cans of soda and a pot of tea.
A Seneca member in slim black pants and a raspberry-colored silk top circulates around the tables, discretely replenishing the cheese platters with Ritz crackers.
After 30 minutes of a cappella oldies playing in the background, the room is mostly full and Kanter finally arrives.
Alexandra B. Seru '01 and Julia M. Butler '01--the group's co-presidents--briefly welcome the 30 or so assembled in the green room, and Seneca member Katharine S. Jackson '01, a family friend of Kanter's, introduces the professor.
Kanter discusses her rise in the world of business academia and how women can network both with other women and with male colleagues. She jokes about some of the speeches she's given at conventions across the country. She praises the Seneca.
"What you're doing here is so important," she says. "We need to hear more authoritative comments from high pitched voices."
Hanging on Kanter's every word, the women in the audience are clearly pleased: this is exactly the type of event the Seneca wants to sponsor, members say.
"We are a Harvard specific group trying to make things better for women," Butler says.
The idea is not new, but the approach is.
As the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) loses the clout it once had, the Seneca has emerged as a new forum for women activists on campus.
But with its active membership of 43--a mix of self-proclaimed feminists, final club devotees and women who would call themselves both--the Seneca fuses two seemingly opposite agendas.
The group provides social opportunities for its members while also raising awareness about women's issues on campus. And the Seneca women say they have finally found a group of "girls" who want to address sexism and also have fun.
The Seneca, an all female social organization, was founded last spring by 19 women who said they were unhappy with social life at Harvard.
They said they wanted to form a group that would give women more non-academic opportunities on campus.
But the Seneca was really a fusion of two groups--two factions of women who didn't know each other well and had very different visions of what a potential club could be.
Butler says she was frustrated by the dearth of social venues for women at Harvard. In her eyes, before the Seneca there were two options: parties at male-led final clubs or "super-competitive" extracurriculars that made it hard to meet new people.
Butler says she and a handful of friends explored the possibility of creating a type of sister organization to the Delphic, a final club.
Meanwhile, Seru was looking into forming a women's group with the help of Tamar March, a Radcliffe administrator.
Chance brought the two groups together.
"A friend of mine in the Delphic said he heard of this other group going the Radcliffe route," Butler says. "We met and decided we wanted to create a group. We brainstormed about people we knew--smart, strong and committed--and we gave them a call."
When the Radcliffe College Alumna Association (RCAA) declined to give the group financial support, Seneca members forged out on their own.
They invited the whole campus to a barbecue in the Lowell House courtyard and collected the names of nearly 80 women who were interested in the fledgling group.
They took their first smiley picture, split up for summer break and vowed to start up afresh--and strong--in the fall.
And almost a year later--a year in which RUS has seen its membership shrink--the Seneca's strength has only grown.
Kathryn B. Clancy '01, president of RUS, praises the Seneca for providing a new social option for women, but says she does not see the group as competition to RUS' feminist agenda.
"[Women in the Seneca] don't want to be involved in an overtly activist group, but know there is something very wrong going on at Harvard," she writes in an e-mail message. "The Seneca's a great outlet for women who don't want to be involved in activism."
But Seneca organizers say they see women's issues and activism as cornerstones to their group.
When one of the club's founding presidents departed this fall, Butler and Seru forged a partnership that cemented the club's dual mission.
The group's goals, its mission statement reads, are both to "provide community opportunities for the Harvard campus" and "promote awareness of issues that affect women."
In March, the Seneca invited every undergraduate to the Red Party--an open-bar soiree held at a Boston dance club.
"We showed that a campus-wide party is not impossible," Seru says.
Later that month, Seneca members volunteered their time staffing the Coalition Against Sexual Violence's Take Back the Night events. Members have also helped the organizers of the Women's Guide--a new campus publication--to poll students.
And next year, as the College's Ann Radcliffe Trust begins to fund women's interest groups on campus, a representative from the Seneca will sit alongside an RUS delegate, helping to decide what groups will get funding, even though the Seneca is not an officially recognized student group.
"We offer [a chance to change] all the things women are upset about on campus," Butler says.
During an informal dining hall interview, the team of Bulter and Seru explain the basics of the Seneca--almost as if they have given this speech a dozen times before.
Berry-blue eyed with a pert blond pony tail, Butler discusses the challenge of publicizing a group that is not recognized by the College.
Between bites, she and Seru finish each other's thoughts--the verbal handoff is seamless.
"People don't know who we are," Seru says, choosing her words carefully
The group, after all, requires potential members to write essays as part of an open application process. And once accepted, members pay $250 per semester in dues--though a financial aid program is available.
Seru gestures as she articulates her point.
This team has big plans.
The group recently launched a website, www.theseneca.org, and hopes to make it a gathering place where campus women's groups can post announcements and share information. Counseling groups such as Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO) have linked their websites to the page, as has RUS and the Delta Gamma sorority.
But the Seneca's current goal, Butler and Seru agree, is for the group to find a place of its own.
While the ultimate prize would be a permanent house--for which the Seneca has launched a $1 million capital campaign--the Seneca is trying to rent an apartment in the Harvard vicinity for next year.
But more than just a club house, Butler and Seru envision making the space available to women's groups across campus, a "pseudo-women's center."
"We would like to create a women's center, kind of like a student center, where groups could sign out space," Seru says.
"We could give office space to groups who might need it, rooms could be signed out," Butler says. "We'd have open events and host parties there."
Their dreams, admittedly, are big, but the Seneca is well-organized and even better connected.
The group has filed for non-profit status and has recruited a group of lawyers who have agreed to do pro-bono work on its behalf.
"A lot of the girls have talked to their families--all of our families are very involved. Parents have recommended people. Men and women have heard about us and talked to us and offered to help us out," says Shola L. Akinshemoyin '01, the group's membership director.
But as the Seneca gains influence among campus women's groups, its final club roots--and current ties to the clubs themselves--may tarnish the validity of its feminist agenda amongst some students.
"What [the Seneca] is doing is wonderful, but the final clubs have such a stigma," says Kamil E. Redmond '00, a key organizer of the Women's Guide and former vice president of the Undergraduate Council. "If you associate quite heavily with the final clubs, for some, that calls your activities into question."
Some Seneca members say they have never been to a final club, but many others say they do frequent the clubs--sometimes up to five or six times a month.
"A lot of us have good friends in final clubs, have dated people in final clubs, or have boyfriends in final clubs," says Katharine B. Greer '02, the Seneca's newly-elected fundraising chair.
Just a few weeks before the Kanter lecture, for example, the Seneca sponsored a cocktail party with the Fox, another final club.
"I don't feel like we should be discriminated against for attending a barbecue at the Fox, because we don't have other options," Akinshemoyin says. "This is our whole mission, to create options. If we want to have fun, it's a fun atmosphere. Lots of our friends are there."
If the women of the Seneca feel that few social options exist outside of the realm of final clubs, they say they are also loath to cut their ties to the clubs.
Many see the men's organizations as potential allies.
"Men have power and influence on campus, and they could be our greatest allies," Patricia Ivonne Thompson '01, the Seneca's co-president-elect. "We don't want to burn bridges. We don't want to create animosity. We don't want people to think that we are fighting final clubs."
Still, Redmond says association with the final clubs--however slight--could prove damaging to the Seneca's credibility as a women's group.
"I think the Seneca should be aware of the connections--their message may not be quite as powerful," Redmond says. "It's feminism emanating from a system so many people have a problem with on campus. I still feel a little uneasy."
But Seneca members say they hope the group's spirit of inclusion can actually change the social scene at Harvard.
"We wish other groups would start--we don't want to have to do this alone," Greer says. "All the girls who care about what they do on a Friday or Saturday night, who have felt frustrated or stymied by the final clubs, or other aspects of the campus, we want to get them involved."