Cutting Final Clubs Out of the Picture

At a late-night Sunday meeting in a deserted Mt. Auburn Street building, Maureen D. Connolly ’06 leaned back in her chair and tried to move things along. The Red Sox had not yet won the World Series, and she wanted to make sure she and the four other girls in the room got to watch the game.

But first they had important matters to discuss—like how to shut down eight privately owned, multi-million-dollar social clubs created before the First World War.

Connolly has a bohemian scarf casually looped around her neck over a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a “10.” Brightly colored Pumas complete her eclectic look.

She has come a long way in the last few months. As recently as last spring, Connolly would primp for hours with her blockmates every weekend night—making every touch count before knocking on the doors of the very clubs she is now determined to destroy.

At first, it was exciting. But the weekend ritual got old, and Connolly got radical.

“I think it just kind of piled up, all of these evenings,” she says. “It was just kind of disgusting.”

So a week before classes started this semester, after long conversations with other girls—and guys—who had grown frustrated with the clubs, she decided to take action. She and co-chair Julia M. Lewandoski ’06 launched Students Against Super Sexist Institutions-We Oppose Oppressive Finals Clubs (SASSI-WOOFCLUBS) in September.

SASSI’s goal? For all the final clubs to shut down, disbanded by the clubs themselves after, SASSI members hope, they realize the error in their ways. Over 100 years of history gone, more than $17 million of property—according to numbers provided by Cambridge’s Assessment Department—sold to the highest bidder.

“I think it’s a feasible goal,” Lewandoski says. She’s not kidding.

Of course, there are obstacles, such as the members of the clubs, who pay dues each month. And the graduate boards, who control the multi-million dollar endowments—a set of middle-aged men creeping into their 60s, says one final club member, who have invested a lifetime into the perpetuation of their alma mater social organizations. In interviews with members spanning multiple clubs and generations, neither current nor past members supported anything as extreme as SASSI’s ultimate goal.

Then there’s the College itself, which has taken a hands-off approach to the clubs since it stopped recognizing them as official student groups in 1984.

“It would be very difficult to shut them down because they do own their own home,” says Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II. “We couldn’t necessarily un-recognize them because we don’t recognize them. The only way to take them down ... would be the grad boards.”

And there’s the legacy of failure that precedes SASSI.

“There’s a group like this founded each year and supplanted by another the next fall,” says Rev. Douglas W. Sears ’69, a member of one club’s grad board. “It’s not going  to have any effect one way or the other.” Sometimes Lewandoski acknowledges how impossible their dream is. “The thing is final clubs are so powerful on this campus that while there is opposition, people are afraid to say so,” she says. “There’s a lot of fear.”

But SASSI could be in a position to change those dynamics.

Last month SASSI’s co-chairs met with the presidents of The Phoenix, The Fox and The Spee and came away with a small victory: all three presidents agreed to pursue anti-sexual assault training. At the same time, students, faculty and staff will meet this fall to examine the relationship between final clubs and the University, according to Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd. The subcommittee was formed before SASSI was, but the move suggests that today’s campus is concerned.

Despite all the obstacles to shutting down the clubs, SASSI might achieve a different goal. By many accounts, there is no chance the clubs will shut themselves down. But as SASSI increases its profile, Lewandoski hopes to “catalyze” change from the inside. If they can’t shut the clubs down, maybe SASSI could open their doors.

In the last decade, a growing group of club members and alumni have raised concerns about their gender inequality and exclusivity, mounting small internal campaigns for change. That debate is already happening within the clubs. Several members say the topic of adding women to the punch comes up at least every year, though no club has ever voted to go co-ed.

“The consensus is probably divided and less conservative than you might think,” says a member of the Fox who asked not to be named. “People probably think there’s unanimous resistance to this idea. But there’s also a big polarity of opinion. There are really a lot of people that really haven’t answered the question yet.”

If SASSI can awaken latent feelings like these in the Harvard population at large, perhaps their next meeting will have more than five girls in attendance.

“It seemed that everyone was just waiting to talk about this,” says Connolly.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

Final clubs—whose members have included at least three former U.S. presidents as well as notables like T.S. Eliot and J.P. Morgan, Jr.—became havens for the wealthy and soon-to-be powerful in the late 1800s.

“Wealth did in fact become a measure of a student’s social worth,” writes Sharon T. Cooney in a report on final clubs for the Cambridge Historical Commission.

“Members of the more prestigious clubs were invariably also residents of … expensive dormitory rooms.”

Today, eight all-male final clubs remain: The Porcellian, The Phoenix, The Spee, The Delphic, The Owl, The Fly, The A.D. and The Fox.

But the clubs have not always been as prominent and controversial as they are today.

Nancy E. Cochran ’74 remembers her days at Radcliffe, when she wouldn’t even set foot in a final club.

“They were considered very precious and very exclusive and white boys’s clubs, and we didn’t approve of them at all back then,” she says. “This was the seventies, and affirmative action was starting to be an issue, and it just felt like it was a throwback to an earlier area that just should not have been carried forward.”

But she didn’t take action to open membership to women then.

“We were more interested in the Vietnam War and bigger issues than the final clubs,” Cochran says.

In the eighties, in the time of Animal House, the clubs’ prominence grew—enough to move the college to remove the clubs from its list of recognized student groups in 1984.

From then on, the clubs were no longer considered official groups. The College could no longer control club activity.

Four years later, a group of women formed Stop Withholding Access Today (SWAT), launching a “SWAT the Fly” campaign after the club’s leader, Lisa J. Schkolnick ’88, filed a complaint against The Fly with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. The complaint was dismissed in 1990 when the commission failed to find jurisdictional justification to proceed. Then-President of the Fly Andrew M. Cameron ’91 told The Crimson following the verdict, “The issue of allowing women in is for the members to decide, undergraduates and graduates. Changes will not be done from the outside.”

Five years later, Women Appealing for Change sought to force the clubs to accept female members by soliciting signatures for a petition to not go to final clubs for a year.

But since the College had given up oversight of the clubs, no University action was taken until two years later, when then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 tried to sway the groups by a different route. In 1995, he voiced his concerns about underage drinking and possible sexual assault in final clubs to members of the clubs’ graduate boards.

“You have a problem,” Lewis wrote in his notes for a presentation to graduate boards, which he provided to FM. “It is a problem of law or morality, and of liability as property-owners. Your problem is that in several clubs dangerously large amounts of uncontrolled drinking takes place. Controls on who is admitted to the functions where this occurs are very weak. Both our students and others are endangered.”

Lewis emphasized possible legal repercussions of underage drinking and sexual assault, even suggesting that insurers might seek to drop coverage.

“I met with them almost every year thereafter,” Lewis writes in an e-mail. “It seemed to me prudent to stay in touch and to make sure that they were aware of what I was aware of about the activities that were taking place in their clubs.”

The Inter-Club Council, a group of grad board members from all eight male final clubs that dealt with disciplinary issues, was disbanded in 2000. Some feared that a lawsuit against one club could affect the Inter-Club Council and thus the other clubs, says Sears, former president of the council. But that was “paranoia,” he says. “It’s like a bunch of small Baptist churches. Each one rises and falls on its own.”

The real reason was a desire for independence from all the clubs, Sears says.

“It had outlived its purpose,” he says. “No one wants to be told by any other one how to govern itself.”

Around the same time, a new kind of resistance was growing in popularity.

The Bee, an all-female final club established in the late 1980s, and The Seneca, a non-profit women’s organization formed in 1999, took a different approach, jump-starting capital campaigns with the hope of one day buying houses of their own. Since then, three other women’s social groups have formed—the Isis, Sabliere Society and Pleiades—but none have purchased property, nor have they accumulated the social or business networks boasted by the male clubs.

Some final clubs have offered their space to such women clubs. The Seneca, for example, will hold its final dinner welcoming new members at The Fox tomorrow night. “It’s just something we do because it’s the right thing to do,” says a graduate member. “The Fox is dedicated in its small way to helping out.”

Many final club graduate boards help female clubs with legal issues like creating a corporation, he adds. But “getting a meeting place where the land is cheap and available” is the real obstacle.

Cambridge’s land values near Harvard Yard can be in the millions. The Porcellian’s clubhouse and land at 1324 Mass. Ave., for instance, was assessed at $2,599,600 last year. This year, it’s $2,780,100. The A.D.’s property at 1270 Mass. Ave. is worth $3,647,400, according to Cambridge’s Assessment Department.

When affordable land does pop up, the University often buys it, beating any female clubs to the punch, says the member of The Fox’s graduate board, who asked not to be named. “Harvard real estate gobbles everything that’s on the market.”

HIGH AIMS

Connolly was not always opposed to final clubs. In fact, she found herself there most weekend nights her freshman and sophomore years.

“I would get dressed up in skimpy clothes and stand on a doorstep and have a guy look me up and down and see if I was hot enough to get in,” she says. Her frustration grew as her life at final clubs superseded other friendships—like with male friends who couldn’t get through the door.

“I would be ushered into a dark basement and I would be handed drinks by a guy who I didn’t know,” Connolly says. “They would be older than I was. They would have this power. They would have alcohol. They would have essentially all the resources.”

With relatively little power, Connolly made moves to assert herself.

“You kind of really do anything you could to get power in that way, just kind of getting your piece of the pie any way you could,” she says. “Even if that meant interacting with guys in a way that wasn’t exactly conducive to friendship or self-respect or meaningful relationships.”

But near the end of sophomore year, a growing sense of injustice made it “impossible” for her to have fun at the clubs anymore.

She and Lewandoski came up with the long acronym in a salute to the absurdity of final clubs, Lewandoski says.

“The point is that exclusive clubs are ridiculous. If we’re going to have a club, we might as well have a ridiculous name,” explains Lewandoski, who also went to final clubs her freshman year.

Though final clubs are a Harvard tradition that dates from before 1900, Lewandoski retorts that the same tradition includes “racism, classism and sexism.”

SASSI’s first open meeting this September attracted nearly 50 students—including current final club members. Its active membership includes about 15 men and women from all class years, says Lewandoski, although only five members were present at the most recent meeting.

At that meeting, SASSI members gathered in a room accessible only through a cramped staircase, where they revised an informational flyer—a flyer with an anti-club agenda—that they hope to distribute soon.

The girls laughed when The Delphic’s nickname—“The Gas”—came up. But they are serious about their goals: they won’t stop at making the clubs co-ed, they say. “If it were just gender, I would be like, ‘Integrate,’ instead of just, ‘Go away,’” says Giselle B. Schuetz ’06, a SASSI member who conducts research into final club finances and history.

Also in attendance two weeks ago was Ilana J. Sichel ’04, co-chair of the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), which has long opposed the clubs’ policies. But Sichel says RUS has no official position on final clubs, and RUS has focused its efforts more on obtaining a women’s center—a more realistic goal than SASSI’s project, she says.

“It seems to me like an uphill battle. They’ve been self-sufficient institutions for a long time,” says Sichel.

But she can imagine that SASSI might have some impact. “If [the final clubs] get a lot of media attention, I think it could exacerbate a lot of internal tensions,” she says.

Final clubs have bowed to changes in society’s norm in the past. The Spee was the first to allow women and non-members inside its clubhouse, writes Cooney. And many clubs now have diverse memberships.

DISCONTENT FROM WITHIN

If the clubs are to be shut down or reformed to include women, action will come from inside, agree both SASSI members and some final club leaders. If recent trends continue, that could be a more likely—if still very unlikely—possibility in the next 10, 15, maybe 50 years, final club members and alumni speculate.

Greg Halpern ’99 says that while he was an active member of The Phoenix, the club was “fairly divided” on the possibility of punching women.

“There was a small movement, I’d say, to make the club co-ed,” which “failed, obviously,” he says.

While in college, Halpern met with a female dean about the possibility of opening final clubs to women, “thinking she would be sympathetic.” But she and other administrators took a hands-off policy—the same kind they maintain today.

“I think that’s sort of a cop-out on the university’s part,” Halpern says. “I’m sure a lot of their money comes from club people who want to see the clubs remain for ages and ages. To me, when they don’t take action, those statements speak very loudly about the school’s value system. I think that influences the education that people receive.”

Like other Harvard institutions, final clubs are slow to change. “I think it will happen, but it will just happen slowly,” Halpern says.

Today, one member of a final club says he shares Halpern’s misgivings, but he has not taken steps to act on them.

The disillusioned junior was punched in his sophomore year.

“A few very good friends who were in the grade above me said, ‘This is something you might like, and you might want to get involved in it,’” he says.

But after he joined, he found himself uncomfortable with the exclusivity of the institution of clubs themselves, and members who closed their eyes to the possibility of opening membership to women.

“I think the uncertainty’s shared,” Adam says.

At The Fox, efforts to punch women are “brought up every five years or so,” says the member of the club’s graduate board who asked that his name not be mentioned. “This also goes with other clubs as well.”

But the issue often dies when undergraduates don’t support the move.

That may be because those who do express misgivings about the all-male system are quickly silenced by their fellow members. At least a dozen club members declined to speak to FM—even anonymously—for this article.

After Halpern voiced concerns with the clubs in a Crimson story published after he had graduated Harvard, he got flak from club-mates.

“You’re not supposed to talk about the club in interviews,” he says.

THE PERKS

Halpern joined The Phoenix for a simple reason: “To be honest, I was just looking for a good group of friends.”

Final clubs also provide a vital alternative to Harvard’s social life—which is dismal compared to other colleges, say both pro- and anti-final club students, including John S. Kwaak ’05, president of The Fox.

“There are problems with the social scene on campus,” says Kwaak. “There are not enough parties. They’re cracking down on all the house parties and the one big fest [the Harvard-Yale tailgate] that we have. We think it’s unfortunate that those girls [from SASSI] decided to blame it solely on the final clubs and take the stance that they did. That’s not the best way to go about it.”

SASSI members agree that the final clubs offer a social alternative, but say they think a less exclusive social scene would be preferable.

But most other final club members interviewed for this story echoed Kwaak, arguing that they should not be blamed for a problem that is really the University’s fault.

A.D. President Brian M. Wendell ’05 writes in an e-mail that his club has offered him a social sphere that Harvard couldn’t. “Harvard, in my opinion, does not emphasize social life for students as much as other schools, perhaps due to liability fears and image concerns,” he writes.

A member of The Fox agrees. “What’s unfair is that final clubs are expected to take on a role that they were never originally designed for,” says the member, who asked to remain anonymous. “The idea of a final club as party space every weekend is something they were never built for. Harvard is as much to blame in not creating space for all students.”

Shutting the clubs down is not necessarily the answer, agreed the junior who became disillusioned with his club soon after being punched.

“You need to have a little bit more understanding of why people are joining the clubs,” he says. “Parse out what could be valuable and what is not.”

As for the valuable, social opportunities top the list. “People who I never would have met in the grade above me I have come to know quite well. I think I got a really good, expansive view of the school.”

Another member cited the benefits that his club could offer years down the road as something he wouldn’t want to give up.

“It’s a life-long thing in both the friendship way and networking,” he says. “And it will also help out when you’re looking for jobs. They’ll put in a good word for you.”

Another member referred to the unique “idea of fraternity” that an all-male club can offer.

“There are some social pressures that are involved when girls are around. And it’s nice to be free of those social pressures once in a while,” he says. “It’s not a question of us not liking girls or not thinking girls are worthy of being members of final clubs.”

Says Kwaak, “It’s just like my own home. It just happens to be near school campus.”

Plus, there’s the aura of mystery shrouding the clubs. Take The Porcellian’s black door on Massachusetts Avenue, for instance.

“The Porcellian has built up an astonishing myth,” says the disillusioned junior. “That lures a lot of people who, I think, if they knew what the club actually was, would be less desperate.”

DON’T SHUT DOWN MY PARTY

But the disillusioned ones are in a minority. Current and past members seem to lean away from the idea of punching women, and toward the creation and promotion of female final clubs instead.

The process for broadening club membership differs among the clubs, though for all it begins with a vote among club members. In the end, however, the graduate boards have veto power, says Halpern, of The Phoenix, leaving them the real decision-makers.

“The grads get the final word, which I think will make the change slower and tougher. Even if 75 percent of the students wanted to make the club co-ed, it would be hard,” Halpern says.

And that 75 percent doesn’t seem to exist in any of the clubs, say presidents of other clubs as well as current members, including the disillusioned junior.

“The people who are violently opposed to [punching women] usually think that women should have their own final club,” he says.

One club leader who asked not to be named says that though he knows that some clubs have held votes on whether to punch women, that hasn’t happened “in recent years.”

Cliff Ryan ’05, president of The Delphic, says that opening his club’s membership to women is “in the hands of the undergrads.”

“We’re at liberty to vote on whether to let in girls. It’s in our control,” Ryan says. But, he adds, “I don’t think that any of the clubs are at the point where they would vote on it. I think there’s a chance sometime down the line.”

A.D. President Wendell said that discussions on whether to admit women remain casual at his club.

“There is an informal discussion about including women in punch, but there is no annual vote,” he writes in an e-mail. “I believe that other clubs have explored the topic more deeply. Looking at trends at other colleges with all-male social clubs, one would expect that at least some clubs will eventually admit female members. It is difficult to speculate as to a time-table, because I don’t know how close the other clubs have come.”

Kwaak, president of The Fox, doesn’t think that women will be admitted into current male clubs, including his own, any time soon.

“It’s pretty unlikely,” he says. “We are private organizations that have nothing to do with Harvard. There’s practically nothing you can do from the outside to shut them down—not legally, at least. It’d have to be an internal decision within the membership.”

And Harvard’s administration isn’t going to take steps to shut down the clubs any time soon, thinks Kwaak. His predictions are shared by members of other final clubs.

A senior in The Phoenix who asked not to be named said that punching women had been brought up in informal situations, sometimes with alumni. But a co-ed club isn’t something he thinks will exist any time soon, he says.

“It will have to be a generation before that could happen,” another club member says. “Right now the board of trustees are an older generation. They’re guys who graduated 10, 20 years ago. They’re guys who have been out at least ten years. If they don’t change, the policy won’t change.”

And the future members of the graduate boards are also largely opposed to making clubs co-ed, he says.

“Our generation will be the next one on the board of trustees—and I don’t think we’d approve, even then. Maybe our sons and daughters will.”

It will take at least 25 years—maybe even 50—before the clubs will punch women, he thinks.

Monetary woes could give some clubs the incentive to go co-ed, another member said, noting that in the past struggling clubs considered allowing women to help keep afloat.

However, there are some alumni who want the clubs to open up to women, says the member of The Fox’s graduate board.

One current member says an alumnus recently told the club’s members, “I have a daughter who’s growing up. So I would want my daughter to have the same experiences I had—not just my son.”

That is a typical reaction, says Sears, a member of a graduate board and former president of the now-defunct Inter-Club Council, which included officers from the graduate boards of all eight male final clubs.

“Generally, it is those who are old enough to have daughters in the college who are more likely to be in favor of women joining clubs.”

SOME HOPE FOR SASSI

Absent of reform from within the clubs, outside groups are stepping up to offer alternatives to a weekend browsing Mt. Auburn St.’s finer facilities.

The Harvard Social Forum has thrown an open party nearly every week at 45 Mt. Auburn St. since the Forum gained permanent access to the building this fall. The house, owned by the Foundation for Civic Leadership, a group run by college alumni with ties to progressive student groups, has also played host to SASSI-WOOFCLUBS’s meetings.

Another change involves cooperation among club members and outside groups, like anti-sexual assault education, which three clubs agreed to consider after meeting with Lewandoski and Connolly.

“We do agree that some of the things that happen at these clubs are unfortunate,” says a member of The Fox, who asked not to be named. “I don’t know of a single case of sexual assault or anything that happened at my club, but I heard that cases like that have happened.”

At the meeting, Spee President Randall J. Winston ’05, Phoenix President Niles X. Lichtenstein ’05 and Kwaak agreed to pursue anti-sexual assault education, Connolly says. “It’s just a matter of putting that into action.”

Then, there’s strengthening female groups—like The Bee and The Seneca—and securing them property, or offering meeting space, Kwaak says.

Ryan, The Delphic president, agrees. “I think we all wish that there were more final clubs that were all-girls clubs, and that they had property. If the girls want to use the space at 9 Linden that is available for guests, we’d let them use it. It’s not like we’re against girls having the same,” he says.

But that space would be limited. The Delphic and other clubs restrict the areas that non-club members can enter. Those rules are in place at the Delphic, for instance, to prevent theft, a recurring problem before the rule was put in place, says Ryan.

Harvard’s administration is also considering redrafting its relationship with the clubs, Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd says.

“We’ve heard from masters, we’ve heard from students and we’ve heard from staff,” she says. A subcommittee, which will first meet in November before presenting a report in May, include students, a building manager and a financial aid and admissions officer among others.

“We are looking at the current status of the college’s official recognition of the final clubs, fraternities and sororities,” she says, emphasizing that she could not make any promises.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross took a stronger stance on male and female final clubs, fraternities and sororities—all unrecognized by the College.

“We can no longer put our head in the sand, and pretend that they don’t exist,” he writes in an e-mail to The Crimson.

FEAR OF CHANGE

There has been opposition to both SASSI-WOOFCLUBS and to the co-leaders, says Connolly. But she can’t stop her campaign now.

“It’s more uncomfortable for me to keep quiet about this than for me to talk about it,” says Connolly. “It seemed that everyone was just waiting to talk about this.”

Decades worth of students have tried before to institute reform in the clubs—with varying degrees of success.

“That’s a concern that I come up against every day,” Connolly says. “There are so many systems that have been in place in history. And you start out, like, ‘How are we ever going to deconstruct this?’”

But, she says, “There’s a lot of momentum. The challenge is really just trying to see this as an issue of fairness and justice. I don’t need to be told that it’s nice to have this privilege... Who wouldn’t want to have a mansion with their fifty best friends in the middle of Cambridge?”