At the beginning of junior year, after a semester of more or less uneventful membership, I quit the Spee. Nothing scandalous happened that made me do it; there weren’t any secret rituals gone horribly wrong, and there wasn’t one shocking event that marked my departure. I left despite generally having a good time there. I was told when I was punching that that’s what the club was really about, a bunch of pretty chill dudes just hanging out. And it was, in a way. The dudes were chill and did hang out.
But I had problems with joining the Spee in the very beginning, and they are what made me leave in the end. I quit when I realized I couldn’t separate those problems from the dudes.
I entered the punch process full of deep concerns about the clubs, concerns about sexism, elitism, and classism. I was careful to keep them in mind throughout the punch, but was a little confused when they weren’t overtly confirmed every step of the way. The first punch event was a cocktail party at an art gallery downtown. All the members I met were nice and polite and had cool things to say. We drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes and made the owners of the art gallery nervous. I had fun.
As I went to the next few events similar things kept happening. I met some guys that I liked, some guys that I didn’t, and found myself moving on to the next step in the process. I saw and did some stupid things, like snorting a spoonful of vodka at the swanky final dinner. But I didn’t see any really awful things, though it did feel awful to have vodka in my sinuses. The worst of the club, it seemed, was stuff that reminded me of being dumb and in high school.
Though I didn’t see too much that upset me during the punch process, I think it was because the problems weren’t always visible, or were hard to see in the glare of the beautiful mansion and its fun-loving occupants. I ambivalently joined at the end of the punch, and gradually the problems revealed themselves.
Throughout the punch I heard a lot of pro-club arguments.
“Sure, final clubs get a bad rap,” I heard, “but when it comes down to it the Spee is just a nice place for dudes to relax.”
“Sure, final clubs have a pretty nasty history, but a lot of progress has been made, really.”
The Spee, I was informed, was less pretentious than some clubs and more diverse than others. In fact, members told me when I expressed my concerns, clubs today were more progressive than ever, which is sort of true: the last couple presidents of the Spee have been minorities, and the punch classes are more socio-economically and racially diverse than they used to be. In the context of the punch process and even of the clubs in general, the idea that the Spee was progressive almost made sense.
But if I widened my frame of reference just a little bit to include people outside the circle of clubs, that idea became ridiculous. This is what I could never reconcile about being in the Spee: though it is true that the guys are nice and things aren’t as bad as they used to be, the club is still built on a fundamental power imbalance. Women can’t join the clubs, and thus can’t reach the same level of access that the men in the clubs have. They can’t throw the parties or call the buildings home. In a very basic way, any discussion of the virtues of the clubs ignores women entirely. I couldn’t think of an institution as progressive that didn’t include women in its conception of “progress.”
So I quit. I was an active member for a couple of months. Then I went inactive, which meant I stopped paying dues. I could still hang out at the club whenever I wanted, and the times I did go were fine and fun. But I never shook the weird feeling that when I was at the club, I was having a good time at the expense of those who could not join. The club started to make me feel ethically uncomfortable. The strange thing was, I had a feeling if I just pushed through that discomfort, I could get used to being a member. But I knew that once I did that, I would lose a part of me that I valued: my connection to a struggle for social justice. I didn’t want the club to feel normal, because once it did, it would mean I had disengaged from this struggle entirely. In the fall of my junior year I told the president of the club that I was gone for good. He said no hard feelings, and that he really understood why I was leaving. I thought to myself that if he really understood, he would leave, too.
My decision to quit the Spee was personal only in the sense that I made it myself. I’m not on a crusade against the people who have decided to stay in the clubs. I empathize fully with how it feels to get punched and to be accepted. It feels good; everyone wants a community. But for me, a big part of quitting the club was recognizing that there aren’t too many purely personal decisions.
My joining the Spee, whether I liked it or not, affected people. It perpetuated a system that I think we don’t need anymore. The notion of men needing a space to “just be themselves” is old-fashioned and helps cement what I see as unfortunate gender divisions. It assumes that men are men and women are women and, heck, they’ll just never see eye to eye. I think this is untrue, and a lazy way to think about gender and belonging to a community. By joining the club I was endorsing these notions. By quitting I was protesting them.
I believe very strongly that it is a shameful part of our history and present social reality that women have to work harder to achieve things that men take for granted. This is particularly striking at Harvard, where tenure rates for women are embarrassingly low and our university president not-so-innocently suggests that “issues of intrinsic apptitude” are to blame. It is not “issues of intrinsic apptitude” that prevent women from gaining access to these mansions scattered all over campus. It is a carefully preserved system of relics, inherited from a long history of exclusion and oppression. I didn’t want to be responsible for making that history any longer, so I quit.
I said earlier that there wasn’t a shocking event that I saw that made me leave the Spee. I was shocked, though, by what I didn’t see. It is incomprehensible to me that people don’t think of final club membership as a social issue, one that has an impact on the community beyond the clubs. I left because I was all too aware of that impact and did not want to be complicit in it.
Today I’m still friendly with many of the members, and they still ask me to come by the club even knowing how I feel about it. Often, I’m tempted to say yes. It’s true that if I hung out there every once in a while it probably wouldn’t do much damage to the larger progressive movement that I care about. But I have come to feel that going to the club at all is an irresponsible choice. The niceness of the members is not enough to make me forget what I endorsed by joining, and would even endorse today by dropping by. So I choose not to go. It’s my way of taking responsibility—and of acknowledging everyone who was never presented a choice in the first place.