Re-envisioning Social Space

Final club traditions have been anything but static. Members have, in one way or another, changed the practices of their clubs to better reflect the evolving values of the Harvard community. In fact, in 1918, no Jewish students were admitted to several final clubs, but by 1986, one-third of final club presidents were Jewish. Despite these changes, sexist, racist, heterosexist, and economically discriminatory practices are still a reality at Harvard’s final clubs.

Looking at the history of change so far, we believe that these practices should no longer be accepted as intrinsic parts of Harvard’s social scene. The Radcliffe Union of Students has historically been at the forefront of social space reform activism at Harvard, and today, we are proud to continue that tradition by lending our wholehearted support to the efforts of the final club campaign in reopening and maintaining this dialogue about final clubs and social space.

We are concerned with the way final club practices contribute to the formation of a gendered power imbalance that negatively affects Harvard undergraduates and is especially harmful to women, students of color, LGBTQ students, and low-income students. This imbalance can manifest itself in a number of ways, from sexist party themes to creating environments in which women feel uncomfortable asserting themselves, or from the striking gender imbalance of the UC and last year's class marshals to casually sexist language in everyday interactions with fellow students.

However, our support for the campaign is not simply a critique of the gender-segregated nature of final clubs, and we respect that our roommates, blockmates, linkmates, and friends who are members of single-sex social organizations find value in their groups. Nor is our support a reactive response to the recent actions of Sigma Chi or Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Instead, our focus is on realizing the potential social space at Harvard has to better represent our community’s contemporary values.

We are particularly concerned about ensuring the safety and well-being of women who choose to attend off-campus social events such as those hosted by final clubs. We acknowledge the efforts made by some final clubs to make their spaces safer and more inclusive, but these efforts vary widely from club to club. As an example, current final club participation with Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response sexual assault prevention trainings is optional and has been inconsistent.

It has been difficult to engage in even informal dialogue about social space with final club representatives. Recent attempts include a discussion in April 2009 and a series of Crimson articles about sexual assault on campus, one of which featured final clubs. However, only two final club members chose to participate in the discussion, and the article on sexual assault was attacked in the comments—defensive final club members derailed the conversation with “apologies” for partying. Again, our critique of final club culture is not, and has never been, about criticizing students who choose to host or attend large parties, but rather is about questioning the effects these organizations’ practices have on the Harvard community.

Because of this non-cooperative environment, it is imperative that Harvard students demand formal dialogue between final club leaders, university administrators, and members of the general Harvard community. Current administrative involvement with final clubs is almost non-existent, and as such, final club leadership is left almost entirely to the clubs themselves and their governing boards. In the absence of any official stance or statement from Harvard, final clubs are allowed to operate without any outside pressure, accountability, or consequence. As a result, legitimate issues of exclusivity, gendered power imbalance, hazing, and sexual assault remain unaddressed.

As feminists, we are committed to questioning and challenging privilege in all its forms, but this commitment would not be complete without also explicitly working towards a vision in which power is equally distributed amongst men and women. As such, we appreciate the final club campaign’s efforts to reinstate the party fund and to open up more gender-neutral spaces for student parties. Additionally, the final club campaign has already hosted two informal discussions—RUS co-sponsored the second—and is currently collecting narratives on final club experiences and beginning a publicity campaign. However, all of these actions are in vain unless we, as a community, support them.

Working toward actual reform requires individual involvement alongside community efforts. As individuals, we can choose whether to participate in final club culture. As a community, we can choose whether to support the final club campaign’s push for open social spaces and accountability within final clubs. However, now is the time for the Harvard community to move forward toward a vision in which all students, regardless of gender, can be fully empowered actors in the Harvard community.

Shanti S. Kris '12 is a women, gender, and sexuality studies and history of science concentrator in Dudley House. Abby P. Sun '13 is a sophomore in Winthrop House. Kris and Sun are co-presidents of the Radcliffe Union of Students.

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