When I decided to join a final club, my mother was not pleased. Her voice tinged with disappointment as she asked how her son could participate in something so steeped in racist, elitist, sexist privilege. I countered that white skin and blue blood were no longer club membership requirements. But she wasn’t sold. What about the women? She persisted. After a few abortive rationalizations, I realized I had no good answer. I was embarrassed.
Now, I’ve become convinced that every other club member should be too. Our decision to deny admission to half of the student body solely on account of gender is every bit as unjust as our forebears’ practice of barring candidates because they were black, Jewish, or gay. It needs to end.
While the rest of the world moves towards gender equality, Harvard’s eight all-male final clubs have stubbornly remained on the wrong side of history. Two decades ago, the last of Princeton’s eating clubs discontinued its practice of gender discrimination after a protracted legal battle that included two failed appeals to the Supreme Court. The next year, Skull and Bones, Yale’s famous secret society, voted to accept women following a contentious public fight that pitted renowned grads like John F. Kerry and William F. Buckley, Jr. against one another. But somehow, the winds of change that blew up the coast from New Jersey to New Haven never made it all the way to Cambridge. In 1984, the College gave the clubs an ultimatum: Either admit women, or get off campus. They unanimously chose the second option. Then, in 1987, Lisa J. Schkolnick ’88 sued the Fly Club for unlawful discrimination, but a Massachusetts court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to force integration. Schkolnick almost got her wish anyway, though: In 1993, the undergraduate membership of the Fly voted unanimously to go co-ed, only to reverse its decision and choose “club unity over women” a year later after its graduate board strategically delayed the process in order to allow opinion to shift. Since then, both the Fox and the Spee have also had undergraduate majorities vote in favor of going co-ed, only to be stymied by tradition-touting grad boards.
This unwillingness to embrace change has profound and pernicious effects on College life. The clubs’ discriminatory membership policies place the accumulated wealth, real estate, and prestige of dozens of generations in the hands of men alone—and at a school with limited social space, this imbalance warps gender relations into something out of a Jane Austen novel.
Criticism of final club sexism is often conflated with attacks on the clubs as a whole—this creates a strident tone of debate to which club members react defensively. I don’t want to fall into this trap. Instead, I hope to outline some of the meaningful consequences that emerge from the eight all-male clubs’ refusal to admit women, most of which I have observed from my own experience. Because when polemic is cast aside, a powerful truth emerges: the system is simply incompatible with what final club members should—and in fact mostly do—believe about gender and justice.
THE WAGES OF DISCRIMINATION
Schuyler H. Daum ’12 is the kind of girl that female final clubs fight over during punch season. But this fall it dawned on her that something wasn’t quite right with the world that accepted her so readily. "My best friends have been boys since the time I was born," she notes. In a social scene divided by gender, however, she went from companion to guest. "I’d get invited over for Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights," Daum found, but her male hosts would never accept her—or any "her," for that matter—as a true equal deserving of membership. "The most insulting part about it is that they’re saying ‘I don’t want you in my club,’" she told me. "It makes me feel like a second-class citizen."
Schuyler is notable because she is willing to speak openly about the interplay of gender and power at Harvard final clubs. But her experience is not uncommon. The dominance of single-sex social institutions creates a variety of unsavory consequences for many women across this campus.
Of course, these consequences don’t necessarily apply to everyone. Final clubs are just one side of a multifaceted social scene. Only 15 percent of students belong, and while many more are loosely affiliated, a decent number of undergrads make it through their entire four years at Harvard without ever stepping through one of the clubs’ heavy wooden doors. But the existence of alternatives does not eliminate the problem. Many women may not participate in final club culture, but many others do—as long as some suffer from gender discrimination, the issue is not resolved. And while it might seem that students could simply cut clubs out of their social lives, this request is not as reasonable as it sounds.
A reporter supposedly once asked the legendary criminal Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. "Because that’s where the money is," the gangster replied. A similar answer could be given to anyone who questions why women continue to frequent the clubs that exclude them: that’s where the parties are. Final clubs have unfettered access to social space that simply doesn’t exist outside their walls. Telling women (or men) who are sick of segregation to just go somwhere else doesn’t cut it because there really isn’t anywhere else at Harvard quite like the final clubs. With House life under close administrative scrutiny and most of the student body under the legal drinking age, final clubs are in a position of unique power.
Therefore, as long as final club injustices exist, they can’t simply be written off as irrelevant to the larger Harvard social community.
And injustices abound. At the most basic level, all-male final clubs distribute resources in strange and unfair ways. Membership comes with perks—mansions, dinners, alumni networks—none of which go to women. It is dubious to give men privileged access to all of these important benefits, and because of the dynamics of social space at Harvard, this inequity spawns many others.
All-male final clubs carve out a corner of the social world that revolves around the preferences of men, and men alone. Men plan the parties. Men decide who gets in and who does not. Women are left to suffer the consequences.
"[As a woman], your time at Harvard is planned by other people, constructed by other people," one female undergraduate recounts (unlike Schuyler, most students are reluctant to talk about this issue on the record, which in and of itself speaks volumes). As a result, from the day they arrive, female freshmen are faced with the fact that their place in a certain part of Harvard’s social hierarchy will depend on how they are evaluated by their male classmates. "You can literally be excluded from the social scene based on how men perceive you your freshman year," says one female senior. As an unavoidable consequence, "If you’re a pretty girl, you get so much further than someone who is not attractive."
This imbalance of control creates a perverse need for women to curry favor with the men who make the lists. "As a girl, you feel all this social anxiety," another female senior says. "You constantly need to manage your relationships with your male friends in clubs to make sure you don’t get left by the wayside." This dependence consistently and systematically puts women into situations they should never have to experience. A female student explains that the need to remain on final club lists "has sustained certain friendships with guys who are constantly hosting me, who otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with." Romantic relationships are even more problematic—break up with your final club boyfriend, and you might find your social life in jeopardy, as too many women I know have discovered the hard way.
Even the most sought-after girls, who never struggle to gain admission to exclusive parties, get, as Schuyler aptly put it, "second-class citizenship" in the final club nation. A world of male hosts and female guests creates a fundamental asymmetry in gender relations. Women can’t return the hospitality that is constantly bestowed upon them. Since they don’t have social space of their own to give or withhold, they’re simply expected to, as one female student put it, "smile and look pretty."
This anachronistic system perpetuates an old-fashioned and destructive conception of gender at Harvard. Men are the providers—they pay for the clubs, assume the liability for the parties, plan and make decisions. Women, meanwhile, are passive recipients of this largesse, always subject to the whims of their male classmates.
Schuyler told me about the moment when this inequality dawned on her. At a club with her friends, she realized: "It was very subtle, but the girls had this feeling that if I do this, these boys will think I’m fun, and they need to think I’m fun because I need to be invited to these parties, and this is where the parties are."
It is strange and sad that in the 21st century, at a place like Harvard, this is how the most intelligent, successful, capable women in the world have to interact with their male classmates.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?
In recent years, as the movement to integrate final clubs has sputtered out, efforts to remedy these problems have come to focus on creating all-female social space to serve as a counterweight to the male clubs. The trend began in 1991, when the Bee was founded with the help of Porcellian grads who wanted to grant their daughters something resembling the social experience they had enjoyed in college. By the late 1990s, the Seneca (not technically a final club, but founded with the express purpose of changing Harvard gender dynamics) had joined the mix. With the new millennium came the Isis, the Sabliere, the Pleiades, and most recently, La Vie. Many of these clubs are empowering in both intent and effect. In her young organization’s constitution, La Vie founder Oluwadara A. Johnson ’10 gives a dramatic account of its beginnings: "On a cold winter day in January 2008, I decided that it was time to take an active step towards bridging the gender inequality gap that exists in the Harvard social scene." Her group, and others like it, have had some measure of success in righting wrongs, especially now that several women’s clubs occupy their own real estate.
But there are limits to this "separate but equal" approach. The first is that women’s clubs will find it difficult to compensate for their male counterparts’ 219-year head start. The opportunities for acquiring wealth and real estate that existed in the late 19th century—when the last of the eight surviving men’s clubs was founded—have vanished with a bygone era. Properties like those owned by the male clubs just don’t come on the market any more, and to the extent they do, the cost is often prohibitively high (see last year’s 45 Mt. Auburn Street fiasco for an example of how tricky purchasing Harvard Square real estate can be). Currently, the two most well-heeled female clubs—the Bee and the Isis—rent their space from the Fly and the Owl, respectively. It is possible that male and female clubs will one day stand on equal footing, but the process could literally take centuries, and as activists have noted before, justice too long delayed is justice denied.
Moreover, even if the pipe dream of equal resources were attainable, creating more single-sex social space still wouldn’t address all aspects of the problem. One of the most unfortunate consequences of the current system is that it institutionalizes gender divisions, reinforcing the idea that men and women are fundamentally different. This promotes a culture in which men are friends with men, and women are friends with women. Neither group is encouraged to interact with the other as equals. The consequences of this are far-reaching. "It’s not surprising that men feel more comfortable approaching other men with a business idea because we’re taught to associate with members of the same gender," notes Katherine C. Harris ’10. No matter how many female final clubs spring up to challenge the primacy of the Mt. Auburn Street mansions, as long as men and women continue to socialize in segregated space, these barriers will never completely be leveled.
DEFENDING THE STATUS QUO
The only real solution is for the male clubs to do what they should have done a long time ago: accept women. The problem is that many club members don’t think this is a very good idea. When confronted with the fact that half of the student body is automatically excluded from their social institutions, most final club members don’t share my lack for words; instead, they respond with a number of justifications for the status quo, some with more merit than others.
Many cavalierly dismiss objections by asserting that final clubs are just like fraternities at other schools. I’m not entirely sure that this is true—the concentration of wealth and power in Harvard’s clubs seems fairly unique—but even if it were, the argument is unpersuasive since the potential existence of similar injustices on other campuses is not a particularly compelling reason to tolerate injustice here.
The primary defense offered up by single-sex advocates, however, is that there is something important about all-male social space—something that would be lost in a world of co-ed clubs. One final club president told me that he enjoys "having a space on campus where you can interact with just your own sex," and that he finds a "value in male camaraderie." Variations of this theme surface again and again in conversations with club members. Many express concern that with the introduction of women, cohesion, tight membership bonds, and institutional respect would all vanish. They often grow uncomfortable when asked how the current ban on women is any different from past forms of exclusion, such as keeping out blacks and Jews, but most settle on the argument that, unlike race or religion, gender is a "real" distinction.As we all learned in preschool, boys and girls are indeed different. But are these differences significant enough to preclude the possibility of co-ed social clubs? Would anyone’s experience truly be impoverished by gender-mixing?
One place to look for answers is Harvard’s peer institutions, Princeton and Yale, both of which possess old, powerful, exclusive social clubs that integrated about two decades ago. These schools’ students do not seem to spend their time pining for the single-sex days of yesteryear. Geoff C. Shaw, a senior at Yale, says that "cohesive would be one of the first words to come to mind" when describing Yale’s co-ed secret societies. Under gender segregation, he believes the clubs would be compromised. "You’d be missing out on the contributions of half the population," he says.
Two Princeton seniors I spoke with articulated similar sentiments. Giovanna Campagna, who is in Princeton’s tony Ivy Club—one of the last to integrate—told me that having co-ed clubs "makes the whole social world more gender-balanced—it’s not like a bunch of guys can rule the scene." She is unequivocal about her preference for gender integration: "I wouldn’t want to be in an all-girls eating club," she says firmly. Lizzie Presser, another senior and a member of the Terrace Club, also found the claim that only single-sex clubs could flourish difficult to accept. When asked whether she prefers having co-ed social institutions, she answers: "Absolutely; there’s no question." She adds: "It’s so easy for this place to feel like a man’s school because of its history, which makes it really important to have co-ed eating clubs."
Preferences are molded by experience, so it’s possible that current Yale and Princeton students value co-ed clubs simply because they’ve never known anything else. But it seems much more likely that Harvard’s single-sex defenders are plagued by status quo bias.
Opponents of integration are right to claim that final clubs wouldn’t be the same after they went co-ed, yet they forget that not all changes are for the worse. When new arrivals break an organization’s homogeneity, something gets left behind, because it’s easier to exist in an environment free from the tensions created by difference. But ultimately, the inclusion of more diverse perspectives also makes for a richer community, and this gain more than compensates for the discomfort of no longer being surrounded by faces that look just like your own. Final clubs were surely more "cohesive" in a certain sense back when they admitted only the Andover-bred scions of wealthy white families, but it was a lazy cohesion sustained by uniformity, and few express a desire to return to those days.
Final clubs eventually learned to thrive with Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and all sorts of other people who would have once been considered incompatible with the Rockefellers and Morgans who filled club dining rooms. The past teaches us that distinctions between people that appear fundamental at the time may in fact rest on dubious assumptions. Throughout history, well-meaning individuals have believed that the introduction of new elements into their social communities would ruin something important, but time and time again, history has proven them wrong.
THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
On December 7, 1922, Roscoe Conkling Bruce, a black Harvard graduate from the class of 1902, wrote to Abbott Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877 and the University’s 22nd President, to ask whether his son might be allowed to reside in a previously all-white freshman dorm. Lowell was a self-described "friend of the negro," but this request seemed clearly beyond the pale. "I am sure you will understand," wrote Lowell to the concerned father, "why we have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to live together."
Roscoe Conkling Bruce did not understand, and neither do we. In hindsight, it is clear that what Lowell saw as essential differences between blacks and whites significant enough to preclude important types of social interaction were really nothing more than the collected prejudices of generations.
I think that there’s a bit of Lowell’s fallacy in every club member who asserts that, while he firmly believes in gender equality, he still finds it important to preserve his claim to men’s-only space. He, like Lowell, fails to note that bringing different types of people together in the social realm is not only possible, but beneficial.
I hope that every final club member will consider this possibility, and think carefully about whether the institutions he helps perpetuate are in line with his convictions about gender and justice.
Because as hard as I found it to explain the necessity of male dominance over Harvard’s social space to my mother, just wait 20 years. Try explaining it to your daughter.