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."