Final clubs for Harvard men date back to 1791, but final clubs for women at Harvard didn’t emerge until a full 200 years later, in 1991. Though less institutionalized and established than their male counterparts, female final clubs have significantly impacted Harvard’s social scene in their two decades of existence by giving women more social options and creating more social spaces controlled by women. FM investigates the beginnings of the female final clubs, the visions that the founders had for their new organizations, and the challenges that the clubs have faced as they look to become a permanent presence in the Harvard social scene.
WOMEN IN MEN'S CLUBS?
In 1976, two women were punched by the Delta Upsilon fraternity, a group that later merged with the Fly Club. They were refused membership. The women later learned that several influential alums had threatened to withdraw their financial support of the D.U. if women were admitted to the organization.
In 1978, just two years later, eight women attended the D.U.’s punch dinner dressed in tuxedos and three-piece suits.
According to a 2004 Crimson article that investigated the episode, the women’s presence in the club provoked quite a dramatic reaction: The club steward locked himself in a room with all of the food because he “was so angry about the female intrusion.” According to the article, the D.U.’s president at the time, John A. “Kras” Krasznekewicz ’79, confronted his fellow club member R. Stewart Shofner ’79 who had invited the girls, saying, “I thought you were my friend. How could you betray me like this?”
"We didn’t do it completely to goose people,” said D.U. member Stephen A. Kowl ’79, referring to the decision to invite the girls. Kowl, who had extended an invitation to the women along with Shofner, said that the purpose of welcoming the women into the club was to “lampoon the old, foolish ways. We wanted to have a good laugh, while still making a serious point.”
Challenges to the all-male final club scene continued in 1987 when Lisa J. Schkolnick ’88 filed a complaint against the Fly Club to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Schkolnick claimed that the male-only admissions policy of the Fly violated Massachusetts General Law, specifically a chapter that describes discrimination by sex as a punishable offense. Though the lawsuit was unsuccessful, it brought the exclusivity of Harvard’s final club scene to the forefront of gender equality discussions.
For much of Harvard’s history, male-only final clubs dominated the social scene at the College. The clubs were historic and established, they owned their own spaces, and they threw great parties. Women’s clubs broke into the Harvard social scene more recently, emerging alongside the men’s clubs to create opportunities for women to host parties of their own and forge close friendships and strong networks.
The Bee, started in 1991, was the first female-only social club at Harvard. Its group of 14 founding members adopted the name from a “sewing bee” group of Cambridge women that was started during the Civil War.
Former Bee President Deborah E. Lipson ’95 said that the club “never felt like a sorority.” She went on to explain, in a 1998 Crimson article, that the club “was more a group of women who were looking for other interesting women to talk to."
Another final club for women did not emerge until 2000, when the Isis appeared on the scene. Hoping to be a women’s social club with a more open admissions process than its predecessor, the Isis club’s primary objective was to foster friendships between women.
“Same-sex clubs have many advantages for building friendships,” former acting president and co-punchmaster Sarah C. Geisler ’03 told the Crimson in 2001. “We wanted to give women this option.”
In the club’s formation, the founders had discussed whether or not the club would have a specific cause, but they ultimately decided against it, instead prioritizing “looking for girls who want to have a good time,” according to a 2001 Crimson interview.
The next female final club that emerged, the Sablière Society, did have a fairly specific cause and mission. Started in 2002, the Sablière hoped to take advantage of artistic and cultural opportunities in Boston.
Sablière co-founder Brooke L. Chavez ’04 explained the club’s individuality. “We’re not advocating a keg in a small basement, but rather cocktails on the Common or wine at the MFA,” Chavez told the Crimson in 2002.
Brittany J. Moorefield '04, another Sablière co-founder, told FM that the formation of the club was partially a reaction to Harvard’s social climate and gender dynamics at the time. “Basically there weren’t very many women’s groups on campus, whereas there were lots of final clubs and fraternities,” Moorefield said. “There were a lot of options that were exclusively for men.”
Moorefield found that the reactions to the new women’s club were supportive. “I think people thought it was really cool and avant-garde in the sense that a female final club hadn’t been started in a while,” she said. “It was a group of really sociable girls so we threw some great parties.”
The Pleiades was also founded in 2002. Meant to be an intermediary between a sorority and final club, Pleiades was named for the seven sisters in Greek mythology known for their beauty.
In a Crimson article in 2002, Pleiades Co-Founder Tanya F. Perkins '04 explained that she wanted to branch out and bring a new group of girls together. “I invited acquaintances I had talked to in the dining hall but never gone out with on a Saturday night,” Perkins said of starting the club.
The most recent addition to Harvard’s female club offerings is La Vie Club, founded in 2008. Even though four female final clubs had been formed already, La Vie founder Oluwadara A. Johnson ’10 still felt there was a discrepancy between male and female social outlets on campus.
“On a cold winter day in January 2008, I decided it was time to take an active step towards bridging the gender inequality gap that exists in the Harvard social scene,” Johnson told The Crimson in 2010.
But female final clubs were not the only option women had for non-Greek social clubs on campus. The Seneca, created in 1999, was an anomaly among women’s social clubs: It was neither a club nor a sorority, and it established an open application process.
According to a Crimson article from 2000, the Seneca was originally intended to be a sister organization to the Delphic Club, on the premise that "men have power and influence on campus, and they could be our greatest allies," according to a 2000 comment to The Crimson by Patricia Ivonne Thompson '01, the Seneca's then co-president-elect. But the partnership with the Delphic ultimately fell through, and women’s advocacy became central to the group’s mission.
“We hope to be a service to women,” former Seneca co-president Sandra B. Seru '01 told the Crimson in 2000. “We see ourselves as a resource.”
FINDING A HOME
The female clubs’ determination to establish themselves as leaders in the predominantly male-run social scene came with logistical difficulties, as the clubs lacked alumni support and the funds to acquire their own building. Raising money and finding an available space in Harvard Square proved to be challenging.
“Men have had hundreds of years to acquire space, to acquire status,” Ilana J. Sichel ’05, former co-president of the Radcliffe Union of Students, told the Crimson in 2003. “They’re lucky in that they have these opportunities, these spaces that their predecessors have carved out for them. And women just don’t.”
In a 1998 Crimson article, Bee Club member Medora S. Bross ’00 recalled her experience visiting a sorority at Dartmouth: “It was so great to see women controlling the liquor, kicking people out of the party and playing pool instead of just watching the guys play pool. It was good to see women in control," she said.
The Isis became the first of the female social clubs to have their own space when they leased an apartment on Trowbridge Street in 2002. They now use space in the Owl Club’s building on 30 Holyoke St., which they started leasing in 2008.
For the Bee, the effort of acquiring a building was “ongoing and persistent,” former Bee president Deborah E. Lipson ’95 said in a 1998 Crimson article. They eventually started leasing the Fly Club’s property at 45 Dunster St.
The problem of finding adequate social space for female final clubs and social clubs persists through today, as the clubs are still young and Harvard Square real estate continues to be costly and hard to come by. In 2010, the Chabad, an orthodox Jewish center, offered $6 million to buy the 45 Dunster Street property owned by the Fly Club. Until the women’s clubs have enough money for a well-located space, leasing from male clubs seems like the most viable property option.