​Gender Discrimination No Longer PC

Upon reading former Porcellian graduate board president Charles Storey’s comments in The Crimson, I was tempted to bang out a bitingly snide response. Apparently, so were many others, sparking a social media firestorm that prompted a hasty, profit-minded apology and ultimately culminated in Storey's resignation. But while Storey has fallen on his sword, this personnel change does little to challenge the views to which he gave voice. These views—while unpopular in many circles—are nonetheless pervasive among members and alumni of Harvard's male final clubs. Storey did not pen his remarks in a vacuum; I hope this op-ed will foster the kind of rational discourse that changes not only figureheads, but also underlying points of view.

The traditions Storey and others ardently defend have hardly been static across centuries. While the history of his organization is notoriously—and deliberately—opaque, its composition has presumably evolved along with that of Harvard’s student body, albeit at times with significant delays. This would inevitably involve radical shifts in response to changes occurring within the university itself—changes many considered cataclysmic.

Harvard College awarded the first degree to a black candidate in 1870 to Richard Greener. Let us suppose that the Porcellian’s membership clamored to welcome Greener to campus via initiation into the club. If so, he must have declined this esteemed invitation, helping explain reports that the Porcellian did not admit a black member until 1983. This century-long delay suggests that the admission of the Porcellian’s first African-American member caused its fair share of debate and strife. There was similarly an era before Jewish or openly gay members were welcomed through the club’s hogshead-topped doorframe.

Such unilateral discrimination against these demographics would—we trust—seem unthinkable today. Why, then, is reflexive, illogical prejudice towards women more palatable?

The Porcellian hardly stands alone in perpetuating on-campus discrimination. The College fought for decades to exclude women. Even once de facto coeducation began as a wartime concession, women were excluded from numerous academic buildings until the 1964 integration of Lamont Library. In 1970, the first (male) student to move into Mather House, my undergraduate home, unabashedly told The Crimson that Lowell House’s decision to go coed had been “an impetus to get out early.” Despite completing identical coursework, men and women did not receive identical diplomas until 1999.

True, men and women have been socialized separately for centuries. Yet might I suggest that this system, rather than reflecting innate difference, instead developed to reinforce differentiated expectations? Women were encouraged to form separate organizations for the same reason they were required to sit through home economics lessons on the fine art of removing your husband's shoes when he returned home from a long day of performing work closed to women.

I will not do Storey or the Porcellian’s membership the injustice of implying they long to return to this bygone era. Instead, I would urge them to consider whether their organization is, unwittingly perhaps, an anachronistic vestige of a time most American women are relieved to feel safely behind them.

Those who desperately cling to a “separate but equal” vision of socialization must concede that while Harvard’s single-gender clubs are certainly separate, the disparate distribution of real estate amongst single-gender clubs categorically precludes parity in the College’s social scene. Even female clubs who rent prime Harvard Square real estate are beholden to their landlords—male clubs. If—despite all evidence—one assumed equality in these spaces, longstanding legal precedents reflecting broader societal values acknowledge that separate spaces inherently reflect and reinforce inferior status.

To address concerns about sexual assault: The claim that introducing women into a traditionally male space would open the floodgates to sexual violence attempts to cast commingling itself as the root cause of sexual assault—a wholly indefensible and irresponsible suggestion that would absolve perpetrators of sexual violence of responsibility.

Taking a more empirical approach, we might consider the US military, a male-dominated body with disproportionate rates of sexual violence. While integrating combat units initially sparked fears—typically voiced by men—of increased assault, comprehensive studies released by news outlets and members of Congress fail to find evidence that gender integration increases the risk of sexual assault. None suggest gender segregation as a remedy to sexual violence. Concern for this important issue makes for a sympathetic public-relations soundbite, but the data fail to support a single-gender solution to the question of sexual violence in Harvard’s clubs.

As an American history teacher, Storey’s comparison between a policy of parity and McCarthyism struck me as particularly misguided. I might offer a more relevant analogy: When George Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Alabama vowing to uphold “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he almost certainly failed to realize that he was on the wrong side of history. Like many who socialize in an insular community—whether the rolling hills of Alabama or the cooler climes of an Ivory Tower—he was tone-deaf to the changing realities around him.

I am not naïve (or narcissistic) enough to believe that changes in Harvard’s social scene will revolutionize gender relations nationwide. But integration is a meaningful, long-overdue step towards dismantling pervasive campus prejudices that inform the conduct of alumni long after graduation. Surely a club which stakes its prestige on the national leaders it counts among its alumni should leap at the chance to position itself among leaders of the twenty-first century. As The Crimson editorialized following the integration of Lamont, "Down with separate-but-equal. Up with together-but-different.”


Kristin Holladay ’15 teaches American History at a charter school in Washington, DC.

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