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Members Only, In Drag

By Steven A. Engel

Some of your classmates last week paraded around cross-dressed in swimwear so that their peers would respect them. And you thought the Harvard admissions committee had high standards.

Harvard's nine all male final clubs have been an easy target for campus critics of sexism and elitism since Harvard disassociated itself from them a decade ago. But for every woman appealing for change, there are probably 10 of us, men and women, who really couldn't give a damn. Final clubs won't be improved by allowing women in the front door or lowering their monthly dues because the problem with the clubs lies not in the character of their members but the character of their membership.

My (limited) contacts in the final club world are generally good guys. The clubs seem to have roughly the same jerk/student ratio of any random sampling of Harvard undergrads. However, like any other college fraternity, the clubs build pride in membership by limiting selection and humiliating inductees.

The clubs are not a single institution. Each has its own personality, and they differ considerably in the extent of public humiliation that they make would-be pledges go through. Some of it is in good fun. Some use branding irons.

Perversely, the subordination of the initiation process increases the desire of willing "punches" to join their club. After all, if the club members are really so superior to punches, then it must be a club worth joining. At the very least, there is the somewhat sadistic prospect of humiliating future punches once one is a member of the club.

If a private club wants to pick its own members, then that's really not my business. Punches willingly endure the shame of the punch, and that says as much about their psychological weaknesses as it does about those of their friends. People can associate with whomever they like, and they can do that just as well on the basis of their athletic ties, their alma mater, or their maleness. The only real distinction between final clubs and social cliques is that the final clubs charge dues--and women are relegated to a subordinate role. But if the women who frequent the clubs are really unsatisfied with the situation, they could improve their station by simply not entering through the side door, or any door for that matter.

If there really were a lasting boycott among women, faster than you can say Lysistrata, the clubs would feel the pressure. After all, there's only so much fun to be had in half-naked sumo wrestling. Women Appealing for Change, a more or less formal campus group, tried this strategy two years ago with mixed success. They managed to get the Fly Club to commit to a co-ed punch, but after that their movement lost momentum and the women returned through the side door. And the Fly Club's grad board postponed the co-ed punch indefinitely.

The clubs are free to pick and choose their members, but from the point of view of the campus community, some associations are preferable to others. We don't want a campus balkanized on the basis of self-segregating races, and we shouldn't desire a campus that is separates itself on "class" lines.

But while prep school ties and blood lines may lead to membership for some club members, few of the clubs are truly elitist any more. Exclusivity is not the same thing as elitism unless there is some accepted standard of superiority that constitutes membership. When a group of hockey players lock themselves in a room drinking themselves into a coma becomes your idea of haute couture, then you've truly spent too much time watching "Ricki Lake."

Harvard offers a diverse array of opportunities for people of talent to associate, and the final clubs hardly stand as gatekeepers to future social or economic achievement. We've come a long way from the time when Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04 identified his greatest failure as getting blackballed from the Porcellian Club. Future success is a product more of skill, dedication, and luck, than connections with wealthy club alumni. And at least that way you don't have to wear drag.

Steven A. Engel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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