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Where the Girls Are

By Dan S. Aibel

Early Thursday morning it hits me: once again, there are no women in my classes. I start counting, and after a pair of sections and a lecture, the grand total confirms my suspicion. In my three Thursday liberal arts classes there are 62 men and 16 women. Alas, some days it's hard to believe there's anything approaching an even number of male and female undergraduates at Harvard.

So I decide to seek women out.

I try like hell to finagle my way into Delta Gamma's weekend rush event, but I get nowhere fast ("If you were a girl," one of the members instructs me, "you could come, but..."). So I settle for a talk with the chapter's Vice-President Social Standards, Rebecca L. Hughes '99, a girl I happened to go to high school with.

Working to get to the bottom of the sorority phenomenon, I'm corrected by Hughes when I characterize Delta Gamma as an extracurricular activity. She frames it instead as a kind of "support group" and argues that it "provides a social outlet that Harvard doesn't." I press her about the corrosive effects of the sorority lifestyle on the community, and she concedes that it comes with its share of problems. In a perfect world sororities wouldn't be necessary, she acknowledges, but in an environment like Harvard's, "Many 19 and 20-year-olds want something to belong to that will round out their hectic lives." Moreover, she adds, "I feel very comfortable at D.G., and there's a value to that."

When we get to talking about Harvard's refusal to recognize the sorority, Rebecca grows intense. While in theory, she's sympathetic to the College's non-discrimination rule--the policy that prevents it from recognizing single-sex clubs--she's frustrated by what the rule achieves in practice. "The Final Clubs aren't going anywhere, they already have huge networks of people and money," she laments. "As the system exists now, the only thing [the rule] does is make it harder for women to have the same experience as men."

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A few weeks ago I first heard of the Bee, Harvard's only Final Club for women, and I've been fascinated by the idea of it ever since: Is it a backlash against the male-controlled elite Harvard social scene? An attempt to buy into the Old Boys Network?

Thinking about the Bee, I'm not sure whether to picture a horde of radical feminists sitting in a dark room plotting the downfall of the Porcellian or a clique of beauties in tight skirts gossiping about the hulking-but-shy football players of the A.D. And having gone the first five semesters of my undergraduate career without hearing of the female Club, it's hard to know if it's self-consciously secretive or just tiny and irrelevant.

Or maybe I just don't get out enough.

So I decide to do some digging and eventually I'm on the phone with Rachel L. Barenbaum '98, the Bee's president and sure enough, a Crimson editor. After she prods me to tell her how I learned of her association with the Club, she explains graciously that the "Sewing Bee" started out at the time of the Civil War, later dying out before it was resurrected in 1989.

It ran a punch of approximately one hundred women this fall ("I've never seen so many pants-suits," a punchee preferring not to be named relayed) and has a membership hovering around 25 women. Barenbaum informs me that it holds date events, non-date events and generally "gives women a chance to hang out socially." But beside the gender of its members and the matter of real estate (the Bee has no house), as far as she's concerned, it's "like any social club on campus."

In fact, "the Bee is part of the Inter-Club Council," she tells me, and I'm surprised. That the stuffy alumni of Harvard's elite social clubs would absorb a women's group into their ranks is a sign of progress, I decide.

But there's a catch. When I push further about the nature of the Bee's involvement, Barenbaum clarifies: the Bee is an "honorary member," she says, not terribly eager to explain what such status entails.

But somehow, I think I have an idea what it means.

Dan S. Aibel's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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