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A Club of Their Own: Seneca, Sororities Make a 'Social' Scene

By Victoria C. Hallett, Crimson Staff Writer

Hear them roar.

Female social organizations, often unnoticed in an environment dominated by the eight all-male final clubs, have come into their own this year. Radcliffe College may be gone, but this has been the year of the woman in Harvard social life.

"All of the groups have been growing so much," says Suzanne M. Pomey '02, president of Kappa Alpha Theta, one of Harvard's two sororities. "These groups aren't just for ditzy girls who only care about boys."

With this changing image, the social organizations are striving to build a more diverse social scene for undergraduates.

"I can't believe we've gone so far in one year," says Alexandra B. "Sandra" Seru '01 co-president of the Seneca, Harvard's newest social option, which has created a presence through three all-campus social events as well as a strong push for women's issues.

Beyond these efforts, the group has focused attention on campus space for women and buying a house is a top priority.

None of the all-female groups has its own meeting space yet. By long-standing policy, the College does not recognize student groups that are open to only one sex, so none of the groups have on-campus space.

The Bee, a female final club, meets at restaurants; the sororities borrow space from Sigma Chi, a Harvard fraternity.

Founded last March by 19 women, The Seneca joined the ranks of the Bee and sororities Theta and Delta Gamma (DG), all of which have struggled to make a name for themselves over the past 10 years.

The Bee brought some of the difficulty upon itself.

"1991 was our official founding, but for many years the members wanted to keep it secret," Bee President Fiona A. Torres '01 says. "Now it's the opposite."

Sparked by a desire to see more all-female organizations formed, the Bee has now developed a higher profile.

This year, with a more public image and 57 members, Torres says the Bee is about as big as it can be while still preserving the idea of internal club bonding.

As punch classes have grown larger and more eager, the club has been turning away three or four times as many women as it has been accepting due to size constraints.

"Because of our budget we are limited, so we encourage other women to start up clubs," Torres says. "There's always been more interest in the Bee than it can handle. But this year we had a really tough time with the voting."

The two Harvard sororities have similar problems keeping up with the demand for female social groups.

When Noelle S. Sherber '01 joined DG in fall of her first year, there were only 19 members. But two and a half years later, Sherber is president of a 60-member sorority.

Only seven seniors are graduating today, but DG has accepted 35 new members since September.

Theta, with 62 members, has also experienced an explosive growth of interest from female students.

Pomey says the spring formal rush was extremely successful for both groups, which took 18 women each.

"As far as I know it's the biggest new member class we've had," she says.

For a few years Theta has been "over total," the member limit set by the national pan-Hellenic council, but DG has maxed out on members for the first time this year.

With such continued interest, Pomey says she thinks women might start a third sorority as early as this fall, although they would need to work with national sororities to get any new club started.

"I think we need it," Pomey says. "Trying to fit 62 girls into Sigma Chi is a nightmare. We could easily have enough members for a third sorority."

Sherber speculates that the boom time for female organizations may be due to the end of Radcliffe.

"While we can't fill the gap of Radcliffe, we're trying to build a community, a women's place," Sherber says.

Pomey agrees that women need a home at Harvard.

"What attracts [female students] to sororities is that the presence of male groups is just so phenomenal," she says.

The perceptions of the organizations have also changed.

Many of Sherber's friends at other schools eagerly looked forward to their chance to rush sororities, but Harvard never gave her that same excitement, she says.

"I had to go looking for DG and it took me a while to find it," Sherber says. "Publicizing events is difficult because we're not recognized by the University."

She adds that many women come to Harvard with a negative perception of sororities and other female social organizations. Even most current members of the groups originally came to Harvard disdaining the idea.

But through substantive events like DG's performance of "The Miracle Worker" to benefit the Perkins School for the Blind, the sororities have gained campus respect.

"It dispels the myth that we're purely frivolous," Sherber says.

When the Seneca started, there was considerable interest but also skepticism, Seru says.

"One of the biggest challenges is making it clear to the campus who we are, our dual mission," Seru says. "A lot of people see us as a final club. That's been the hardest. It's just so frustrating when you spend so much time on other activities."

Seru says the Seneca had difficulty getting support from alumnae for the same reason.

"It's the same problem that's on campus. They don't believe our mission," Seru says.

But after a year of concrete proof, donations have come more steadily.

Originally conceived as a sister organization to the Delphic final club, the Seneca's aims have gone beyond social life to give it a reputation as a women's advocacy group.

With members' active involvement in the Women's Leadership Project's upcoming Women's Guide and the annual Take Back the Night, the Seneca has taken a lead in the fight to advance women at Harvard.

"We hope to be a service to women," Seru says. "We see ourselves as a resource. If different groups need help, we want to be available for them as well."

But beyond this political focus, the Seneca has worked on improving social life for the whole campus.

Their highest-profile event of the year, the Red Party, was open to all who paid the $10 admission price. It was praised as a successful opportunity for a diverse group of people to interact.

"I was most proud of the Seneca at the Red Party," Seru says of the event. "I saw the potential of the Seneca."

The Seneca has had the long-term goal of providing women with a home base, like the male final clubs.

After a year of raising funds and searching, Seru says they will have a location.

"We're going to have a space next year--possibly rented--and all of the women's groups will be welcome to use it for meetings," Seru says.

Pomey praises the Seneca for its aggressive work this past year.

"Out of the four of us, the Seneca has done the most campus-wide things," Pomey says. "They've done so much for women and Harvard."

The Seneca has also maintained a strong internal club structure. Seru says it is equally important for Seneca members to build internal bonds.

"We try to balance the work and the play," Seru says.

While the four groups may have various specific aims, they all agree about the lack of social options for women at Harvard and embrace these clubs as steps to a solution.

With so much in common, the groups have striven to form stronger bonds.

"This year we have been more open with the other clubs--reopened dialogue," Torres says.

Pomey says the improved relations between the groups has lessened their "catty" images and allows them to discuss common problems, like how to spread word of their events without being recognized as official student groups.

A few weeks ago, when the presidents of all of the organizations met for an interview for the Women's Guide, the leaders began to discuss plans for having an informal umbrella organization for the different groups.

Possibly an offshoot of the Seneca, this body would help coordinate events incorporating all of the members of the four organizations.

"We could have a day sponsored by all of the groups," Sherber says. "It would be a wonderful step in the right direction."

Playing With the Big Boys

Sitting around a table at the Hasty Pudding Club over lunch a few weeks ago, Inter-Club Council (ICC) President Douglas W. Sears '69 met with nine members of the Bee to discuss problems with Harvard's social scene.

"They were very articulate young women looking for something for women at Harvard that is equivalent to what final clubs at their best can be," Sears says. "We're not talking about Animal Houses, but places where people can gather without a sense of competition and socialize."

Although the Bee is officially billed as a final club, it has never been a part of the ICC due to a technical rule in the bylaws stating that members of one club cannot enter another club without an invitation from a member.

Bee members would have to give up the ability to simply show up at a final club and get in if they want to join the ICC.

"I have a feeling that was a quick response to keep the Bee out originally," says Torres, who is working to make the Bee part of the ICC.

But Torres insisted that this doesn't mean her group wants to emulate the male model exactly.

"We haven't always been striving to be like the guys," Torres says.

But like its male counterparts, the Bee builds strong friendships and fosters an alumni network.

Torres says the Bee has given her much of what she wanted in Harvard, but she hopes for more.

"It's basically a problem because there isn't a sense of community on campus," she says. "Something just isn't working."

Sears says women have conveyed their frustration with the state of evening activities.

"They say, 'We can go to an a cappella concert and then the next night maybe we can go to an a cappella concert and then the next night...'" he says.

Sears says the University's refusal to recognize any of the all-male or all-female social organizations makes it much more difficult for women to establish what the men have.

"Young women want to feel they're on their own turf--not some guys' turf," he adds.

Proof Is In The...

Part of the irony of Sears' conversation with the Bee members was its location. The trustees of the Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770 turned the building over to the University in late April, a move many view as the death of the social club aspect of that organization.

Sears, who was a member of the Pudding as an undergraduate, says the club provided a unique co-ed experience.

"Harvard doesn't want to be seen as subsidizing undergraduate drinking, but that was the one place women approached the social outlet available to men," Sears says.

Newly-elected Pudding President William B. Decherd '01 has made finding a new space for the club a priority.

The club is currently asking alumni for donations to help it in its search for a suitable location.

What exactly will happen to the now homeless club, though, is up in the air.

Settling Down

Other clubs have had a quieter year.

After a series of policy changes in spring 1999 as a result of poor undergraduate-graduate relations, the all-male final clubs have had surprisingly little conflict this year.

Other than the Owl's Club's closure from December to February in order to take a "breather," as Owl President Jonathan Powers '00 described it, and the A.D. Club's recent shutdown for what members described as "renovations," few incidents have attracted attention.

Sears says final clubs have improved this year as graduate boards have put a greater emphasis on the original model of behavior in the gentlemen's clubs.

As for members who grew accustomed to the frequent parties and more open guest policy, Sears says the only students who have a problem with the new management will be gone soon anyway.

"As the kids graduate out, the idea of having sensible guest policies will make sense," Sears says. "These people accept it; they aren't function halls. Undergraduates will be respectful of that and the clubs will stay open."

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