What's Wrong With Final Clubs

The Public Interest

Last week, with a Yard-based postering campaign calling on students to “Swat the Fly,” the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) began an effort to introduce women into the membership of Harvard’s storied Fly Club. The Fly is one of a small number of final clubs whose constitution does not prohibit the election of women, and who knows—RUS may succeed in uprooting one of Harvard’s most notorious traditions. Unfortunately, however, it’s not clear how much bringing the final clubs into the modern era (and bringing women into the final clubs) would accomplish.

What Harvard seeks in its student groups has been thrown into relief by the recent reformation of the Hasty Pudding Social Club. After losing its building to Harvard, the club sought College recognition to use its old space on Holyoke Street. Yet student group status hasn’t resulted in fundamental change. Although the punch process will be replaced by events open to all students, President Andrea L. Olshan ’02 told The Crimson that the focus of the club is still the same—potential members will be asked “what activities you’re interested in, what distinguishes you and makes you a person I want to be in a party with or I want to have lunch with.”

There’s nothing wrong with Harvard students associating t o have a good time. (The Pudding, at least, is also planning to hold an annual charity event.) Student groups aren’t required to do anything productive; otherwise, the Arnold Cultural Society and the Lampoon would have been disbanded long ago. And there are many reasons why a social group might want College recognition—to poster on kiosks, to hand out fliers, to have a table at the Activities Fair—none of which imply endorsement by the College of the group’s purpose, membership or point of view.

The trouble comes when Harvard decides to block certain groups from official recognition. And the first requirement for recognition in the College’s “Regulations for Undergraduate Organizations” is a non-discriminatory membership policy.

This discrimination clause has long been the hobgoblin of Harvard’s final clubs, ever since the world changed and they did not. But discrimination per se is not an absolute evil, as even the College admits. The Hasty Pudding Theatricals excludes women from acting in its performances; separate-gender choral groups are widely accepted, and even racial discrimination might be countenanced for a drama group casting Othello. A support group for students recovering from testicular cancer would have good reason to seek the ability to poster—and equally good reason to exclude women, along with all others not recovering from the disease, from its membership.

It is understandable for Harvard to want student groups to be open to all students, and the above groups could provide good reasons for their exclusive policies. But once explicitly social groups such as the Pudding are countenanced—once their membership criteria are recognized, in practice if not in theory, as acceptable—it becomes very difficult for the College to prohibit discrimination based on any reason at all. Harvard can certainly take a stand against unreasoned restrictions that denigrate others’ personal worth, or against discrimination based on a flawed stereotype (such as if the math club excluded women because “gi rls can’t do math”). But if the College accepts selection based on the flimsiest of criteria—“who I want to have lunch with”—then can it honestly require the members of the Fly, should they too seek official recognition, to want to have lunch with someone female?

The point isn’t just that enforcing anti-discrimination policies is difficult. It’s that the most commonly expressed rationale for wanting the final clubs to change—that discrimination is bad, period—is one that not even the College accepts. There are other reasons for wanting final clubs to accept women. By receiving women as guests only, by depriving them of the benefits of membership, by creating an boys-only environment that encourages drunken lechery and perhaps even sexual assault—in all these ways, the arguments go, the final clubs and their influence set back the cause of women at Harvard. But in a gender-neutral age, the exclusion of women is only the most noticeable exclusion that final clubs practice—it’s far from the only one.

The problem with final clubs goes to the very nature of Harvard’s social life. Students do not arrive at Harvard in a state of nature, drafting the social contract on a flat plain unencumbered by existing institutions. One need only look at a Cambridge cit y assessor’s map to realize how much of Harvard Square has already been carved up into private holdings.

And in this already-privatized environment, the final clubs have immense advantages. Prestige, spacious buildings, generous alumni, independence from College oversight and a sense of belonging often lacking in student groups or randomized Houses—these are the things that make final clubs immensely attractive for Harvard students of either gender.

The problem with final clubs is that their influen ce over Harvard’s social life is controlled by a small number of people and their friends, and that is unlikely to change when women are accepted as members. Casting the problem with final clubs primarily in terms of gender creates the false impression that once women are allowed in, the clubs will become open community resources where all students are welcome. The vast majority of Harvard women would never be accepted by even a gender-neutral Fly.

To its credit, RUS has recognized that what’s wrong with final clubs (or, rather, with the lack of inclusive alternatives) goes beyond gender discrimination. But its campaign is still characterized in gender-specific terms and obscures the difficulties Harvard social life would face even if every final club went gender-neutral tomorrow. Any real reform will need to look beyond the issue of gender—and to address the role of the College in helping you find someone for lunch.

Stephen E. Sachs ’02 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.>