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Of Dead Fish and Final Clubs

The Feminist

By Beccah G. Watson

When final club punching season begins, I am often reminded of my grandfather’s story about the dead fish.

At the beginning of Donald C. Watson’s sophomore year at Harvard in 1937, he joined the A.D. My grandfather loves telling stories about the punch process: how he had to count the number of black tiles on the checkered floor of a popular Harvard Square restaurant and measure the distance from the John Harvard statue to the river with a slimy, dead fish. Being a member of the A.D. was a highlight of my grandfather’s years at Harvard.

I always try to join in when my grandfather tells his punching tales, because I have my own stories to tell about final clubs. This rarely ceases to surprise him—he doesn’t understand how I could know where the A.D. is located, let alone what it’s like inside. In his day, members gathered at the club for meals and sherry in their coats and ties. The clubs existed, quietly, for male friendship. Of course, revelry sometimes kept students up past their bedtime, but gatherings were kept strictly in the circle of members. The power of the clubs lay in the bonds made and, eventually, the connections that followed members into the real world.

Despite their late hours and parties, the clubs have largely avoided the task of entering the modern world. Walking into a club is like taking a trip in a time machine; women still don’t have the vote (and since women and guests can only enter some rooms, separate spheres are in full force). Despite some exceptions, those in control are generally white and middle- or upper-class; and when you make a mess, someone else is usually there to clean up after you. (I always thought it was strangely appropriate when, during punch season, one club dresses up like suffragettes and mocks the early feminist movement. Isn’t that the final clubs’ current era, anyway?).

And yet, the clubs have changed since my grandfather’s time. Partly, it’s undergraduate life that has changed: we drink more, go to sleep later and are more often in co-ed situations. Most of the clubs have taken on a kind of fraternity-like role on campus to accommodate these changes. Thus the crux of the problem today: an unhappy marriage between snotty gentleman’s club and modern day pimp hole-in-the-wall. The irony is that many graduates like my grandfather still financially support these clubs. It’s kind of like giving milk money to a kid, who then goes and buys a handle when you’re not looking. Graduates remain largely in the dark as to how different the clubs have become and what lengths club members go to in order to mask their actions from the trustees.

One example of the member/grad board conflict is the hidden video camera that graduates allegedly installed inside the A.D. Although club members refuse to divulge an official story, rumor has it that parties in the building have gotten so out of hand in recent years that the grad board felt it necessary to spy, so to speak, on club members and their guests. An unfortunate result of the camera’s installation is that non-member men are less likely to get access to the club, but women are still allowed in. Thus the ratio of female guests to the club members can sometimes be pretty unbalanced, a result similar to that found at the Owl’s annual Catholic School Girl Night. Men in my grandfather’s time might have once had a problem with cooties, but it seems the clubs today have moved into a more brashly sexist pubescence.

Punch practices have also certainly changed over the years. Some sound like scenes from a bad porn movie. Some Harvard women claim that last year, Spee punches approached them with the assigned task of photographing women kissing, going topless and giving oral sex—a far cry from restaurant tiles and dead fish.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with videotape. If only club donors knew how many charges of sexual assault brought to the Ad Board were linked to the clubs or their members. If only they were aware that two years ago at a first-year Safe Community Night, Assistant Dean of the College Karen E. Avery ’87 warned female first-years to beware of the “potential dangers that have been reported in regard to final clubs.” Although there are no public statistics connecting sexual assault and the clubs, the truth of Avery’s warning is echoed in the stories of women all over campus. In rallies in front of University Hall, on bathroom stalls, in anonymous testimonies, in student group meetings and in countless private conversations, women tell their stories of assault or harassment linked with the clubs.

The College plays a role in this: by my math, Harvard has eight men’s centers, but no women’s center or center for students of color. It should do what it can to alleviate this imbalance—there must be more student space for a more diverse array of student groups. As for the clubs themselves, one day their space will be owned by student groups that actually do something (Imagine a PBHA clubhouse: ex-final club members would have to do service in order to party in their old club). But for that to happen, we have to let these clubs die. Grad boards, cherish your memories and send your money elsewhere. Harvard students, treat the clubs like the sketchy tree houses they are—built with clumsy arrogance up above the real world, doomed to crash down at any moment. And club members, if you’re looking for a good time, I’m sure we can wrestle up a dead fish for you to play with.

Beccah G. Watson ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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