Women Prefer Activist, Not Political, Approach

Letter to the Editors

To the editors:

Lia C. Larson’s Nov. 7 column “Attracted to Apathy” makes a good point about the gender imbalances in certain clubs and organizations at Harvard. However, I feel called upon to put aside my imputed apathy and/or aphonia in order to disagree with her diagnosis.

What do the Undergraduate Council, the Harvard Political Union, the Harvard College Democrats and the Harvard Republicans have in common? They are not merely “politically charged, gender-neutral organizations” or “intellectual circles”—they are places for a certain kind discourse centered on the minutiae of formal political structures. Further, the very fact of their prominently male membership makes them anything but “gender-neutral.” I’m not surprised they don’t appeal to most women on this campus, because they don’t appeal to me.

So where are the “intellectual” and “politically charged” women ostensibly lurking on this campus, and what do they do with their time? They must have something to do with groups like Students For Choice (SFC), Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and Students for Humane and Responsible Economics, along with some of the others (like PBHA) mentioned in Larson’s column. Larson describes such groups as “female-friendly” (as opposed to gender-neutral?) because they are largely led by women and address issues of direct concern to women. The real division here is not between engaged, thoughtful men and their stifled, listless female counterparts but between politicos and activists, and while men and women flourish in both camps, Larson is right to note the gender imbalance is marked.


Yet this shouldn’t be such a mystery after all. The style of political engagement women seem to prefer is characterized by direct, project-based advocacy or service provision, which appeals to those who feel directly affected, implicated or otherwise impelled to action on particular issues of social justice. By contrast, the more traditional (and apparently more legitimate) political activities favored more by campus men emphasize pro-con debate, pizza and prominent guest speakers. It sounds like fun, but this organized head-scratching is a luxury afforded to those whose political concerns are less urgent.

Which type of engagement has a greater impact on life at Harvard? The answer is clear. It is equally clear, however, which groups provide a more solid jumping-off point to positions of influence after Harvard. The real tragedy of the gender divide noted by Larson is that by siphoning off in these respective directions, we (men and women) enter real-world politics in the same skewed proportions. In later life, former PBHA volunteers and SFC activists will be writing letters to their male classmates who now run the government, demanding that they not cut funding for the services these women rely on or provide. And will these women then be punished for having snubbed the Dems’ table at the activities fair?


Meanwhile, the “muted” and “apathetic” leaders of the Association of Black Harvard Women and the Queer Resistance Front are sorely missed at Harvard Political Union gatherings, but they can’t be blamed for their absence. And if you can’t blame them, join them.

Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04

Nov. 9, 2003

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