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Letting Women Join the Club

By Catherine E. Tenney

It’s spring time in Georgia. While millions of Americans tune in to CBS this weekend to watch the Masters Tournament, one of the premier golfing events in the country, the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) will be standing outside Augusta’s gates, protesting the exclusion of women from the golf club’s membership ranks.

It is easy to dismiss the NCWO’s complaint—who cares if a bunch of rich, mostly white guys want to have a club that girls aren’t allowed to join? It is a private organization, after all. The NCWO responds with the argument that by hosting the Masters and selling the broadcast rights to a major TV network, the club is no longer “private” in the sense that it keeps its activities to itself, and instead has the moral imperative to allow women as members. Because Augusta’s membership includes some of the most prominent men in the country, the NCWO believes that the prohibition of female members sends a message that American society does not welcome women into the powerful leadership circles that exist outside of the boardroom.

Unlike Georgia, spring has not quite sprung in Cambridge. But Harvard does have something that should be drawing women’s groups to protest like they are at Augusta—a system of private men’s clubs that welcome male undergraduates as members while dismissing any women who desire to join. The argument for the continued presence of the final clubs at Harvard and the hands-off stance that the University has towards them is similar to Augusta’s; as private organizations they have no obligation to open themselves to women. But if the claim of the NCWO against Augusta has merit, there is a similar claim to be made against the final clubs.

As the premier university in the nation, Harvard is looked to as a model for higher education. President Summers clearly takes this responsibility to heart, as his support of the University of Michigan’s admissions policies during their recent review by the Supreme Court demonstrates. He recognizes that when Harvard University takes a position on an issue, whether it is affirmative action or workers’ rights, the rest of the country takes notice. The presence of the final clubs at an institution with such influence sends the message that women are still not fully integrated into the traditions of higher education, and that Harvard condones this inequality as a lingering vestige from when the school was a training ground for men only. So why have the clubs been accepted for so long?

The most frequent answer to this question given by the administration (and many students) is that the final clubs are irrelevant and obsolete. The clubs are dismissed as fancy fraternities and Harvard students are deemed too mature to care about things like keg parties and barbecues. The solution, student leaders believe, is to build a student center on campus that would take care of the social needs of undergraduates. While this would be a positive step forward that should be lobbied for on all fronts, to also allow the final clubs to exist in their current form is shortsighted for several reasons. For one thing, several hundred undergraduates currently belong to these clubs. For every friend, roommate and classmate of a member, the clubs are not irrelevant at all—their Harvard experience is colored by the existence of spaces where women are not on equal ground. Secondly, given the demand for space in Harvard Square, the real estate the clubs occupy should be taken advantage of by opening them to a larger, co-ed population, rather than allowing them to remain as clubhouses for a few lucky guys.

Finally, and most importantly, we cannot ignore the symbolism that accompanies the current existence of final clubs. The NCWO probably doesn’t care much about the 18th hole at Augusta, and many women at Harvard would not want to join a final club if given the chance. But the men who join final clubs are welcomed into a long tradition of camaraderie that includes three U.S. presidents and, for over a hundred years, was closely connected to the life of Harvard College. Membership in the clubs is for life and can continue to provide benefits long after graduation. What kind of message does it send to prospective female students to learn that while officially the genders are equal on campus, come sophomore year many of the guys in their class with will be welcomed into Harvard traditions in which women have no role?

It is long past time that the final clubs went co-ed. The existence of men’s only clubs on campus is an embarrassment to the administration, the alumni and the student body. Current members ought to recognize the injustice in which they participate and demand that their graduate leadership allow women to be invited to join the clubs next fall. The administration ought to make their position on the clubs more clear, without resorting to the excuse that these private organizations cannot be pressured by the strength of the wealthiest university in the country. Princeton and Yale forced the private social organizations on their campuses to admit women—there is no excuse for Harvard not to take the same steps. Co-ed final clubs will not end the campus debate about social space and elite student groups. But it would be a huge step forward—a potent symbol that women are finally allowed in the club.

Catherine E. Tenney ’01 is a former member of the Undergraduate Council.

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