The Harvard administration’s recent decision to unrecognized single-gender social organizations—including sororities and women’s final clubs—is not the result of Harvard somehow not listening to women.
It is the result of the Harvard administration after decades—after centuries—finally hearing feminist critique.
For generations, Harvard feminists and activists have advocated for the sanctioning or disbanding of final clubs. Now that we have it, new debates on gender and inclusiveness have come to the fore.
This debate recently took to the streets—or the Yard, where around 200 students, mostly women, protested the recent decision under the banner #hearherharvard. These women that sororities and female final clubs are spaces of female empowerment, and that pressuring them to go co-ed along with their male counterparts will exacerbate the problems of sexism the administration is trying to combat.
To many of us who have long been part of the struggle against clubs, these arguments are wrong-headed, to say the least, and at worst blatantly reactionary. Let’s walk through a couple of them to come to a deeper understanding of gender and of what it means to create inclusive spaces. I’m confident that when we do, we’ll find that this decision can only improve women’s and marginalized people’s experiences on campus.
First: Nobody is against female spaces.
The argument that the Harvard administration is somehow targeting women’s spaces is disingenuous. Far from the denial of female voices, these changes are the result of decades of protest and troublemaking from women, from to to —which the admin has finally listened to. This decision is meant to seriously overhaul a system that is not only deeply hostile to women and queer people, but incredibly classist and exclusionary.
Sororities and female final clubs are far from the only spaces on campus oriented toward female solidarity and community, and they are the least accessible. Spaces like the International Women’s Rights Collective, the Association of Black Harvard Women, Radcliffe Union of Students, the Athena Program, the Women’s Center, and Latinas Unidas are fully recognized by the College, do not demand dues, do not require an arduous punch or rush process, do not depend on heteronormative correspondences with male clubs, and are open to all.
Second: Female spaces are not inherently progressive.
We are not, as I said, against female spaces; we are against female spaces that exclude. We are against female spaces that exclude trans people, gender-non-binary people, and cisgender men whose identification with femininity may encourage them to seek out a progressive female space. We are against female spaces that perpetuate elite class norms, that have an inherently heterosexist structure, and that rely on exclusionary membership policies—all of which Harvard’s female and male clubs and Greek organizations display.
Both final clubs and Greek organizations depend in structure on competitive admissions processes which evaluate students on arbitrary social criteria. In the Harvard context, these often rely on elite social norms favoring those with access to gender, sexual, racial, and class capital. Even with financial aid, the requirements that students pay dues, have clothes for events, and comport themselves according to club specifications often spell class discrimination.
These groups further depend on a binary and presumedly heterosexual gender structure—including events like date nights and mixers with male clubs—which severely limit space for gender-non-binary and trans students and put queer students in a bind.
Just because we are women does not mean we can’t be classist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and exclusionary.
Third: Just because a space includes marginalized people does not mean that it is progressive.
Arguments against Greek organizations and final clubs often erase those marginalized members who have found friends and homes within the system. As women who experience multiple forms of marginalization—queer women, trans women, women of color, women from low-income backgrounds, women with disabilities—we make complex negotiations within complex systems to seek spaces of support.
However, we should understand Harvard’s Greek and final club systems as marginalizing at a structural, rather than always at an individual, level.
We’re dealing, here, with two inherently different visions of what it means for a space to be socially just. In one definition, offered by a number of club members, the inclusion of members from marginalized backgrounds proves that a system is progressive.
In the definition offered by critics of the system, however, we can understand the very structures of Harvard’s fraternities/sororities and final clubs—the reliance on often elite networks; social norms which draw on heterosexist and classed histories; binary men’s/women’s spaces— as inherently exclusionary.
We have a chance now to address the structural injustice of these systems. We ought to take it.
Fourth: If your group is actually progressive, it will come out of this all the better.
If you truly believe that your sorority or female final club stands for the empowerment of gender-marginalized people, this decision is only good news.
What, actually, is the threat of a gender-neutral membership policy to a progressive women’s organization? Recognized feminist and women’s cultural organizations on campus are open to students regardless of identity. These spaces have not somehow been flooded with anti-feminist cisgender men intent on ruining our female solidarity. This probably won’t happen to your club or sorority if you adopt a gender-neutral policy, because anti-feminist cis men hate progressive women’s spaces more than anything. Just look at the tantrums of the male final clubs.
If you insist that your club identity inherently depends on an exclusionary membership policy, then your club is nonsense and is rightly targeted by the new sanctions.
But if you’re willing to accept this as an opportunity to become a more just organization, we can look forward to a number of exciting changes. Your club will come to a deeper understanding of gender, sexuality, and inclusion; will be more open to students across the broad spectrum of gender; and will revolve less around events like date nights and mixers with male clubs and fraternities.
The transition won’t be easy, and it won’t be comfortable. Sororities may have to disaffiliate from national-level groups, and final clubs will be forced to overhaul the exclusionary reality of the punch process. The College, on its end, will need to drastically increase support and funding for those student organizations that provide direly needed space for marginalized people, such as cultural groups, women’s groups, and queer groups.
The rest of us won’t be off the hook. We must all confront the contradiction inherent in discussing inclusiveness at one of the world’s most powerful and elitist institutions. We must consider how we can take the power we have as Harvard students and alums to enact change not only on campus but in the world.
It is not going to be easy. Progress never is. It is worth it.
Reina A.E. Gattuso ’15 is a former Crimson columnist and a current Fulbright fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India.
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