Here is how it works. An Uber slides into a parking spot, idles. Its doors pop open; young women pile out. They scurry down brick streets, toward mansions, toward spindly lines of more women threading down the block.
And then they wait.
The bouncer calls out numbers — one group of five, two more, one more, like a weird game of human bingo. The line shuffles and reshuffles as lucky winners step forward to claim their prize — admission — while others abandon the pursuit entirely. “If you’re not on the list, don’t bother standing here,” the bouncer announces in a thick Boston accent before slamming the door.
The line inches forward jerkily. Just as it begins to dwindle, another group piles onto the line, and then another. The night stretches on.
I am waiting outside the Phoenix SK Club, one of Harvard’s all-male final clubs, because I have been told this is one of the places where they congregate, many of them, and I want to see what it is like for them when they come here. The “them” is non-Harvard students, most of whom are women; the “here” is Harvard parties, most of which are ruled by men.
I have been told to look out for the Ubers, the Lyfts, the party buses. I have been told that if I study them really hard — look for fractures in confidence, sideways glances, body language that says I am uncomfortable here — I can distinguish the Harvard students from the visitors.
But everyone standing in this line looks vaguely uncomfortable. Besides the dead giveaways — vehicles parked right out front and questions like, “Is this the Phoenix?” — it is difficult to discern my potential subjects.
Tonight, underneath a freezing downpour, on Halloweekend, we all wear some iteration of the same uniform: High heels, short dresses, low tops, and an accent piece that transforms the ensemble from outfit to costume. We are all shivering, caving our bodies inwards in order to retain some semblance of warmth.
I can hear my mother, watching us. In this weather? Oh, sweetie. I zip up my raincoat.
Besides their superhuman tolerance for the cold — I appear to be the only one who chose to don outerwear — no one seems perturbed by the unspoken rules of line-standing outside Harvard parties. This part is particularly unsettling to me. I am unaccustomed to all of this, and am shocked at how callously the bouncer turns away live human beings. One woman, dripping wet and shaking in yellow spaghetti straps, tries to slip through the doorway and is immediately rebuffed. “Go back outside,” he tells her before slamming the door. She stops protesting mid-sentence, blinks, and — apparently unfazed — strikes up a conversation with the next woman in line.
The atmosphere fluctuates between tepid boredom and something that verges on the festive. Suddenly, people are making friends. Someone squeals and hugs someone else. “So nice to meet you!” Now we are all waiting in silence.
The longer I wait here, the more this line begins to resemble my personal definition of hell. To these patient, buzzed veterans, it’s something more like purgatory. They all blend together in their casual indifference toward the man guarding the door.
We are in a line of people leading toward a Harvard party, populated heavily by students who do not attend Harvard. I am trying to figure out what the non-Harvard students’ deal is.
Eventually, I begin to chat with the women: Who are you, and why are you here? I explain that I am a reporter but I speak quietly, because I don’t want the bouncer to kick me out of line.
As I suspected, many of the women I approach — around half — have come from other schools, mostly Boston University. Most don’t want to talk for long; they’re focused on pushing forward in the line.
Are the parties at all unusual? I ask one woman. “Yeah,” she slurs, clearly intoxicated. How so? She pauses. “All the boys are wearing suits!”
This student, like many women I interviewed, only agreed to be quoted anonymously. The women said they feared speaking to the press would cause male final club members to exclude them from future parties.
I ask another woman in line how the men behave inside the party. Are they respectful? “Sure, they’re respectful.” She pauses. “I don’t know that I’d say they’re fun to be around.” We giggle together. Our camaraderie ends abruptly, though, because now it’s her turn to enter the party. She seems excited enough to go inside, although it’s possible she’s simply pleased to escape the cold.
At parties like this one, I am beginning to decide, there exists some kind of complex mathematical loop. The men own the building, the alcohol, the playlist, the guest list. I think this implies that they own the party. Then I remember the party would not exist without the steady nourishment of the line, of the female bodies standing one after the other outside.
So who owns this party, really?
I don’t get a clear answer from anyone standing outside the PSK about what, exactly, draws visitors to these parties. In general, responses about the parties are mixed. Some seem genuinely thrilled to be here. Most are more jaded.
One woman describes Harvard parties as “very average,” although she decides after a few moments that the nightlife in Boston “in itself is very average.”
So why go through the trouble of coming here?
Later that night, I visit the Sigma Chi Fraternity, because I have been told that this is the other Harvard club that frequently hosts large numbers of women from other schools. This rumor proves true: a Lesley student waiting outside tells me she’s “never met a Harvard girl at a party.”
Partygoers outside the frat also say Boston’s collegiate social scene plays a role in funnelling partiers to Harvard. A lot of smaller schools are deep in the city, says an Emerson student, which means their parties frequently get shut down.
But Harvard is, presumably, not the only school in the Greater Boston area whose parties continue late into the night. There must also be a Harvard-specific appeal.
A few days later, I interview Lucy, a sophomore at BU. Lucy is not her real name — she asked that I give her a pseudonym because she feared social repercussions on her own campus.
Lucy says the “typical college parties” at her own school — “a lot of sweaty freshmen and headbanger music and jumping around in basement, keg stands and all that” — are very different from what she sees inside final clubs. “Harvard is just like cleaner and more... adult. There’s security guards there… the people are nice.” And there’s “a ton of alcohol,” she says.
Women can’t simply decide to attend a Harvard party, though. First, they need to get their names on the list. This task, I learn, requires a special kind of artistry — well-placed friends, deliberate networking that looks unintentional. Many of the women I talked to described how they spun a spiderweb of friends, often arbitrarily meeting the right person who then introduced them to more.
The presence of these women at Harvard parties is also, in part, organized by men. I am told by numerous people — friends at Harvard and women I interview — that the PSK in particular has a reputation for packing its parties with women from other schools. According to Lucy, the BU sophomore, “the Phoenix loves sororities. Every sorority gets invited to their stuff. Basically every weekend a different sorority is invited to whatever they’re having.”
PSK President Nicholas G. S. Maxwell ’19 declined to comment on-the-record.
Many of these connections are forged online. Tinder matches, for example, can lead to party invites, even if the two have yet to meet in person.
Maria, another sophomore at Boston University, says she learns about final club parties via Instagram. Maria is not her real name, either; she requested that I use a pseudonym because she feared being blacklisted.
Maria says Harvard final club boys sometimes contact her and her friends on Instagram. “They just follow our Instagrams. They’re like ‘Bring your friends.’ I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
But courting such invitations requires a degree of image curation. Looks matter. (When do they not?) This is not unique to Harvard parties, of course, but women say it’s exacerbated when restrictions on entrance are so stringent.
I ask Maddie, a sophomore at Wellesley who often attends Harvard parties, whether she feels she must look a certain way to gain entrance. (Maddie requested anonymity for the same reasons as Lucy and Maria.) Maddie says she comes to final club events every weekend and has a solid network of friends here. Appearance is significant at first, she says, “but definitely once you make more connections I think it's easier to get in.” She pauses to think. “But maybe it’s easier to make connections when you yourself are…”
“I mean. I'm like a tall blonde girl, um. They're not gonna…” She trails off. “Yeah.”
For some, the parties boast yet another advantage: the apparent social desirability of the men inside. “Some of my friends go because there’s that whole thing of Harvard guys,” Maria, the BU sophomore, says.
A Wentworth student outside Sig Chi puts it more frankly: “If you’re with a Harvard guy it’s like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
And some say the parties themselves offer attendees a kind of social clout.
Taylor, a Wellesley sophomore who requested a pseudonym because she feared social exclusion from the final clubs and also judgment by other Wellesley students, says of the parties: “It kinda seemed like something that all of the socially ambitious girls were doing.”
She sighs when she admits this, but I don’t blame her. After all, we — Harvard students — followed the shiny allure of elitism to this campus. It seems unfair to fault others for finding the same appeal in a corner of Harvard’s social life.
As I shiver outside these parties, I am reminded of a time earlier this year when my brother visited me at school. He was appalled that the parties I took him to placed any kind of limitations on entrance. We didn’t go to the final clubs with their paid bouncers and strict quotas, but all the places I brought him to still restricted entry in some way. He found this absurd. This is just how it is, I told him, and I found myself surprised at his surprise.
In line at the PSK, I am the visitor, the one unaccustomed to the conventions. When I eventually reach the door, the bouncer catches on to my flimsy ruse immediately. I was planning to use the name of a friend who — unlike me — is on the list, but I don’t have her ID on me. I get flustered and admit this, and suddenly the PSK’s red door is staring me in the face.
I check behind me to see who has noticed, but I realize that no one waiting in line with me cares. They are all in the same boat. They have seen it happen so many times before.
When I set out to write this piece, I hoped to get a sense of what Harvard line-waiting feels like for women not accustomed to the tiered exclusivity that permeates the campus social scene. Did they find it upsetting, being turned into names on lists, bodies in a line? As it turns out, I am the one made uncomfortable, left sputtering, while the others seem unfazed by Harvard’s norms of rejection.
Taylor, the Wellesley sophomore, tells me there’s a high likelihood that, even if she plays her cards right, taps all her sources, meticulously prepares for her weekend, she’ll gets to the front of the line and be turned away anyway.
This seems unfair, she says. “I think that’s not an acceptable system!”
“It’s interesting knowing, feeling and hearing that something is wrong, or off, about this final club dynamic,” Taylor says.
“But like. If they're going to keep throwing parties, I'm gonna keep going.”
“I have one hour.”
That’s what Taylor tells herself when she comes to parties at Harvard. Sixty minutes to meet, charm, befriend someone who will invite her to another party, another weekend. “Or else I’m never coming back.”
The social maneuvering that takes place inside the party is no less complex than that required to get on the list. Within the clubs, though, the networking takes on a different, more immediate tenor, women say.
"There is a certain amount of being judged within the first three seconds of being seen and then having to like, weasel your way into a party and you're like, wow, I immediately feel as though my existence here is just like not important." says Alison T. Carey, a junior at Wellesley.
Maria, the sophomore at BU, says the parties can be overwhelming — and that the tension can fall along gender lines.
“I know I have to establish myself as not thinking they’re above me pretty early on,” she says, referring to the Harvard men in the room. “Maybe that’s in my head, but I personally feel like if I don’t establish myself as being confident and stuff, they kind of act in a superior way. I can definitely feel the energy.”
Maria says her friends treat Harvard men as if the men “are better than” the women. As if “it’s an honor to be at their party.”
She continues: “I’ve had friends say to me, talking about a guy, ‘I wouldn’t get with him, but he goes to Harvard, so it’s okay that he’s not as cute.’” This bothers her, she says, because “it puts them at an unfair advantage with guys — I feel like they let guys treat them worse.”
Maria tells me about a friend of hers who declined to have sex with a Harvard boy after going home with him. “He got mad and told her to leave,” and then blocked her on Snapchat. “I feel like he felt entitled.”
“Another guy told my friend he didn’t think she was intellectual enough to keep talking to her,” Maria says. “I didn’t feel like it was true, I felt like he was just saying it to, like, put her down.”
Still, some women say they think Harvard parties are a good, uncomplicated time.
"In general, everyone I’ve met is very chill. I’ve become friends with people there and I’ve never felt uncomfortable,” says Maddie, the BU sophomore.
Another BU student, senior Rachel M. Trebach, says, “I don’t think I have ever had a negative experience at a Harvard party.”
And, though acknowledging the unequal gender dynamics at play inside Harvard parties, Taylor says she sees a bright side.
She says the social maneuvering required of women who visit Harvard parties has forced her to improve her social skills.
“But at the same time, I worry about this for myself," she says. "That this behavior reinforced over four years is going to do some damage — long-term damage — to my personality, where I don’t feel like the power lies with me.”
After our interview, Taylor texts me to follow up.
She forgot to mention, she writes, that “it’s usually not the guys who are rude, but the girls from Harvard. I feel like this is usually more so at places… that have female members but they’ll make blatant comments to our faces. My friends and I have discussed how we especially don’t feel like they are watching out for us as fellow women.”
Although most of the women who visit from other schools spend time in male-dominated spaces, plenty of mixed-gender groups also host parties with professional bouncers; outside the co-ed final clubs, the lines are co-ed, too.
Lucy, the BU sophomore, says she — like Taylor — has noticed a subtle hostility radiating from Harvard women. “When they like, give you a weird glance. They know you’re from BU. And they know you’re invited here ‘cause you’re a party girl.’”
Lucy says her Harvard friends sometimes talk about how often BU women are invited to parties in Cambridge. “My friends were saying this is 'cause we’re always down, and we’re always down to party… and I think they held back a few things that weren’t as friendly.”
Put more simply: Maddie, the Wellesley sophomore, says there is a perception “that we're really slutty or hoeish, coming all the way out to Harvard to party.”
Isha L. Gupta, a Wellesley sophomore, says she believes the tension between Harvard women and non-Harvard women stems from societal conditioning. “We have been trained to be pitted against each other in that context, especially a social context,” Gupta says.
Whether or not that’s true, the conflict appears to date back decades.
When I talk to Maddie, she recounts a notorious saying. “I know Harvard guys have a saying, I think an old saying — I don't know if they still say it — it's like... BU to bed and like, Wellesley to wed? Or something?”
I’ve heard this, too. Before Harvard College started admitting women several decades ago, men on campus had a favorite saying: take girls from local schools — BU, Smith, Simmons, Lesley — “to bed.” Next came “Wellesley to wed,” and, the saying finished, “Radcliffe to talk to.”
Maddie may not be wrong to reference the adage in the present tense. According to Taylor, the same kind of categorization happens today.
Taylor says her friends feel that Harvard “guys are afraid of women being higher in position from them in some way or equal in position. So I think they're looking for someone who they perceive are weaker than them and less smart as them,” she says. “And I think they think they can find that in Wellesley girls.”
Kathleen A. Chaikin, who graduated from Wellesley in 1967, remembers that, when she was a student, the only way to get off-campus was by going on a date. “You had no cars, [and] it was very hard to get anywhere on public transportation. We didn’t have Lyft; we didn’t have Uber.”
This setup “put a lot of emphasis on meeting guys. And, you know, we all thought everybody was a straight, cis-gendered woman — not that we had those terms — so I’m sure if you were LGBT it was a whole different story, so, that’s just, I just think it was an unfortunate way of living and I’m glad it’s not that way anymore,” she says.
It was a different time, Wellesley alums agree. And certainly, much has changed. Several Wellesley alums during the 1950s and '60s recall attending formal mixers at Harvard hosted by the college. Now, much of that socializing occurs in final clubs and fraternities, which have also undergone some changes over the years.
Most recently, in May 2016, the College announced it would bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations — starting with the Class of 2021 — from holding campus leadership positions, varsity athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious fellowships.
Since the penalties' debut, every one of Harvard’s women-only final clubs and sororities has pledged to accept members of all genders. Men's groups have remained more resistant. Several of the historically all-male final clubs — including the PSK — are still men-only, and some of the male clubs are fighting the sanctions on Capitol Hill.
Despite these changes at Harvard, women that visit from other schools say Cambridge parties remain to some degree structured around the men.
“For me personally I'm not like, 'Yes! I'm going to this one party 'cause there's a lot of men there!'” says Maddie. “Men are garbage.” She laughs. “But sure,” she admits, on Wellesley’s campus, “I think people who aren't seeking that male interaction will stay [at Wellesley].”
Outside Sig Chi, I stand with my friend John, who has loyally tagged along with me the entire evening. Selecting him wasn't a difficult choice — he was the only person who volunteered to accompany on this venture.
The setup outside Sigma Chi is more chaotic than the PSK’s neat line. Women mill about in groups. I approach one pair, Emerson students, who tell me they’re waiting for a Tinder match they’ve never met to invite them inside.
I ask them if they feel nervous coming to this party, having never met the boy. They shrug.
“We don’t plan on hanging out with him,” one says.
I laugh. “Do you think he knows that?”
“We’re just here to party and dance. I don’t know. He knows I have my friend, so.”
Another group of Wentworth students offers a similar perspective. One says that she thinks a lot of students come here “for like, a night with the girls, because there’s not a lot of cute guys here. So we’ll come just because we know there’s music and like, we know there’s a basement and lights.”
While John and I observe the scene outside, a group of men passes by. One makes direct eye contact with me, raises his eyebrows, and says, “This looks like a fun party.” I am reminded that, despite my attempts to observe passively, I am a college-aged girl standing outside a frat party. I am automatically implicated. Much of this stuff isn’t really opt-in.
After a while, I decide to go inside. At this party I easily earn entry: the only requirement, it seems, is to be a girl. The bouncer eyes John suspiciously. John understands and bids me farewell.
In that moment, the world becomes binary: you are one or the other, in or out, listed or not, guest or host.
Once I am inside the party, it takes me only a few minutes of searching to discover the heart of the entire operation: the basement.
The party itself is aggressively ordinary. The dance floor is nowhere near capacity, but it is relatively well-attended. People are bopping gently. I hover in a corner and study the scene on the bottom of the staircase, watching the women who enter the room, peering over as their eyes adjust to the darkness, trying to discern whether they feel comfortable in the subterranean space.
Maybe they did come here to hang out with each other, as some of the women outside told me. Maybe they don’t care about their hosts. But I'm down here, too, dressing the part. I have shed my raincoat, and I can feel eyes on me. I cannot speak for these women; all I can say is that that I don't feel particularly insulated from these men. Not here in the basement.
I watch the dancing for a while. By 2 a.m., I have had enough.
I am happy to know some of these women appear to have carved this space into something they like. But the walk home is melancholy, freezing rain aside.
—Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith.