It’s Saturday, and my friends and I are roaming around Harvard Square after a party. We get nachos and someone suggests we head across the street to the Phoenix S.K., one of Harvard’s all-male final clubs. At the stoop, there’s a guy manning the door. “Hi, can we come in?” He looks at us, and for unclear reasons, asks how many of us are freshmen. “None of us.”
The guy looks at each of us again. “Ok.” He opens the door, and we climb past him and enter. Inside, there are some girls I don’t recognize and guys I assume are members. They’re lounging around and playing slap cup around a big wooden table in the center of the room. One friend and I are tired, so we stand to the side. No one tries to talk to us; we tap through our phones. After about fifteen minutes, we leave.
Nothing about this is particularly traumatizing. There is no leering, no groping, no onslaught of lewd comments. But the exercise of submitting myself for judgment, the small flash of validation when I’m allowed in, and the way I become just a bit more self-conscious stepping inside all stick with me uneasily.
This is a typical social experience for many girls at Harvard. In our social culture, men own the mansions on Mount Auburn St. that house several male-only final clubs, collectively an important source of parties.
In a retrospective on the history of men and women at Harvard, Drew Faust wrote, “Harvard is still in transition to a state in which men are not the norm.” On a Saturday night out, it’s a different decade. I have no place, no stature, not much to offer. But then the sun comes up, the high heels are exchanged for backpacks, and I am expected to reintegrate seamlessly back into 2018. At Harvard, this anachronistic system in which men exercise control over the most prominent and desirable social assets is normal. And it enforces a toxic power dynamic that is wildly antithetical to the College’s mission of developing promising young people into citizens and leaders.
In the current status quo, all-male final clubs ordain a select group of boys as arbiters of popularity on campus, imparting them with legitimacy and social capital. The guy at the door is not looking at you as a classmate or peer. Instead, you are an object, and he is deciding whether he wants you in his clubhouse for his friends’ enjoyment. Girls in this context may be sought after — but we are seldom respected or admired. The clubs preserve a world where permission and validation come directly from male approval, where a nod from one of the guys is a valuable ticket into the fold. Friends and equals become gatekeepers and providers. Power, membership, and status are male attributes.
I’m always asked, “Katherine, if girls think final clubs are so bad, why don’t you just stop going to their parties?” Last spring, I was at dinner with friends when talk turned to the Spee’s Eurotrash party that night, to which the majority of the girls at the table had received invites. (Naturally, I hadn’t gotten the email, and sat there awkwardly pushing food around my plate as people planned costumes.) Did I have a burning urge to go to Eurotrash? No ... Did I want to sit in my room alone while everyone else went to Eurotrash? Of course not!
I’m not up in arms over the finer details of specific invitation or membership lists. But the broader ramifications of this incredibly male-dominated social culture are quietly devastating, and twofold.
One. When attractive, wealthy, high-status males are consistently surrounded — in their own cushy clubhouse — by eager girls to whom they have generously granted the privilege of entrance, what ideas about the place of females does it create among people who are likely going to become successful and influential? This setup is quite invaluable in educating privileged men on how to exercise power over women who are seeking their validation.
And two. What does it do to the minds of competitive, ambitious young women when we are constantly compelled, at our own school, to act as the guests and pretty objects of our ostensible equals — boys who, during the day, we are urged to compete against and collaborate with in our classes and extracurriculars? How is it fair that, at one moment, I’m supposed to argue on behalf my ideas and strive for leadership positions and reach toward opportunities, but come nighttime, I suddenly become a second-class citizen, my fate at the door contingent on the opinions and desires of my supposed peers?
The College is an intellectual community that I love, and our social culture informs expectations for men, women, and how they should interact. Partying at 1 a.m. at the Fly may seem outside Harvard’s educational purview — but it is certainly giving lessons in something. I’m told we are educating future citizen-leaders here. It’s time to ask: What are we teaching them?
Katherine H. Ho ’20 is a Chemistry concentrator in Adams House.