Votes for Women: The Fly Club and Female Social Spaces
Though Harvard single-gender social organizations currently face penalties should they refuse to go co-ed, the Fly Club once flirted with the possibility of going co-ed on its own volition in September 1993.
On Sept. 30 of that year, The Fly’s undergraduate members voted overwhelmingly in favor a proposal to accept women into its ranks. Passing by a 28-0 vote with one abstention, the proposal then made its way to the club’s graduate board to approve the club’s resolution to admit female members in its 1993 fall punch.
The move would have made the Fly Club the first of campus’s nine all-male clubs to open its doors to non-male members. Though initially approved that fall, the club backtracked in 1994 and remained an all-male organization — as it still is today.
The Fly’s short-lived decision to go co-ed took place against a backdrop of resistance to the final clubs’ single-gender policies. These efforts amounted to a petition for a boycott of final clubs social events spearheaded by activist group Women Appealing for Change.
Ten days prior to the Fly’s vote, WAC purchased a half-page ad in The Crimson, which read in capitalized, bold-faced letters: “It is time to think.”
“If you are a woman and you attend Final Clubs, STOP. Every time you attend a club or attend a club function, you are promoting a social establishment that is inherently biased against you,” the ad read.
Then-Fly Club President Scott B. Logan ’94 said in September 1993 that external pressures such as the petition were not responsible for the Fly’s vote to open its doors to women.
"I think the boycott had the reverse effect," Logan said. "The last thing we wanted is to be forced to go co-ed. We wanted to do it for the right reasons, because it would make the club a better place and because it is the morally and philosophically right thing to do."
Fly Club graduate member Evan W. Thomas III ’73 told The Crimson at the time of the undergraduate vote that he expected the graduate board to uphold the vote.
"Even if some graduates would rather that the club did not admit women because it was single sex when we were there, I believe that they will still defer to the undergraduate's wishes," Thomas said at the time.
In October 1993, the graduate board did uphold the vote, but decided that the new policy should go into effect the subsequent fall so that the 1993 inductees could have a say. The graduate board prepared for the switch by forming a committee to review structural changes and alterations that might need to be made for a co-ed group.
The following year, however, the club could not reach a consensus on the matter. Despite spending the past year preparing for the change, the group ultimately chose to keep the policy as it had always been — single gender, all-male.
“This year's punching season will begin in early October and select the 158th class of Fly Club members, and, as it has been since 1836, they will all be male,” the club announced in a 1994 statement.
WAC condemned the Fly Club’s shift with a letter to the editor in the Crimson.
“This decision is an embarrassment to the student body and the alumni of Harvard-Radcliffe and undermines the values which Harvard is supposed to represent,” the group wrote.
The Fly Club’s decisions in 1993 and 1994 took place amidst frequent criticisms of perceived insufficiencies in University-wide female social spaces.
Maura H. Swan ’94 — co-president of the feminist organization Radcliffe Union of Students — wrote in an email that opportunities for social life were “lacking” at Harvard across gender lines.
“Women did not belong to final clubs, and many men were also not members. In addition, a solid number of women chose not to attend final club parties if they were invited,” Swan said. “The lack of opportunities to socialize was especially acute for those students who were underage and could not go to local bars or dance clubs.”
By 1994, several women’s groups had tried to establish a foothold on campus. While some remain to the present, others quickly disassembled. In 1984, Theresa A. Amato ’86 founded the Athena Society as a place for women to meet other women who they might not typically meet.
Yet the Athena Society, which was open to all genders as part of a nondiscrimination policy, eventually disintegrated. In 1991, The Bee, the first all-female Final Club, grew out of its ashes.
Sororities began to gain ground on campus. In 1993, Kappa Alpha Theta became the first female Greek organization to start a branch at Harvard. The following year, Delta Gamma opened a Harvard chapter and the Lynx Club was founded by Nicole Jampol '94.
Margaret Isa Butler ’96 — one of the first members of Delta Gamma — said she wanted women’s clubs to exist at Harvard because she valued “female friendship.”
“The reason women had to go with sororities — or some women did — was really just finances and infrastructure,” she said.
She noted that final clubs like The Fly had alumni boards and real estate to support their undergraduate membership.
“A group of women coming together for the first time could not compete with that, so the national sororities were able to help, right?” Butler said. “It was a source of support as we tried to launch something.”
Yet there were challenges that accompanied being a new social organization, Butler said, calling her sorority a “blip on the radar” for students on campus.
“We were not a huge part of the social scene, we were women trying to figure it out — trying to figure it out with the help of our women friends,” she said.
The demand for all-female organizations only increased in future years. The Seneca opened in 1999 as a social space for discussing women’s issues. The Bee gained 57 members by the turn of the century.
Even the women’s social groups that managed to stay afloat were not necessarily successful in everyone’s eyes.
In 1993, the WAC wrote that all-female groups were “not an alternative consistent with our broader aims of fostering a more healthy, sensitive, and integrated social environment, based on inclusion rather than exclusion.”
Butler said though she wanted more social spaces for women, she never expected all-male final clubs to make the switch to co-ed
“It never occurred to us that the final clubs would go co-ed,” Butler said. “We were in a mindset back then that single gender organizations are legitimate, so we just wanted to have women’s single sex organizations as well.”
Swan said she and other members of RUS were interested in a wider conversation about male final clubs — one that focused more on women’s safety in those spaces rather than their membership policies.
“My recollection is that we thought trying to integrate or abolish clubs would be a less effective strategy than changing the hearts and minds of those students who might potentially join the club,” she wrote.
RUS voiced opposition through the sale of baseball caps that read “FCS” — a thinly-veiled acronym for “Final Clubs Suck,” Swan said. She added that the hats became a symbol on campus for opposition toward the final clubs.
Though Swan said she never approached the administration about the issue, she added that RUS joined in the effort to create social alternatives to final clubs, hosting a dance open to all genders.
In the last 25 years, the social scene for women at Harvard has expanded, though single-gender organizations are subject to the University’s sanctions, which took effect with the Class of 2021.
The sanctions — announced in May 2016 — bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from holding campus leadership positions, varsity team athletic captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.
As of May 2019, 14 clubs are open to all genders, though many of these were single-gender until this academic year. Six all-male final clubs — including the Fly — still only admit men.
Though no formal penalties existed in 1994, WAC’s boycott marked a student-led effort to speak out against — and potentially change — final clubs on Harvard’s campus, according to Alexandra G. Guisinger ’94.
Guisinger said though she made sure to uphold the boycott by turning down invitations to final club parties, she did not experience a lack of social opportunities and was able to “just ignore” the clubs.
“I found that I had plenty of other opportunities where people didn’t feel like they needed to exclude on gender, on social class, or on any other metric,” she said. “I just hung out with those people, and there were enough of them to make the social scene nice.”
—Staff writer Rebecca S. Araten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.