Legend has it that more than a century ago, back when Texas A&M University was an all-male military college, the Aggies were badly losing a football game and a group of female visitors threatened to leave out of boredom. A few freshmen rallied in front of the stands and led the crowd in a series of cheers.
Hence, the birth of the Aggie Yell Leaders, which is now a squad of three seniors and two juniors who are elected by their peers to lead cheers at major sporting events. It’s considered an elite leadership position on campus — one most famously held by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in the early 1970s.
To date, only men have been yell leaders.
Every now and then, a woman will sign up to run, only to lose to a man. This year, there are two women on the ballot — one of whom has orchestrated an aggressive social media campaign that received national attention this month (including an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal). On Monday, the university will announce the results of two days of online voting.
“As a kid watching football games I would think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to be a yell leader?” said Samantha “Sam” Ketcham, 20, a junior biology major and third-generation Aggie from Smithfield, Va. “There will probably be a female yell leader one day — why not me? If women don’t run, we can never be elected.”
Ketcham’s campaign has raised questions about the upkeep of the school’s numerous, deeply valued traditions. She maintains that she can do everything that a male yeller would do: Run up and down the field, practice with the football team, push school spirit toward its upper-most-bounds and join in major celebrations when yell leaders are thrown into a fountain wearing all white without having a wardrobe malfunction.
“I’m not calling for affirmative action,”Ketcham said. If elected, she says she would simply be “a yell leader with a pony tail.”
Others worry that electing a female yell leader would take the university one step closer to doing something it has never done: Allow women to yell, cheer or dance on the football field. Those concerns were voiced last week by a columnist for the student newspaper.
“Our University has changed some of its oldest traditions to include women, but I think the tradition of an all-male yell leader squad should remain untouched,” Tim Bardin, a senior finance major, wrote in the Battalion. “If we allow the dance team on Kyle Field, or a woman to hold the position of yell leader just to get with the times and modernize, how are we different than any other school in the nation? If we allow one, what is to stop the other from happening?”
On most campuses nowadays, women far out-number men. But men still maintain the majority at Texas A&M and other schools with a large Corps of Cadets, including Virginia Tech. And on campuses of all sorts, men often still dominate the top leadership positions.
The American Student Government Association estimated last spring that 40 percent of student presidents nationwide are female, including those at community colleges. The share is believed to be lower at four-year colleges, though precise figures were unavailable.
Why aren’t more women running for office and being elected? When I reported on this topic last year, several college women in the Washington region told me they would rather intern on the Hill than waste their time with the student government. And on at least one campus, the student government was referred to as a “boys’ club” where men encouraged other men to run for office year after year — a loose tradition of sorts, if you will.
At Texas A&M this week, the election of five yell leaders is happening on the same ballot as the election of student body president. According to photos of the six candidates, they are all men.