— Flavia Cuervo (@FlaviaCuervo) May 9, 2016
Three days after Harvard University announced steps to combat gender discrimination in student social organizations, female students took to Harvard Yard to voice their discontent with the new policy.
“What do we want?” dozens of protesters chanted. “Safe spaces! When do we want them? Now!”
The protest came after Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust endorsed changes in how the exclusive university will treat societies known as “final clubs,” as well as fraternities, sororities and other groups that accept only men or only women on the Cambridge, Mass., campus.
Starting in fall 2017, the university said, new undergraduates who join “unrecognized single-gender organizations” will not be allowed to hold leadership positions in officially recognized student organizations or on athletic teams. In addition, any student who is a member of an unrecognized social organization will be ineligible to receive recommendations from the dean of Harvard College for Rhodes scholarships and other prestigious academic opportunities.
“A truly inclusive community requires that students have the opportunity to participate in the life of the campus free from exclusion on arbitrary grounds,” Faust, the university’s first female president, wrote in a letter released Friday that endorsed the new policy. “Although the fraternities, sororities and final clubs are not formally recognized by the college, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.”
Monday’s protest, organized under the hashtag #HearHerHarvard, showed that some do not agree with Faust’s opinion.
“The most important message that we do want to share is the value that we put on women’s spaces,” Rebecca Ramos, a member of Harvard’s class of 2017 from Seattle, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “We’re looking to improve the environment on campus for women, and we feel it’s important that we have space for women on campus.”
Harvard’s sanctions on single-gender organizations came after a university report last year linked final clubs with “nonconsensual sexual contact” on campus. But some involved in the #HearHerHarvard protest characterized final clubs as a refuge. As one sign carried by protesters put it: “Assault is not our fault.”
“My first semester at Harvard, I lost my voice and sense of self at such a competitive school,” Whitney Anderson, a member of Harvard’s class of 2016, said at the protest, according to a transcript provided by protesters. “Joining a women’s organization helped me find my place at Harvard. I finally had a home at school. My women’s organization has been more than a social organization. It has been a mental health respite, a place to discuss sexual assaults, Harvard’s failure in expelling rapists, where I became a feminist, and where I re-found my voice. My women’s organization taught me how to be a leader. It taught me when I could take the initiative and when to ask for help. And my women’s organization has given me the voice to protest when Harvard shows their continued disdain and ignorance of women’s voices on campus.”
Changes to Harvard’s policies on single-sex organizations have been discussed for months. But some said women who belong to all-female organizations only recently were invited to participate in a discussion that seemed to focus on all-male final clubs like the secret, exclusive Porcellian, the 225-year old final club of which President Theodore Roosevelt, among other notables, was a member.
“What surprised sororities was that the decision was made without them being a part of the conversation,” Jade Reichling, a member of Harvard’s class of 2009 and the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma who now works in Silicon Valley, told The Post. “It seemed there was so much up on the air as to what Harvard might do with it.”
Despite the protest, Harvard appears to be sticking by its new policy.
“In recent days, we have received messages of support from many members of the broad College community, including current students and alumni and current and former members of single-gender social organizations, including both male and female final clubs,” Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said in a statement after the protest. “We have also, as you know, received messages of concern and opposition. As we noted Friday, change is difficult and is often met initially by opposition. That was certainly true with past steps to remove gender barriers at Harvard, yet few today would reverse those then-controversial decisions. We continue to believe that gender discrimination has no place on Harvard’s campus. At the same time, we support the right of every community member to express their views.”
Nick Anderson contributed to this report.