The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harvard wants secretive male clubs to go co-ed. All-female groups are being punished in their wake.

In this Sunday, March 13, 2016 photo, a bicyclist rides past Lehman Hall at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“Once a Porcellian always a Porcellian,” read a 1940 Time magazine article about the oldest of Harvard University’s secretive, all-male “final clubs.” “Porkies keep up their Porkie friendships all their lives, go back religiously to the annual Porkie banquet at which new members are initiated. … From the Pore’s clubrooms, non-Porcellians are religiously excluded.”

For the 225 years that the Porcellian Club has existed, this exclusion has applied to all women — a fact that has increasingly been condemned by the Harvard administration. After a university task force found that the Porcellian Club and its ilk (there are eight all-male final clubs, according to the Harvard Crimson) held “deeply misogynistic attitudes” that contribute to an unsafe sexual environment, pressure mounted for the clubs to either admit women or risk sanctions.

Last Friday, university officials took their strongest action yet, announcing that new college students who join “unrecognized single-gender organizations” will not be eligible for leadership positions in recognized student groups, including sports teams, nor will they be recommended by the Harvard College dean for prestigious academic awards such as the Rhodes Scholarship.

Harvard intensifies battle against single-gender clubs

Final clubs severed their official ties with the university in 1984, when they were given a choice between becoming co-educational or losing the administration’s recognition.

The latter classification prevents them from publicizing their events on campus property, using campus spaces for their activities and receiving funds from the school.

Letters from Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana endorsing the new policy emphasized gender equality.

“For us to make progress … we must address deeply rooted gender attitudes, and the related issues of sexual misconduct,” Faust said. The college cannot “endorse selection criteria that reject much of the student body merely because of gender.”

While the recommendations appear to condemn the exclusivity for which all-male final clubs are known, the new guidelines also apply to fraternities, sororities and the more recently formed five all-female final clubs — none of which are recognized by the university.

Secretive Harvard club breaks silence to say that admitting women could increase sexual misconduct

The unexpected consequence of the penalties, then, is to prevent women from associating under their gender as well, prompting all-female groups to ask the administration to consider them in a different vein from their all-male counterparts.

“Basking in the praise of the national press for its efforts to make all-male final clubs go co-ed, Harvard has left out an important piece of the story: female final clubs,” three female students wrote in an op-ed for the Harvard Crimson.

They argued that while women would remain disenfranchised within the hierarchies of historically male clubs, the act of making historically female clubs go co-ed would effectively cause them to “die out,” as they lack the resources to compete.

The students further accused Harvard of pushing for “hasty, symbolic victories” as a “form of damage control” after negative media attention on final clubs.

“The support systems, safe spaces, and alumnae networks the women’s clubs have been striving to build will disappear,” they wrote. “That strikes us as a tremendous waste, and an ironic one, given Harvard’s stated goals.”

Ariel Stoddard, one of the column’s authors, told The Washington Post in an interview last week: “It’s hard to figure out how this will help women or improve the social experience.”

The benefits of all-female institutions have been widely debated, particularly with regard to single-gender education.

Advocates contend that all-female schools foster female empowerment, giving young women the confidence to grow into their own without more outspoken men monopolizing teachers’ attention. Detractors, on the other hand, consider such institutions sexist and complicit in gender stereotyping.

In a 2013 piece for the Guardian, the prominent feminist writer Naomi Wolf addressed the question of whether “women-only spaces” — or any single-gender spaces, for that matter — are still relevant.

Citing the success of colleges such as Smith and Wellesley, the Boy Scouts, and women’s leadership programs, Wolf concluded that they should still exist, but in limited number.

“My best sense is that all public institutions, events and gatherings should be open to all without discrimination,” she wrote. “But is there still a place for the occasional same-sex discussion group, training program and private gathering? I believe there is.”

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