Harvard University boldly went against its own history last week by putting sanctions for the first time on single-sex social clubs—most noticeably the famous, secretive, male-only final clubs that’ve been around for centuries.
Beginning in 2017, anyone who joins a single-gender social organization will be barred from getting any campus leadership positions, athletic captaincies, or university endorsement for prominent fellowships like the Rhodes scholarship. Without banning final clubs outright, the new policy is a clever way of indirectly curtailing their power and allure.
But the well-intentioned changes don’t just affect Harvard’s eight male-only final clubs, which the university itself accuses of perpetrating a culture of exclusion and sexual assault. They also apply to its six female-only final clubs and four sororities.
More than 200 female students protested together on campus yesterday (May 11), unfurling a banner that read “Hear Her Harvard” and calling for the university to not deprive them of the few communities that bring them together in what they see as a male-dominated world.
“What do we want? Female spaces! When do we want them? Now!” protesters chanted, while also propping up signs that read “Women’s groups keep women safe” and “Collective punishment is not a Harvard value.” Sorority and female-only final club members say the administration is doing a disservice to women by including them in the new policy, when it’s male-only final clubs (and sometimes fraternities) that have caused all the trouble.
Is what is happening to female-only clubs unfair or the very definition of fairness? How much special treatment do women and other marginalized groups merit? These are tricky questions for the school to grapple with; and similar questions are swirling at many institutions and companies in the world at large.
For now, Harvard officials are standing their ground. A spokeswoman said Monday that broad policies are the best way to combat gender discrimination, adding: “Change is difficult, and is often met initially by opposition.”