Steven Senne/AP Photo/File
People walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The school is facing backlash after cracking down on single-gender clubs.

Students protest new single-gender club rules at Harvard

The #HearHerHarvard argues that single-gender organizations, some of which are threatened by new rules, serve an important purpose for women on campus. 

Harvard is facing mounting student pushback over new rules targeting unofficial single-gender social clubs, as women's groups say they were left out of discussions about how to combat "forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values."

Female students rallying behind the protest movement #HearHerHarvard massed on campus early Monday morning. The group is pushing for a reversal of a recent set of rules that would limit on-campus opportunities for members of unrecognized single-gender social clubs, including fraternities, sororities, and the Harvard's unique and historically prestigious "final clubs."

The new rules, which were announced Friday, aim to coerce the unrecognized social institutions to "discard their gender-based membership practices."

Such clubs sometimes "[enact] forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values," Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in an open letter, saying that their self-segregation does "not serve our students well when they step outside our gates into a society where gender-based discrimination is understood as unwise, unenlightened, and untenable."

But the student opposition may point to a shifting view of the purpose behind some of the century-old final clubs, so named because of their mutually exclusive membership policies, according to the Harvard Crimson.  The organizations own buildings around campus and have operated, in some cases, for hundreds of years: The Porcellian Club, the oldest for men, dates back to 1791. The Bee Club, the oldest for women, began in 1991. 

The clubs boast an elite alumni list. John F. Kennedy was a member of the Spee Club, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt belonged to the Fly Club, and Theodore Roosevelt associated with the Porcellian Club.

But the exclusivity of the social organizations has drawn ire for much of their history.

"These men – a scant 14 per cent or so of each upperclass – look to the Clubs as centers for privacy and 'good-fellowship,' cut off from the hectic University by their locked front doors, their aura of secrecy, and a generally shared feeling of superiority,” The Harvard Crimson’s Kenneth Auchincloss wrote in 1958.

Harvard originally addressed the exclusivity of the groups in the mid '80s by "kicking them off" the campus, no longer officially recognizing the groups, a spokeswoman for Harvard College said in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

"Within the period of 1984 to today, additional male final clubs, female final clubs, and fraternities and sororities started to increase in size," the spokeswoman told the Monitor. "They have taken on a rather impactful and unhelpful or unfortunate role in the undergraduate social life of our students here at Harvard, and that aspect of it was the impetus of the decision" to limit their role on official campus activities now.

If the rules remain in place, members of unrecognized social organizations that maintain a gender requirement for membership will be ineligible to apply for fellowship recommendations from the dean or to serve in any leadership capacity for intercollegiate sports teams or organizations "funded, sponsored, or recognized by Harvard College," according to Faust’s letter.

But opponents disagree that the unrecognized final clubs, fraternities, and sororities have an undesirable affect on student life. The #HearHerHarvard movement specifically argues that female-only final clubs and sororities now offer women an important safe place on campus to come together.

"My first semester at Harvard, I lost my voice and sense of self at such a competitive school," Class of 2016 member Whitney Anderson said at the protest, as reported by The Washington Post. "Joining a women's organization helped me find my place at Harvard. I finally had a home at school."

Former club members and other alumni have also pushed back, from financially established final clubs considering litigation to alumni questioning the rationale behind limiting the clubs.

President Faust's letter nods to the clubs' "long reach into the past, but we must measure it against the contemporary needs of a dynamic, modern academic community," she writes.

While the debate about single-sex club members' other on-campus activities is new, the themes are not. 

"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," a Harvard spokeswoman said in a statement released to the Monitor. "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." 

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