Harvard votes to sanction exclusive all-male social clubs; Reina does a happy dance

This week in things that delight me, the powers that be at Harvard University, my alma mater and one of the world’s most egregious producers of men wearing salmon shorts who are on their way to Wall Street, just voted to sanction members of unrecognized single-gender organizations.

Whatta-what? Here, “unrecognized single-gender organizations” means those student clubs that are not officially acknowledged by the university and that are, well, single-gender. In the Harvard context, this includes fraternities, sororities, and — most of all, dramatic drum roll please — final clubs. Final clubs are exclusive, historically all-male secret societies that own huge, fancy mansions in the very fancy Harvard Square. Bastions of elite nonsense and snooty parties — and so very very many salmon shorts — final clubs’ invitation-only selection process and legacy of gender, socioeconomic, sexual, and racial exclusion have long made them the bane of many a Harvard feminist, including yours truly. They represent and perpetuate the most egregious inequalities in our already egregious higher education system.

The recent administrative action against final clubs follows the release of a major sexual climate report, in which it was found that women who spent time in final club spaces experienced increased likelihood of sexual assault; almost one in two women involved in final clubs reported unwanted sexual contact. This backed up longstanding claims of feminists, who for years had been campaigning against the clubs as sexually hostile spaces — male-dominated and imposing specific class and social norms. The recent report follows a super-powerful anti-sexual assault movement both nationally and on campus and student movements against racial discrimination that drew attention more generally to climates of exclusion in educational institutions (and probably embarrassed the powers that be).

The sanctions also come after a super-publicized and super-embarrassing series of statements from the oldest and, in my humble opinion, snootiest of the clubs, the Porcellian, which scandalized the progressive internet by suggesting gender integration would increase sexual assault. It was a bit of sexist drivel for which the alumni board president who made the statement resigned.

Final Clubs are just the Harvard manifestation of the good ol’ boys clubs that have characterized the Ivy League for centuries. But Harvard’s clubs have proven especially recalcitrant: In the early eighties, there was a push for these clubs to go co-ed in accordance with Title IX, which rightly said that snooty no-girls-allowed organizations were against the law. Rather than gender-integrate, however, the final clubs disassociated themselves from Harvard, and they’ve been dominating aspects of Harvard’s social scene with impunity — and fancy liquor — ever since. To me and a lot of my peers, they represented hyper-elite networks within an already hyper-elite network, spaces whose concentration of resources among an arcanely-selected coterie of dudes exacerbated inequality on campus and the world.

Which is the major point here: Not whether some Harvard kids, who already get too much free food, should be able to eat lunch wearing khakis at the same club as the Winklevoss twins. But that the sanctions on final clubs open a window into the persistent injustices that plague our higher education system.  Eliminating blatant discrimination in elite universities is necessary because duh, discrimination sucks, but it’s far from enough. Honestly, the Ivy League is and remains the greatest good ol’ boys club of all — being the pinnacle of an incredibly classist, racist, and homo- and transphobic education system in which only those with resources can afford to get ahead. Harvard’s sanctions of the clubs is awesome, but it’s just a teeny tiny grain of sand on the scale against a system of incredible inequality.

So what exactly do the sanctions mean? The first and most sweeping of their kind at the College, these sanctions will bar members in final clubs, fraternities and sororities from leadership positions in student groups and team sports, and from applying to prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright or the Rhodes. While most students on my newsfeed — to be fair, a pretty lefty group — are super down with this in terms of male final clubs, there have been a number of criticisms of the inclusion of fraternities and sororities in the sanctions. There are also several women’s final clubs, founded mostly in the last thirty years (the first of which was started by, fun fact, male final club alums), which do not own property or impact the social scene in the same way. They will also receive sanctions under the new orders. A number of female organization members have criticized the administration’s lack of engagement with their groups in implementing the new sanctions.

I’m sympathetic to those critiques from female groups, but we should be critical of single-gender groups in educational institutions to begin with. We should ask: Are the types of female solidarity engendered by female final clubs and sororities actually inclusive of a broad spectrum of female and feminine identifications? Or are there ways in which, by replicating the structure of exclusive all-male groups, these institutions perpetuate specific kinds of femininity, which are based on exclusionary norms of gender, sexuality, and class? If we are really committed to progressive women’s spaces, then shouldn’t our primary focus be on inclusion, and not screening through competitive membership processes (women’s final clubs, like their male counterparts, are invitation-only)? Is it really gonna kill your groove to open membership to all? If your groove is based on excluding people, isn’t that a groove we should want to kill?

But let’s be honest: This news means absolutely nothing to the vast majority of people in existence who don’t even have the privilege of accessing education, let alone accessing a space like Harvard, and let alone let alone spaces like final clubs in spaces like Harvard. Surface-level progressivism goes only so far in addressing the depths of injustice in this system. And until we have universally-accessible (free) higher education, our universities — especially the elite private ones — will remain secret clubs that only the wealthy can touch.

Forget final clubs: Maybe someone should sanction the whole system.

Cover photo credit: The Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Yup — the film is pretty accurage.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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