Gallagher: The mister in Mr. Yale

I do not know Jen Ivers ’10, still less do I bear her any ill-will, and I am comfortably committed to the principle that the sexual lives of others are none of my business. There’s nothing remarkable about a woman who flouts traditional notions of gender on a campus where masculine women and effeminate men are too common for comment. This is Yale, after all; the gender-transgressive we will always have with us.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but find it disturbing that Ivers will probably be the next Mr. Yale. She’s unlikely to lose, in a world where transgression of gender norms is very much in style, and where people have a pleasantly democratic confidence in their ability to send a message with their vote.

But why should we worry? It’s not as though there are any serious masculine values of the Mr. Yale competition that would be endangered by a female champion. In recent years, the contest hasn’t exactly been a carnival of machismo, and it’s been none the worse for that. In fact, Iver’s half-jocular suggestion that the competition be renamed “Captain Yale” deserves to be taken seriously. Talent and charm are found in men and women alike — and Yale is lucky to have plenty of talented and charming people of both sexes. A gender-neutral competition deserves a gender-neutral name.

And were the contest to change its name, I imagine everyone would drop their objections to a female contest winner. They’d be right to. But unless there were such a rectification of names, they’d be equally right to be offended by the notion of a female Mr. Yale. It’s a mere question of semantics — and that’s the farthest thing from a trivial matter.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quip that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” comes far too quickly to the lips of undergraduates who want to sound clever — but it’s completely correct. The words we have determine what arguments we can make and what counter-arguments we can imagine. And so a question about our terms for the sexes is inevitably a question about human nature.

The argument is sometimes raised, usually by the more aesthetic sort of right-winger, that our traditional ways of speaking about the sexes are worth preserving if only for the cultural and literary traditions to which they give access. It’s not a bad argument, as far as it goes. Some of the greatest characters of our tradition — Odysseus and Penelope, Abelard and Heloise, and even Romeo and Juliet — come from a world secure in its belief that men and women were and should be essentially different, a world in which the problems we associate with gender norms could not arise in a way we would recognize. Their language was different from ours, and so, therefore, was their world, and we lose some of our ability to understand them if we do not share that world.

If we represent a new, epicene humanity for whom the distinctions of sex are merely accidental, we can never understand those essentially gendered figures of our past without the interposition of a kind of critical anthropological distance. They become almost a different species, a subject to be studied — at any rate, they’re not us.

But that sacrifice, that loss of commonality with those bygone figures, may well be necessary. Few people, anyway, are willing to defend gender norms just for the sake of the culture they make possible. And, looking around at the world, those gender norms can be hard to find. One doesn’t have to be a disciple of Alfred Kinsey to notice that masculinity and femininity are matters of degree, and that the binary language of male and female hardly does justice to the plurality of personalities we encounter.

And so, if we live in a world in which gender identities are fluid, in which manly women and womanly men are par for the course, shouldn’t our language reflect that? Why not have a female Mr. Yale, and adjust the limits of our language to better fit the limits of our world?

Plenty of people would argue for exactly that, and theirs is a consistent and well-precedented position. We believe in the dignity of the individual — why force people to understand themselves in terms of norms they never agreed to? As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” People have the right to determine their own selves, and the presence or absence of a Y-chromosome is not enough to oblige someone to conform to any set of gender stereotypes.

That’s a fine position, and within the limits of our language, I can think of no good argument against it. But there is another position, also consistent and also well-precedented, that holds much more appeal for me, and for many Yalies who cringe a bit at the idea of a woman as Mr. Yale. This position argues that the human species is naturally divided by sex, that everyone who has come into the world has come into a world in which the concepts of “male” and “female” already had their separate meanings. It is “in the beginning” that “male and female created he them.” And whatever the ethical implications of this division of sex may be, however inchoate and porous may be the categories of gender, the sexes are not interchangeable. From the first moment of our lives, from the announcement of “It’s a boy,” or “It’s a girl,” this distinction already frames the world we live in. And we should not be surprised if the limits of our world are also the limits of our language.

That’s my position, and so I maintain that the Yale College Council was right in its original decision to prohibit Ivers or any other woman from competing for the title of Mr. Yale, and that their subsequent decision was a conceptual and linguistic sin. One of the limits of my world is the almost inarticulable assumption that a man is a man, and a woman and a woman, and that the two are not be confused. To someone with a differently-limited world, and therefore a different language, I would have very little to say. But there’s a clichéd Wittgenstein quote for that, too: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.


  • Thomas

    I regret that you had to hide behind linguistic relativism. I was prepared to congratulate your courage, but instead you decided to defend (?) a position about as compelling as last night’s peanut mac and cheese.

  • Cucumber

    Thanks for mentioning Romeo and Juliet. All female roles in the Elizabethan theatre were performed by MALEs, certainly a precedent for Jen’s performance.

    I agree with your longing for a fast evaporating dichotomy/polarity-driven Aritotelian-world-view.

    However (not to burst your bubble) recall too that we are born into a world in which ONE in every TWO THOUSAND births is a baby with BOTH sex organs, a fact which has been hushed up until recent liberation objections from those for whom a fleshly gender decision was made by the surgeon (often incorrectly psychologically speaking) at birth.

    Maculine females? And feminine males? What does that mean? Are you talking about Payne-Whitney gymansium definitions here: Loud, muscular, rough movements = MALE; Softspoken, lithe, graceful movements = FEMALE?

    Aren’t these cultural distinctions (or prejudices)?

    Your article seems to mock Yale for having too many folk (you think) who blur these boundaries. Yale brought this on itself with last year’s alumni magazine cover “Yale: the Gay Ivy?”

    I wish you luck. Your generation is in a real pickle as far as gender definitions go. Or a real cucumber.


    see: “transgender dorms …” post

  • holier than thou

    #1 was way too harsh, but I do wish you had presented the so-called “right-winger” side of things a little more forcefully. I had assumed you were one of those “right-wingers”, but maybe I mistook your alliances. After all, you seem generally to write pretty moderate-left leaning columns with just a tinge of aesthetic reminiscence for 1950s conservatism. So I’m going to guess that at some point you read something by Mortimer Adler, got hooked on Aquinas and Great Books-ism, and now feel like you can’t take your pretentious-leftist values quite as seriously as you’d like to. So you toss off neat biblical references seasoned with Wittgenstein, nodding wryly to the real conservatives while you remain firmly on the other side of the line.

  • yalie

    “Gender” and “sex” refer to different things, and yet you conflate them. In a column that leans so heavily on the philosophy of language, I might expect you to do your homework to ensure that you are using words correctly.

    You also seem to mistakenly believe that all notable historical figures fit into so-called “traditional” gender norms. There are a couple of problems with this.

    First, you assume that these gender norms are “traditional”. Have you made any study of gender norms throughout history? Our current norms are a manufactured aspect of living in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries. People in different cultures, and people in the US in earlier eras, have had different concepts of what were the appropriate gender norms.

    These norms are also not “natural”. Gender norms change with the way a society chooses to understand them. Gender roles in the United States, for example, have been continuously revised throughout the last century.

    Given that gender norms change with time and cultural context, it would have behooved you to precisely define exactly which gender norms you are defending. Do you condone 1950’s gender norms, in which many middle- and upper-class women felt restricted to being a housewife, and women who far more dependent on men financially than they are now? How about the gender norms in place at many high schools during the 1960s, where female students were not allowed to wear pants to school? You really haven’t specified. I know you can’t possibly be suggesting that we return to the norms of Ancient Greece or 16th century Italy. Yet, you argue that the sexes ought to behave differently (and presumably appear differently) in a sort of celebration/confirmation of their separate-ness. How, exactly, do you expect me to confirm outwardly my “femininity”?

    You dangerously revise history to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit American 20th and 21st century gender norms. This is beyond ludicrous and beyond intellectually lazy.

    To continue along the lines of your use of the term “gender norm”, I’d like to point out that you use the words “masculine” and “effeminate” without ever defining them. What, exactly, do you mean when you say that there are masculine women at Yale? And who are you, to judge whether a woman is masculine or feminine? From your column, it appears that you don’t have many friends who “transgress gender norms”, so I wonder how you can judge whether a woman is “masculine” without ever speaking with her.

    Kinsey’s greatest contribution was (arguably) his description of a spectrum of human sexuality, not a spectrum of masculinity/femininity. Variation in sexuality is separate from variation in gender expression.

    I would love to hear how you incorporate the presence of intersex people into your argument. You completely ignore them, as well.

  • l.w. fan

    Dude, do NOT quote Wittgenstein is you don’t understand what he’s about. “Ultimately we’re all either male or female” means nothing more or less than “Our language describes every individual as either ‘male’ or ‘female” even when the distinction is hazy or irrelevant.”

    Your quote from the end of TLP means “there is no such thing as an ineffable truth,” not “linguistic gaps are impossible to bridge”.

    Wittgenstein may be the most profound thinker of the last century, but he gets dismissed as “linguistic relativism” because his quotes get thrown around without any thought to their meaning.

  • Well done

    Kevin, I am consistently impressed by your brilliance as a thinker and a writer.

    You will get hell for this from people who don’t understand Wittgenstein/can’t follow your basic thought process, and will simply react to the fact that the title seems to indicate your opposition to our next Mr. Yale.

    Of course, this isn’t really so much a polemical piece against the decision as it is a broader intellectual refelction..and it succeeds tremendously as that.

  • Willoughby Chase

    Mr. Gallagher seems to be trying to carve out an intellectual space for himself and other conservatives in the relativist world we now live in. As is not surprising, it is clear that while many liberals claim to be relativist, they actually have fixed ideas of what is right and wrong and are quick to challenge Mr. Gallagher’s horizons.

    I, too, challenge the concept of horizons. Did you not want a revolution, Mr. Gallagher? You can’t be a revolutionary if you try to hide behind your horizon. Come out and challenge liberalism whole-heartedly and without apology!

  • @#4

    it is evident you did not read the piece.

  • bathroom test

    Why not use the bathroom test? If you are legally obligated to use the men’s room, you are a man for the purposes of Mr. Yale. If you are legally obligated to use the women’s room, you are a woman for the purposes of Mr. Yale and not eligible. The words “man” and “woman” are not ridiculous words – they still do have meaning, even in the context of people who are born with both sex organs. These people could be classified as “both” but certainly lesbians are not men and gay men are not women. Categories can have blurry boundaries, but in this case, the person in question is not a man. She is a woman who likes women. Plain and simple. I’m all for changing the name to “Captain Yale,” though, since it would be more entertaining and make more sense than the “Mr. Yale” idea. I object to all the people who claim that a distinction between “men” and “women” is pointless, though – it’s not. It’s based on biology and applies to the vast majority of the population. If the categories don’t work well for certain individuals, then so be it – we do not categorize them. If the person in question were someone born with two X chromosomes who got a sex change operation, then that individual would be eligible (bathroom test!). If the individual were born with a Y chromosome but had a sex change operation, that individual would be ineligible. Don’t you see? The bathroom test works well and gets around all this ridiculous quibbling about the definition of words – linguistic debates are important and interesting, but this contest is not about linguistics nor should it be. Either redefine the intentions of the contest or stick to the original intentions. What has been done thus far is to do neither, which is simply a cop-out.

  • Recent Alum

    Once upon a time, there were only two recognized genders, every one kept the same gender throughout his/her life, everyone knew to which gender they, their relatives and their acquaintances belonged, and it was taken for granted that all would be interested romantically/sexually in those of the opposite gender.

    How times have changed!

  • @ #8

    I absolutely read the piece. I just happen to have a background in both philosophy of language AND gender studies. Mr. Gallagher makes all of the claims that I attribute to him– he describes the male/female gender dichotomy as “natural” as well as implying that there are fixed “it’s a boy! it’s a girl!”-related concepts which we all ought to uphold. He consistently conflates gender and sex, as well as gender expression and sexuality. Finally, he certainly fails to specify the semantics of the gendered terms he uses. Rather, he hand-waves toward a vague dichotomy between “masculinity” and “femininity” without ever defining what he means by those terms. If he’s going to make an argument about why people, in particular Yalies, should consider living within the bounds of the meanings of those words, he needs to include some analysis of what he takes those words to mean and needs to address the fact that semantic categories are changeable.


    The real problem is the Yale Women’s Center. They’re the ones who opposed and eventually prevented creation of a Miss Yale competition that would have complemented Mr. Yale perfectly.

    I find it hilarious that the women of Yale perfectly willing to pigeonhole the writers of the Preseason Scouting Report and the brothers of Zeta Psi as “men”, but unable to accept that they are in fact women.

  • @#12

    I take great offense to your suggestion that it must have been “men” who wrote the Preseason Scouting Report. We at the Women’s Center actually believe that it very well may have been Lesbian Womyn.

  • to Recent Alum

    This period never actually existed.

  • ’11

    Agreed with ROFLCOPTER. Definitely a hypocritical double-standard.

    Down with relativism!

  • Take Down the Baby Lucy Posters

    mr. gallagher,
    your argument does not make sense. in fact, it does not exist.
    i unfortunately get the feeling that this piece was a conservative knee jerk rather than anything reasoned.
    i think you know that your argument loses on the grounds of real logic. please stop taking issue with people’s personal choices, especially when they do not affect you and you have no viable argument against them.
    you cannot make any informed argument about this –
    please stop.

    from, a concerned citizen

  • CC ’11

    Right on #4! You are awesome! Many of these other comments are pretty disappointing though …

  • theluckiest

    Why do you have to be a man to compete in Mr. Yale? It’s a competition about school spirit and silliness, two attributes that are shared by both men and women at Yale. It isn’t a male fashion show — frankly, I don’t see why this is a big deal. This isn’t a political fight, and both sides need to stop trying to turn it into something it isn’t.

  • skeptic

    Why all the obsession with “legal” this and “legal” that.. as to “legally a man” or “can legally use the toilet labeled “men”? The laws are almost by definition way behind the times, and when it comes to almost any matter having to do with science or medicine, the law is the last place to look for good sense and wisdom. Let’s leave the lawyers out of this..

  • Judith Butler

    Posted by Cucumber: “However (not to burst your bubble) recall too that we are born into a world in which ONE in every TWO THOUSAND births is a baby with BOTH sex organs”

    Holy smokes! One in every two thousand, you say? Golly, that really does like totally destabilize the whole concept of gender!!!11

    One in TWO THOUSAND!!! How can I ever look at my penis again and know with ANY certainty that I’m a boy??? Haha, catch y’all later, I’ve gotta go perform me some “male,” you know, because my gender identity is totally like a continually sustained mental exertion!! Not a fact!! Out! I am sooooo unintuitive and surprising! And hip.

    Hard to believe that academic careers have been made on this nonsense. It’s the pits of literary-theory-pornography: melodramatic, grievance-fueled, and untethered to anything like reality.

    The real foolishness, though, is in the incredible self-confidence of this idea that a couple decades of loopy, literary theorizing about gender can immediately dismantle THE most fundamental topography of human experience. The gender studies cohort can insist that “male” and “female” don’t exist – in obscure, poorly-reputed, semi-learned academic journals. The men and women of the world will continue to live and love undisturbed and unconcerned.

  • Cucumber

    My good Judith:
    It doesn’t destabilize the whole concept of gender but it does make one wonder, especially since the fetus director or directress makes this gender choice half way through the process. It’s not as if the zygote is determined to have one type of sex organ or the other from inception, regardless of the X and Y chromosome stuff.

    Your “loopy literary theorizing” is lol msterisl.

    But “reality”? Come on. Nobody has the slightest idea what THAT is. And then there’s the whole drama queen of all discussions, “ultimate reality”.

    C’mon Judith. The literati may be jokers but the question of reality is tougher than cocktail party chit chat.

    And your opinion about statistics may change too when you give birth to that one in 2000.

    “There are three kinds of lies: Lies; damned lies; and statistics.” Mark Twain


  • MJG

    Such interesting comments, especially the person who thinks Kevin Gallagher is a moderate liberal. If only you knew!

    What gets me most about this topic is the failure to realize what “Mr. X” style competitions are (my high school did a similar thing)- a comical parody of traditional all-female beauty pageants. Such competitions are already aiming to poke fun at and question the validity of gender norms. While I find this idea troubling, for feminists to get up in arms about females not having access to Mr. Yale simply makes them parodies of themselves. I couldn’t dream up a more hilarious scenario if I tried.