Over one hundred years ago, a group of five Yalies decided to sing together, creating what is known as “the first collegiate a cappella group.” And the Whiff name has gone far. The Whiffenpoofs, now expanded to fourteen senior males, have travelled to all seven continents, sung at the White House and competed on the cult-hit television show, “The Sing-Off.”
So, I auditioned for the Whiffs this weekend. But I’m a woman, and therein lies the problem.
The big question is obvious: why did I audition for the Whiffenpoofs? There is, after all, an all-senior female group, cleverly named Whim ‘n Rhythm, with excellent singers each and every one. Unfortunately, Whim ‘n Rhythm does not get the great press, the good bookings or have the same exciting tours. For over 70 years, the Whiffenpoofs enjoyed a monopolistic edge. They benefitted greatly from the support and reputation of Yale University, and now they are unwilling to share the bonanza with later generations of female undergrads.
Accordingly for me, there is no choice. My audition went very well. I vocalized in the tenor range, I nailed my musicality tests and I killed my solo of choice. I was proud of what I did in that audition room. But I did not get into the Whiffs because of “tradition.” Like me, any woman who wants to sing in a senior group is immediately relegated to one that simply does not have the same connections, pull or prestige — regardless of the strength of her audition — because she doesn’t have the correct plumbing.
When Whim ‘n Rhythm was founded over 30 years ago, women were not allowed into the Whiffenpoofs. But women wanted their own senior a cappella group and consequently created the all-female Whim ‘n Rhythm. However, as we all know from our middle school history classes, separate is not equal. These women, regardless of how good of an a cappella group they form, constantly encounter discrimination and inequality in the real world, which restricts them from securing the same amount of gigs that the Whiffs inherit. The Whiffs have history on their side. Even on-campus spots like Mory’s and Union League hire the Whiffenpoofs much more frequently than they hire Whim — because the Whiffenpoof name is seen as something “traditional,” something indefinably “Yale.”
There’s plenty of irony in those two descriptors. First, there is nothing traditional about the group of men in the Whiffenpoofs. In fact, very few to none of the current members of the group would have even been accepted to Yale when the Whiffs were originally founded. At the time, wealthy, East Coast, hetero WASPs attended Yale. The current Whiffs represent a lot of groups, but not this particular “traditional” one.
Secondly, they do not represent Yale. Sadly for the hundreds of men that run the Whiffenpoof Alumni Association, Yale accepted women starting in 1969. And unfortunately for me, whenever I say I’m in a cappella at Yale, I’m immediately asked if I’m in the Whiffenpoofs. The Whiffs are the way the world views Yale, especially now that a cappella is all over TV and film. This group, however, does not represent half of Yale’s student body. A group that is so visible to the world continues to portray Yale as a dated, old boy’s club. But the University has changed, and this portrayal is a disservice to the women on campus and to Yale itself.
Yale is still suffering the consequences from the Title IX scandal two years ago. When women aren’t allowed access to the Whiffenpoof name and all of the benefits it reaps – a three month world tour instead of six weeks, a whole year filled with luxurious and paid travel and prestige and fame – I can’t in good faith say that we are recovering gracefully.
Both the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ‘n Rhythm were created years ago for specific reasons, and both organizations have served their founders well for decades. However, in 2013, when the Armed Services of the United States of America allow women to serve side by side on front lines, the Whiffenpoofs of Yale University can allow women to sing side by side with far less risk. Arguments citing physical limitations, or differences in vocal timbre, are no longer an acceptable means of masking gender discrimination, especially when vocal qualities change from person to person regardless of gender.
Traditions change and institutions adapt. The current reality for senior singing groups is separate and unequal. Female a cappella singers and all women at Yale deserve better. They warrant and are entitled to equal, non-discriminatory opportunity in their Yale-supported pursuits.
Sara Hendel is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .