Women Whiffs? Not this year

In 1909, five senior members of the Yale Glee Club banded together to form the a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs.
In 1909, five senior members of the Yale Glee Club banded together to form the a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs. Photo by YDN.

This past weekend, one of Yale’s longest-standing musical traditions was challenged when two women auditioned for the all-senior, male Whiffenpoofs a cappella group for the first time since 1987, though neither was ultimately admitted.

Sara Hendel ’14 said she and Mary Bolt ’14, both of Mixed Company, took the audition process seriously and asked to be given equal consideration with their male counterparts, both auditioning for tenor voice parts to discredit the argument that admitting women would force the group to modify their repertoire drastically in the short term. Both Bolt and Hendel said they feel women should have a fair chance of auditioning for the Whiffenpoofs, because the prestige and opportunities afforded by the group exceed those offered by Whim ‘n Rhythm, the all-senior female a cappella group founded in 1981 as a counterpart to the Whiffenpoofs. While several current and former members of the all-male group said they recognize the differences between the two groups, they argue admitting women would alter the Whiffenpoof’s traditional sound and image.

Bolt and Hendel sent an email to the male juniors auditioning for the Whiffenpoofs asking them to urge current members of the group to give them equal consideration based on talent. Bolt said she encourages women to audition next year, citing the support she received from the upcoming class of Whiffenpoofs, who were selected Saturday night. Bolt and Hendel both said they do not know what ultimately happened during deliberations, and hope they were considered fairly along with everybody else.

“Everyone who auditioned was seriously considered, and the Whiffenpoofs of 2014 were unanimously selected,” current Whiffenpoofs Business Manager Max Henke ’14 said in an email to the News on behalf of the singing group.

Bolt said that as a member of the Yale a cappella community, she felt auditioning for the Whiffenpoofs would be the next natural step in ending her time at Yale.

“If I’m going to audition for an all-senior group, why not audition for the one that has the most stuff?” Hendel said. “They have the most prestige, they have the best gigs … why don’t women have access to all of that?”

While Bolt was selected on Sunday to be the next business manager of Whim, Hendel said she did not audition for the group at all. Unlike Whim lineups of the past few years, which were composed entirely of members of Singing Group Council a cappella groups, this year’s Whim taps will include a member of the Yale Slavic Chorus, as well as three singers who had participated in musicals but were previously unaffiliated with any singing group.

“I think it is very thrilling,” Bolt said. “I think honestly it’s a big step forward for Whim. It shows that its name on campus has breached through the a cappella community [and] that other women are aware of the group.”

TimelineBut Bolt added that the sheer weight of history makes it difficult to compete with the Whiffenpoofs. While the Whiffenpoofs — the oldest a cappella group in the country — now take a year-long leave from Yale College due to their rigorous touring schedule and maintain a strong campus presence through events including weekly shows at Mory’s, nearly all Whim members remain enrolled in the College and book fewer gigs over the year than their male counterparts.

Former Whiffenpoof Michael Blume ’13 said that while he believes the discrepancy between the opportunities provided by the two groups is unfair, he thinks the Whiffenpoofs need to have a conversation that involves the female a cappella community, as well as alumni of both the Whiffenpoofs and Whim, before deciding whether to admit women.

“By integrating the Whiffs are you disintegrating Whim ‘n Rhythm? Are women no longer going to want to be in Whim ‘n Rhythm? There’s not a clear path to what is Right with a capital R,” Blume said. “Do you make a new group? Disband both?”

Henke, the current Whiffenpoofs business manager, said in his email that the outgoing group takes the question of integrating the Whiffenpoofs seriously and has already begun a dialogue with Whim ‘n Rhythm about a cappella opportunities for seniors.

Former Whiffenpoof Elliot Watts ’09 said he could not imagine changing the fraternal experience he had as a Whiffenpoof, adding that he saw a “a comparable camaraderie” in Whim as an undergraduate.

“They have a special bond as women, [and] we have a special bond as men as well,” Watts said.

Watts added that he cannot say what future generations might hope to get out of the Whiffenpoof experience, and that these goals may or may not be affected by having women in the group.

Melinda Stanford ’87, one of the nine women who auditioned in 1987, said she, like Bolt and Hendel, had been motivated at the time by the idea that the Whiffenpoofs “wasn’t just a singing group,” particularly because of the level of opportunities, money and recognition given to them on a world stage relative to Whim ’n Rhythm. The group voted prior to auditions not to admit women, and those who auditioned anyway did so as a sign of protest, already knowing that they would not be considered.

“Back then, Yale still felt verymuch like a male school,” Stanford said. “We were trying to make a statement about women’s role at Yale and bust things up.”

David Code ’87, the only Whiffenpoof who voted to admit women at the time, said he felt it was wrong for group members to remain entirely male when they functioned as the University’s “quintessential” ambassadors to the rest of the world. Code added that prior to the controversy, alumni had maintained a relatively large distance from the group. Had the group decided to admit women in 1987, alumni then would not have had the legal means to influence the choice, unlike alumni today who remain closely involved with current members and can block their decisions due to a more formal corporate structure, Code said.

“Whiff alumni suddenly became militarized in the face of the Whiffenpoofs integrating,” Code said. “[It was] only from that point forward that they had any semblance of a structure or a governing board.”

Former Whiffenpoof Ben Wexler ’12 said those who oppose integrating the group do so because musically the Whiffenpoofs are and always have been a male choral ensemble with a repertoire designed for men.

“The Whiffenpoofs have a repertoire that has a specific sound. All voices will be considered based on how well they fit into that sound. That sound has been male. A woman wishing to be in the Whiffenpoofs would need to be able to vocally match that sound,” current Whiffenpoof McKay Nield ’14 said. “Does a woman have a disadvantage to the extent that the sound the Whiffs make is male? Probably yes. Does that mean they weren’t considered very seriously? No.”

Wexler said the traditional, all-male repertoire of groups like the Whiffenpoofs is itself a product of how long it took universities to admit women. The sound produced by entirely male ensembles is “ingrained in the public ear,” he said.

“Female singing is more specialized [and] more niche — [it’s] hard to create a sound that feels familiar and nostalgic,” Wexler said. “A lot of seeing the Whiffs is about nostalgia … You almost feel beholden to this history.”

Hendel said she believes change should come over time, perhaps by initially admitting only one or two women and allowing the group to build a new repertoire gradually. Nield said the Whiffenpoofs, as a business, are producing a male product that appeals to a certain customer and that changing the product would inevitably change the type of customer it attracts. He added that he does not think such a change would necessarily be a bad thing because a co-ed Whiffenpoofs group might appeal to audiences more reflective of the current, diverse Yale community.

“It’s a hundred years later — let’s give them a new product,” Nield said.

The Whiffenpoofs were founded in 1909.

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