The Whiffenpoofs capture audiences worldwide in a way that Whim ‘n Rhythm, I admit, does not. As a female singer at Yale, I can’t deny that this disparity rankles. I’m tired of being asked if I’m in the Whiffenpoofs, and I wish that my all-female a cappella group could generate the buzz to fill a 1,000-person theater in any city around the globe.
Some argue that the Whiffenpoofs’ justification for remaining all-male — gender-based differences in vocal quality — is essentially a thinly veiled mask for discrimination. That critique cuts both ways. Is The New Blue, my group, sexist for denying men entrance? Is Whim ‘n Rhythm? This kind of quest for gender equality would mandate every single a cappella group become co-ed. But I don’t think we want that.
Having a cappella groups devoted solely to male or female voices is not inherently a mask for sexism. Plenty of singing groups around the world choose to highlight only male or only female voices, and for good reason: Men and women’s voices differ. It’s not an issue of talent. Male voices offer amazing things. So do female ones. But these strengths are not the same.
What is important to realize, however, is the sexism that pervades when members of Whim endure a system that prizes its male counterpart more highly. If feminists want to crusade against Whim’s second-tier status, rejecting the group altogether is a grave error. Auditioning for the Whiffenpoofs — but dismissing Whim — not only buys into sexism, but also perpetuates it by conceding that the standard set by male a cappella is the only standard worth attaining.
The problem then lies in claiming that women, in order to attain excellence, must join the Whiffenpoofs instead of developing their own unique style. This insidious pressure for conformity is antithetical to the push for equality. Women’s voices are different, and if female singers insist on thinking that different means inferior — that the closer we can get to the boys, the closer to excellence — we are doing ourselves a disservice. The merits of all-female vocal music are underappreciated, but by slowly making itself known, Whim is showing audiences both on campus and off that there are reasons to treat all-female a cappella well. If women joined the Whiffs, female a cappella still wouldn’t be seen as a remarkable musical style in its own right. Only the women in the Whiffs would be seen as remarkable for being good enough to fit into a model of excellence defined by men.
Thanks to 100 years of culture, the Whiffenpoofs enjoy a standing that Whim does not. I understand that strong female vocalists want to be a part of a group whose musical clout is on par with the Whiffs’. But these talented women must not slight Whim in a misguided effort to take female singing to new heights. Declining to audition for Whim not only implies that the female version of senior a cappella is not up to snuff, it also represents a lack of desire to improve its lot.
It would undeniably take a lot of effort to make Whim an equal counterpart to the Whiffenpoofs, including a musical director with a bold vision, a committed business manager, an engaged alumni network and enough gigs to finance an ambitious international tour. But this effort is a far more sustainable remedy for gender disparity than diverting female talent from Whim ‘n Rhythm and undercutting the group’s efforts to advance.
It comes down to this: Men got to a cappella first, and it gave the Whiffenpoofs a pretty big leg up. But that doesn’t mean Whim can’t catch up, or that women should stand for a dismissive attitude towards it. Female singers can demand a number of concrete things from the old boys’ clubs of Yale and the Whiffenpoofs to try to move things along. Perhaps encourage more collaboration between the Whiffenpoofs’ business manager and Whim’s, sharing the contact information for international alumni with a penchant for a cappella. Perhaps Whim must press on Yale, as an institution, to embrace Whim as wholeheartedly as it has embraced the Whiffenpoofs. Then, at the next big Yale event, hopefully we can see black dresses rather than penguin suits.
Trying to barge into the Whiffenpoofs, while a short-term solution, does not solve the long-term problem. It exacerbates it. If talented female artists abandon women’s a cappella and forever resign it to play second fiddle to the Whiffs, that’s all it ever will be. It’s on us to fight that institutionalized sexism from the inside out.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .