Rattling those dry bones

Earlier this month, Yale’s secret societies selected some of the University’s most promising men and women as members of their upcoming tap classes. Although today Yalies take it for granted that societies welcome students of both genders, 15 years ago at least two secret societies remained vehemently male-only. Despite a tradition of resistance by powerful alumni, by 1991 only Skull and Bones and Wolf’s Head continued to exclude women. Bonesmen had made requests to open the society to women since Yale went co-educational in 1969. However, the Russell Trust Association, the corporate arm of Skull and Bones, repeatedly vetoed such attempts. Finally, in 1991, frustration among Bones’ younger members reached a head. In an act of defiance, the Skull and Bones Class of 1991 circumvented the organization’s leadership and tapped seven female members. They returned to the tomb soon after to discover the locks on the building had been changed.

The tap class of 1992 announced their intentions to carry on the Skull and Bones tradition, but the national leadership refused to even recognize that a new group had been selected. Manuscript, the first of Yale’s secret societies to go co-educational, allowed the fledgling Bonesmen to meet at their building, which soon became a regular target for network camera crews. By this time, the dispute had spread as far as the editorial page of “The New York Times”. In response to the mounting publicity, the society’s leadership contacted the Classes of ’91 and ’92 in an attempt to settle the dispute.

However, the clash stretched into the summer, and intra-society maneuverings were still taking place by the opening of the next academic year. When the new Bonesmen were supposed to be performing their admissions rituals, it was still unclear whether the Bones leadership would reach a compromise or simply deny the existence of a 1992 tap class. Appropriately enough, it was at this time that Maya Lin ’81 ARCH ’86 introduced her plans for a “women’s table” to commemorate the achievements of 22 years of co-education at Yale. Her proposal was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Yale’s foremost collection of good old boys.

Eventually, a mail-in vote by most of the living members resulted in a 368-320 majority in favor of going co-ed. However, a cabal of Bones alumni had already prepared their next move. A group — including William F. Buckley ’50 — filed suit against the society and received a temporary restraining order from the New Haven Superior Court. The legal controversy swirled around the nature of the society’s bylaws. The Class of ’91 claimed that since the formal rules fail to mention gender, the decision to tap women was solely in the hands of the current class of Bonesmen. The plaintiffs pointed out that when the bylaws were written, Yale was not a co-educational institution. Originally, there was no need to specify that the society wished to restrict its membership to males. With the threat of a lawsuit looming, Skull and Bones’ national leadership arranged a meeting open to all of its living members.

With this decision, the clash between the Russell Trust Association and the Class of ’91 once again exploded into a University-wide row. Prominent Bonesmen, including John Kerry ’66, spoke out in favor of allowing women into their society’s hallowed hall. The first signs of the Bones controversy even prompted Wolf’s Head to consider a change in its policies. One of Wolf’s Head’s most prominent alumni and the president of the University at the time, Benno Schmidt Jr. ’63, vowed not to return to his society until it agreed it admit women. Isolated by opinions both inside and outside of their tomb, Wolf’s Head began moving toward a co-educational structure, which was formalized a few months later. By October, more than 100 Skull and Bones alumni gathered at their tomb on High Street to decide the future of their society.

After an all-night debate, the society voted 387-327 to accept the tap class of 1992. Buckley and his ilk maintained their lawsuit, but it eventually fizzled out in the face of renewed support from the Bones’ alumni base. Opposition in Wolf’s Head crumbled soon after; Yale’s last formal bastions of male privilege had fallen. But more subtle obstacles remained. Shortly after the Skull and Bones affair was settled, construction of the Women’s Table was postponed for lack of interest.

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