Eli Yale and John Harvard maintained strict “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” policies since the time their storied institutions were founded over three decades ago up until the latter half of the 20th century. Forty years after the gals first bust into the old boys club, great progress has been made toward gender equity — but, as now-infamous Old Campus chants indicate, much work remains to remove traces of institutional sexism at each school.
Although some maintain that Yale is superior to Harvard in ever imaginable respect, the two colleges are undeniably very similar institutions, and the lives of women at each college naturally have much in common, ever since co-education hit the Ivy League.
Last week, we two intrepid reporters suppressed our hostility toward our frenemies to the North and boarded a midnight train to Cambridge. We dove headfirst, like sea wolves, into the uncharted waters of Georgian architecture and Final Clubs and set out to determine what elements distinguish the experience of a Harvard girl from that of a young woman who studies at Yale. While statistics alternately show progress and hurdles still to be overcome, such as the number of women professors on track for tenure and the number of female undergrads in leadership positions, the social culture at each college remains gendered, students report. Read on for the legacies of Radcliffe women, the support structures available at both schools and the scoop on parties in the all-male clubhouses of Cambridge. WEEKEND investigates.
A BALANCING ACT
For all their differences, Harvard and Yale share one thing: gender imbalance. Student government, administrative make-up, and tenure-track faculty still have a way to go toward gaining equal representation of the sexes.
For the Crimson and the Old Blue, undergraduate populations are both split relatively evenly between the genders. Women hold a slight majority in Harvard College (3,279 men to 3,371 women); at Yale, they’re a minority by single digits (2,624 men to 2,618 women in the fall of 2009).
The first time female students outnumbered male students at Yale was in 1999; at Harvard, fall 2007. These numbers represent an irrefutable accomplishment, but they are also a departure from national statistics. A January report from the American Council of Education showed that nationwide, women account for between 56 and 58 percent of undergraduates, putting these two Ivies below the national average.
Among administration and faculty, the scales are much more lopsided. Eighty percent of Yale’s senior faculty are men; at Harvard, 74 percent of ladder faculty are. The Yale Corporation, Yale’s highest governing body, counts only four women as part of its 15-man committee. And Harvard’s primary governing body (the President and Fellows of Harvard College, also known as the Harvard Corporation) is only 25 percent female.
Student governments at both schools have struggled with gender parity, too. An article in the Harvard Crimson last week, titled “Gender Parity Elusive for the Undergraduate Council,” noted that just one in five members of the Undergraduate Council is a woman and that ladies have served as the body’s president just five of the past 15 years. The only woman to serve as Yale College Council president in the past 10 years was Rebecca Taber ’08.
Last spring, Courtney Pannell ’11 lost her bid to become one of the few female Yale College Council presidents in the institution’s history by only a handful of votes. The bruising election became gendered when an opponent’s campaign aide compared Pannell — a blonde, Southern, conservative member of Pi Beta Phi — to Sarah Palin and Miss South Carolina Teen USA.
On a campus as seemingly progressive as Yale’s, Pannell, a former multimedia editor for the News, said she was taken aback to see gender play such a defining role in the election.
“I knew that those were stereotypes that I was going to have to overcome in some people’s minds, so I went into the elections sort of trying to frame myself as a more serious candidate,” Pannell said. “I didn’t think that those issues would come up as strongly as they did.”
Female students’ progress in gaining equal representation in leadership positions has been “slow, small and recalcitrant” said Laura Wexler, a professor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and co-chair of the Yale Women Faculty Forum.
The gender imbalances in student leadership roles, tenured faculty, and administrative composition are significant because they demonstrate enduring gender discrimination, Wexler said. Female students also miss out on having models of successful women in their respective fields. Furthermore, crises of sexism on campus, such as when fraternity brothers from Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted misogynistic slogans on Old Campus this fall, especially inhibit women from fulfilling their potential.
“It was a way of impeding women’s leadership,” Wexler said of the incident. “It said, ‘We run this university, and you’re only going to have a certain kind of a voice.’ That’s effective at impeding how welcome people feel to speak openly and strongly on these issues.”
THE RADCLIFFE TRADITION
At the start of coeducation, Harvard and Yale did things differently. The way each college went about accepting women led to discrepancies in resources at the two schools.
Since Harvard merged with an all-women college — their sister school, Radcliffe — they gained the existing gender resources at that college along with the college’s students. Although Yale flirted with the idea of merging with Vassar in the ’70s, the school ultimately decided to accept women without combining with another institution. As a result, Yale’s female alumnae network begins with the graduates of ’69, while Harvard’s also draws on alums from Radcliffe, which was founded in 1879.
One Radcliffe resource that endures, the Radcliffe Union of Students at Harvard, originated as the student government at Radcliffe and became an undergraduate organization at Harvard when the two colleges merged. Today, it focuses on feminist activism and awareness on campus.
The Radcliffe Union of Students also helps run a mentoring program that pairs current female undergraduates with alumnae. Students — male and female alike — are invited to apply for the program by selecting mentors with whom they think they would be compatible. The alumnae then select students to guide, though the vast majority of students who request mentors receive one.
Although women have a much longer history at Harvard and organize alumnae to mentor current students, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said Yale’s alumnae are just as supportive.
“The network of female alumnae is incredibly strong,” Miller said. “There’s a longer tradition of having female graduates at Harvard, but by this point it’s irrelevant.”
Susan Marine, the director of the Harvard Women’s Center, said that the RUS typically takes on global issues related to feminism, rather than issues primarily related to campus life the way the Yale Women’s Center does.
Marine distinguishes RUS from the Harvard Women’s Center because the Center is staffed by adults and included under the Office of Student Life, while RUS is student-run.
When they accepted Radcliffe students, Harvard also gained the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study and the Schlesinger Library, located a short walk from its original central campus. The library has one of the most comprehensive collections in the country on women’s history, feminism, suffrage and equal rights. Founded in 1943 with a gift from Maud Wood Park, a 1898 Radcliffe alumnus, Schlesinger includes among its archives the papers of Betty Friedan, Laura Shapiro, Julia Child and artist Judy Chicago, said Lynda Leahy, one of Schlesinger’s reference librarians.
“We also have one of the largest collections of cookbooks in the country,” Leahy said. “Because what did women do before they gained equal rights? They cooked, cleaned, and raised children.”
The library keeps in its collections, among other objects significant to women’s history, one of the whisks used by Julia Child and original sashes worn by suffragettes marching for the women’s vote.
Leahy estimated that about half the traffic in the library comes from faculty and students at Harvard, the rest coming from outside researchers and independent scholars. Yale has no equivalent.
“I wish very much that we had an equivalent to the Radcliffe Institute at Yale,” said Wexler. “We need to have a gender institute — a way to bring people here to do research in a coordinated way and to have this discussion at a high level.”
Sharing a subtle slight, both the Harvard and Yale Women’s Centers are housed at the basement level of freshman dormitories (Durfee Hall at Yale; Canaday at Harvard).
Referring to the Center’s location, Marine said, “Would we like to be above ground? Of course. Everybody would like to have a big huge space with light streaming in the windows. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about the space as a deficit.”
Harvard’s Women’s Center boasts a full-time, paid adult staff, some with PhDs. In contrast, Yale’s Women’s Center is student-run and student-staffed.
Professor Melanie Boyd ’90 acts as an advisor and liaison between the Center and the Dean’s office at Yale, but students take primary responsibility for the center’s role and activism on campus. Said Yale Women’s Center Coordinator Diana Saverin ’13, “We find feminist activism, which is initiated and driven by the student body, important, while also recognizing the need to work with the administration in order to achieve institutional change.”
Marine said that student-run organizations, such as the Radcliffe Union of Students, fulfill that role at Harvard, while the Women’s Center there sees itself more as a social space and supportive organization.
“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for us [at the Women’s Center] to speak for all women,” said Marine. “We empower other women to speak for themselves. My interns will often take public positions on issues, and since they work at the Women’s Center, you could certainly extrapolate and say we are supporting those issues.”
Yale’s Women’s Center, on the other hand, has actively taken up the mantle of responding to cases of sexism on campus, such as the Zeta Psi incident two years ago when fraternity brothers held up a sign that read, “We Love Yale Sluts” outside the Center, and this year, with the DKE initiation rite on Old Campus.
Among the activities that the Harvard Women’s Center organizes are knitting sessions and advice on successful interviewing and pay negotiations. One male Harvard student said that he had heard the Women’s Center was housed in what was formerly a kitchen, but Marine clarified:
“We have a kitchen, but we are located in what was formerly the office of a liberal campus publication. We use the kitchen for cooking, health purposes, and community building.”
She said she sees it as a positive tool and rejects the idea that the presence of a kitchen in the Center promotes the perception of women as domestic and belonging in the home.
FINAL CLUB, FINAL SAY?
But for all the number-crunching, tallying of academic archives and comparison of student support facilities in place, the most significant difference between the lives of women at Yale and women at Harvard is probably what they do for fun on a Friday night.
Students might be tempted to compare Final Clubs at Harvard to Yale’s secret societies, but the two have only so many characteristics in common: both are exclusive, own land near the schools, and host extravagant parties. Both have alumni networks and spooky or mythological names. The similarities essentially end there.
At Harvard, students are ‘punched’ (read: ‘tapped’) for Final Clubs in the fall of their sophomore year. As a result, the clubs have more of an influence than societies on student social lives throughout their four years of college. Female students may attend parties at the clubs from their first days on campus, while freshman boys tend to have to wait until their second year at Harvard to gain acceptance, “unless you know someone,” Harvard freshman Jason Hirschorn said.
Hirschorn’s fellow underclassmen agreed that their experiences at Harvard are particularly rough.
“But I don’t think it’s particularly easy anywhere to pick up girls as a freshman guy,” Hirschorn said. “Any freshman guy I’ve talked to at any school says the same thing.”
Harvard freshman Angela Song said it was annoying to go out at night with a group of guy friends, because they can’t get into the same Final Club events as the girls, and so the two often end up splitting along gender lines.
Yale offers a slightly more equal playing field, since underclassmen guys and girls alike are excluded from parties at societies.
With few exceptions, Yale societies tap their members junior year, which means students only attend gatherings in tombs for their last year-and-a-half at school. Additionally, nearly all Yale societies are co-ed, while at Harvard eight of the Final Clubs are all-male, six all-female. The all-male groups have a considerable stigma associated with them, said underclassmen students. Five freshman girls interviewed said they don’t feel comfortable going to parties there alone.
There are also discrepancies between the resources of all-male and all-female clubs, said students. The all-male clubs host most of the parties, and they own property — including a few old and lavish Boston mansions — while the female ones rent it (often from their male counterparts).
“We hear a lot of frustration with the fact that social life at Harvard feels like it’s male-dominated,” said Marine.
But the inequalities don’t necessarily bother everyone.
Three freshman girls interviewed compared the final clubs to fraternities, calling them “exaggerated frats” or “the same as any other school,” and said they don’t consider the clubs’ practices anything out of the ordinary. One female sophomore, who was recently punched for an all-female final club, refutes the idea that the male control of Harvard’s social scene reflects a gender imbalance at the school. If womens’ groups on campus wanted to open their doors to partiers, she explained, they, too, could dominate the campus social scene.
“It’s a matter of happenstance that men play that role on campus,” said the sophomore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Men’s final clubs are the ones that are willing to open their space weekend after weekend.”
Even so, the poor reputation of the clubs pervades pop culture, most recently depicted in the film, “The Social Network.”
Writing in the Crimson this past April, final club member Daniel Herz-Roiphe made the case for why the clubs should be abolished, in an article titled “Long Overdue.”
“The clubs’ discriminatory membership policies place the accumulated wealth, real estate and prestige of dozens of generations in the hands of men alone — and at a school with limited social space, this imbalance warps gender relations into something out of a Jane Austen novel,” he wrote.
According to another recent Crimson article, a group of students is organizing to try to eliminate the clubs, though students interviewed said initiatives like this one have popped up several times over the years, without meaningful results.
Harvard junior Joe Hodgkin, who is friends with some of the students in the anti-final club movement and not a member of a club himself, said, “Final clubs contribute negatively to campus because of the gender-politics dynamic they create. They aren’t subject to university control, and they serve to perpetuate a culture that isn’t in line with mainstream Harvard culture today.”
Hodgkin went on to describe mainstream Harvard culture as “increasingly diverse and accepting, across race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class.”
In the ’80s, Harvard banished Final Clubs to off-campus locations and today does not endorse their existence, but the clubs undeniably still play a large role in social culture, because there are only so many parties thrown by other organizations, students said.
“Harvard made a good choice when it made the clubs independent of the school,” said Arturo Elizondo ’14. “But the parties at Harvard just aren’t very good.”