Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The Yale Whiffenpoofs voted on Nov. 20 not to admit women to the oldest collegiate a cappella group next year, renewing discussions about gender disparities within Yale’s singing groups.
Since the 1970s, the Whiffenpoofs have held regular votes over whether to let women into the prestigious a cappella group. Although the Whiffenpoofs have previously performed onstage with women and have inducted honorary female members into their ranks, the Whiffenpoofs have never voted to accept female singers through an audition process. The majority of members in the most recent vote were concerned that accepting women could damage the institution of Yale’s other senior-only a cappella group, Whim ’n Rhythm, and disrupt the Whiffenpoofs’ traditional image as an all-male group.
“People before our year have as equal claim to the group as we do,” said Luke Stringer ’18, one of the Whiffenpoof singers who coordinated the vote. “There are people from the 1950 class that are still alive — [we were] trying to be respectful that this was a gift given to us by a chain of people who made a decision, and we didn’t feel like it was entirely our call.”
Stringer said the debate broke down into “the divide between the value of individuals and institutions.” He explained that while some Whiffenpoofs and Whim singers had expressed concern that a coed year of Whiffenpoofs might siphon membership from the Whims, some singers argued that improving the diversity of options for junior women should be the top priority.
This year’s vote also involved a discussion about what to best do for transgender and nonbinary students to audition within the paradigm of an all-male and all-female senior a cappella group. According to Stringer, the Whiffenpoofs are still looking for the best way to make such students feel welcome.
“People are always welcome to audition,” Stringer said. “We especially highlight that any trans or nonbinary students should absolutely reach out to us if they have questions about whether or not they’d feel comfortable auditioning.”
The Whiffenpoofs, like all single-gender a cappella groups at Yale, allow anyone to audition regardless of gender. Indeed, several female singers auditioned for the group last spring. This policy provides singers with a chance to practice their auditions.
Julia Carnes ’17, a current Whim ’n Rhythm member, auditioned for the Whiffenpoofs during her junior year. Although she knew she would not be admitted, her main motivation was to underscore a point.
“It was more about making a statement about the talent potentially being excluded than it was about my actual hope of making it into the group,” Carnes said.
Meanwhile, Carnes was concerned that a newly coed Whiffenpoofs would pressure its female counterpart to also become coed in order to maintain numbers and talent.
Although Whim ’n Rhythm exists as the female equivalent of the Whiffenpoofs, Carnes noted that only the all-male group has the financial resources to support its members while they take a year off to go on tour. Members of Whim ’n Rhythm, on the other hand, have limited time to perform due to term-time academic work. Although it is possible for Whim ’n Rhythm to decide collectively to take a year off, the group’s financial sustainability makes yearlong touring difficult.
“Members of Whim ’n Rhythm can try all they want, but there’s only so much sheer willpower can do,” Carnes said.
Jackie Ferro ’17, who encouraged her female classmates to audition for the Whiffenpoofs, said the prestige attached to the all-male singing group can be discouraging for female a cappella enthusiasts.
“It sucks if it’s so much easier for half of the population to do [a cappella] for a completely arbitrary reason, that they have the right gender and vocal range for it,” Ferro said.
Even so, proponents of a coed Whiffenpoofs said the financial gap has more to do with the wider prestige of male a cappella groups, who are able to charge more money at concerts.
Ferro proposed an a cappella town hall meeting during which the entire singing community at Yale could voice concerns about gender disparity. Stringer also envisioned a similar forum. Stringer acknowledged that although the gender disparity in Yale a cappella is due to more than finances, he said the financial issues facing female groups is an obvious problem to address.
Still, he said he was unsure whether accepting women into the Whiffenpoofs would do much to ease the disparity, calling it an “inelegant” solution. He also said making the Whiffenpoofs coed might upset Whiffenpoof alumni to the point of endangering the group’s ability to use alumni relationships to succeed financially.
It is unclear, however, how the financial disparity will persist with the passage of time.
“The Whiffs existed in a time in American history when ‘The Whiffenpoof Song’ used to be a top-40 hit, covered by Elvis and Rudy Vallée,” Stringer explained. “I think the Whiffenpoofs as an institution have a particular place in the American pop-cultural world that I don’t think [the Whiffenpoofs or Whim ’n Rhythm] will really have in the future.”
Stringer elaborated that people from older generations form a large part of the Whiffenpoofs’ client base and pay for the majority of their extensive tours. As that generation of Americans dies out, the Whiffenpoofs may have to deal with a smaller fan base in a situation resembling the plight of many female a cappella groups of today.
“The Spizzwinks(?) can [earn] what my group made in a semester for two gigs, so it’s just going to be a different thing,” Ferro said, referring to the all-male a cappella group and the wider culture of inequality. “Male groups get a sort of privilege and are respected in a way that women’s and undergraduate mixed groups do not.”
Ferro added that as a female singer, she was never able to entertain the large-scale touring schedules of the all-male Alley Cats or Spizzwinks(?). Ferro clarified that she does not advocate for all Yale a cappella groups to become coed. Rather, she specified that the Whiffenpoofs are easy to single out in part because they are the oldest.
“Any privilege the Spizzwinks(?) are experiencing, the Whiffenpoofs are going to do with more magnitude, and that’s just going to stand out,” Ferro said.