For the past few years, the Whiffenpoofs — a private, self-funded all-male singing group with no official ties to the university — has held extensive and nuanced discussions on whether to allow women into the group. While it is a question that deserves serious consideration, it is also one that has a correct if unpopular answer. The yearly decision to bar women from the Whiffs is not about privilege, patriarchy or a lack of empathy. Instead, the decision is rooted in a concern for the longevity of both the Whiffenpoofs and its sister group Whim ‘n Rhythm.
Last year, I was a member of the Whiffenpoofs Class of 2016, and I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t the single most enriching experience of my life. It’s perfectly reasonable for female singers at Yale to want a comparable experience. But to those women seeking membership in the Whiffs, why is Whim ‘n Rhythm, the senior all-female counterpart to the Whiffs, an insufficient and unworthy alternative? After all, Whim did travel to ten countries across four continents and sang for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 in 2015. I guess you could argue that they’re entitled to more, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone outside the Yale bubble of that.
The reality is that Whim ‘n Rhythm has worked incredibly hard these past thirty-six years to level the playing field for female singers, building an impressive repertoire and financially viable business model to match that of the Whiffs. Does this mean that Whim is completely equal to the Whiffs? No. But does that mean the solution is to make the Whiffs coed? Probably not.
Yale’s other a cappella groups struggle with the same problems: smaller alumni networks, weaker name-recognition and a thinner market for high-paying gigs. But these groups stop short of demanding identical experiences to the Whiffs, instead opting for creative solutions to their group’s challenges. Some groups like the Spizzwinks and the Alley Cats, for example, have addressed these challenges by resembling the Whiffs aesthetically, white tie and tails, so as to sell the Whiff brand at a discount. Unfortunately, not all groups can or want to do this, especially those with men and women who would prefer not to don penguin attire.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that the Whiffs become coed. Immediately, more than a century of repertoire would become obsolete, in need of rearrangement for a mixed sound. The Whiff alumni association, in which many members already view the decision to take a year off from school as controversial, could cut important social or financial ties to the group. The indispensable client base which hires the Whiffs for the aesthetic, the repertoire and the nostalgia would be less likely to hire the group at the same rate, let alone at all. Group revenue would fall and the experience would change dramatically, placing undue strain on the group’s leadership. Both the men and the women in the new group would never have an identical experience — musical, financial or fraternal — to Whiffs of the past.
When the Whiffs audition new members each year to fill fourteen spots, they usually choose from an average of twenty to thirty candidates, sometimes more. It is often the case that Whim struggles to receive similar levels of interest. A coed group would necessarily divert interest away from Whim and pose an existential threat, while yielding an unambiguously worse outcome for the new Whiffs. If that happens, everyone loses.
The solution, then, is not to make the Whiffs coed but rather to equip Whim with better resources and opportunities to strengthen its network, name-recognition and client base. For example, the Whiffs and its alumni association could work more closely and more often with Whim, providing useful client contacts and connecting Whim more frequently with the Whiff network. Another solution could be to have Yale commit to hiring Whim more often than it does currently.
There’s obviously more than one way to demonstrate that we value women’s voices. Let’s put aside gender politics and a culture of entitlement and work toward empowering Whim ‘n Rhythm. Let’s not fall prey to the zero-sum logic that currently pushes for a coed Whiffenpoofs.
Joshua Bansal is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College and a former member of the Whiffenpoofs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .