Breaking with more than a century of tradition, the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm, Yale’s all-male and all-female senior a capella groups, announced on Thursday that this year both groups will consider accepting singers of all genders.
According to a joint announcement posted on Facebook, Whim ’n Rhythm will from this point on describe itself as, “SSAA,” — or Soprano I and II and Alto I and II — rather than all-female, while the Whiffenpoofs will use the label “TTBB,” or Tenor I and II, Baritone and Bass. The statement called these terms “more informative of the art [they] create” and “more inclusive” to members past, present and future, especially those who identify as transgender, gender nonbinary and gender nonconforming.
“Instead of talking about the membership of the group, [we want to] talk about the people who make that type of music,” said Kenyon Duncan ’19, the music director of the Whiffenpoofs. “We’re trying to make this as much about the music and ease gender boundaries.”
The statement also announced a series of changes designed to close the “gap in opportunity” between the two organizations. The Whiffenpoofs, well-established in the world of a cappella, take a year off from school to tour the world, while the much newer Whim ’n Rhythm tours internationally only during the summer and performs locally throughout the year. Whim ’n Rhythm also brings in significantly less revenue than do the Whiffenpoofs — during fiscal year 2013, for example, Whim ’n Rhythm’s earnings amounted to less than a quarter of the Whiffenpoofs’.
With these changes, the announcement said, the two groups hope to “more explicitly link” together as two performing bodies representing the same Yale senior class.
Next year, both the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm classes of 2019 will have the option to take a leave of absence or remain enrolled at Yale, with rehearsal, performance and tour schedules defined by each future class of singers. And the groups’ operations will become more cohesive in the future, through a joint website with shared booking information and closer integration of the two groups’ business teams. The statement also expressed a commitment to expanding the SATB — of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass — repertoire so that Whim and the Whiffs can more often perform together on campus and for clients.
The joint decision to go all-gender as well as to implement the set of changes announced resulted from a prolonged conversation among all 28 members of the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm classes of 2018 over the past six months about how to make senior a cappella at Yale more equitable, according to Duncan and Whim ’n Rhythm Business Manager and former Yale Daily News Magazine Editor in Chief Gabriella Borter ’18. All 28 members had the opportunity to individually edit the Facebook statement, and all members approved the final version the groups released.
“We intend for the collaboration between the two group towards this vision of a more equitable senior a cappella scene to continue going forward,” Borter said. “We hope that it will only be strengthened with time.”
The current members of the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm also took into consideration more than 200 responses to an alumni survey sent to past members of both groups as they drafted the statement and the list of changes.
Melinda Stanford ’87, a professional musician and one of the first women to audition for the Whiffenpoofs in 1987, said the University has come a long way since her undergraduate days, when she felt like a “guest” at Yale because of her gender.
“When I heard the news today I thought ‘finally, it took 30 years, but we have finally come home and finally belong and we will finally be treated as equals,’” Stanford said.
She noted that the announcement came in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which has seen victims come forward to accuse some of the world’s most powerful men of sexual misconduct.
Whiffenpoof alum Ben Wexler ’11 told the News he applauds the groups’ push toward equity and the Whiffs’ increased interaction with Whim ’n Rhythm.
“The groups aren’t equally resourced now,” Wexler said. “Whiffs have outsize budget and resources based on a reputation formed when Yale was an all-male space.”
Wexler also expressed interest in participating in a proposed Joint Alumni Advisory Committee, which the announcement said would “help address the limitations in institutional memory inherent to single-year groups and assist with future changes.”
The Whiffenpoofs have held regular votes over whether to open the group’s doors to women since the 1970s. Most recently, in November 2016, the Whiffenpoofs voted not to admit women in the following audition season, citing concerns about potentially damaging Whim ’n Rhythm — the only all-female, all-senior singing group at Yale.
Following the Whiffs’ 2016 vote against changing its admission policy, more than 135 students signed a petition calling for the oldest collegiate a cappella group to recruit singers on the basis of “talent alone.” The following audition cycle, in February 2017, saw the largest female and gender nonbinary turnout in the group’s 109-year history, as singers came to protest the group’s gender restriction and its privileged status relative to Whim ’n Rhythm.
Women have auditioned for the Whiffs since 1987, when a group of nine female students showed up in protest of the group’s long-standing single-gender admissions policy. Although the Whiffs have welcomed female students to audition and encouraged trans and nonbinary students to reach out with concerns, the group has remained all-male throughout its history.
Although the announcement does not guarantee a spot for women in the Whiffenpoofs, Mary Petzke ’18, one of the female students who auditioned for the Whiffenpoofs in 2017, told the News that in practice, the decision would give women who can sing the tenor part a chance to compete directly with their male counterparts for a spot in the Whiffenpoofs.
“The biggest argument for women not being able to join — that all of these male Whiffs said decades after decades — was that it’s going to change the sound [of the group],” Stanford said. “I really have always believed that that was an argument that they were hiding behind. The real reason was that they didn’t want women to be represented as ambassadors of Yale, which really was for men.”
Although there will be an open conversation between the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm during the rush process and juniors could potentially get tapped for both groups, Borter and Duncan said they were not concerned about competition for potential members between the two groups.
But despite the announcement, some expressed doubt that the Whiffenpoofs will ultimately accept nonmale students.
“This integration alone, however, would not have been sufficient to provide [cis] women with the same opportunities in Yale senior a cappella as it effectively still shuts out high voices [soprano and high altos] from the Whiffs and still advantages [cis] men over low-voiced women due to the rarity of true cis-female tenors,” a male junior who plans to audition for the Whiffenpoofs said.
The singer, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want his statement to affect his chance of gaining acceptance to the Whiffs, said he is more excited about the business integration of the two groups, which he said would give Whim an opportunity to brand itself as part of “the oldest college a cappella tradition.”
Duncan said Whim and the Whiffs have not developed specific plans for what the more integrated business model will look like because the groups do not want to “impose” a specific infrastructure on the class of 2019 and because their respective business managers are already halfway through their tenures. Rather, Whiff and Whim classes of 2018 plan to work with the incoming classes to develop the specifics of the business integration plans. He added that at the moment, there is “no specific plan laid out for a joint financial management.”
In July 2017, the Duke’s Men — known to be a feeder to the Whiffs — became the first all-male a cappella group at Yale to abolish gender restrictions. Last fall, in its first semester as an all-gender group, the Duke’s Men tapped six men and one gender nonbinary student.
Formerly a member of the Duke’s Men, Duncan said the group’s decision to go all-gender helped shape his views about all-gender groups on a personal level. He added that the Duke’s Men’s decision to eliminate gender restrictions and induct a nonbinary member “opened that door to consider this feasible for other groups.” Still, he added, the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm’s decision is also the product of student activism and decades of discussion between the two groups.
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Editor’s note: The headline of this story has been updated to more accurately reflect the two a capella groups’ open audition policies.