The decision of the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n’ Rhythm to open themselves to singers of all genders has been greeted with much excitement and praise by many on campus. The groups’ plan to determine membership based on vocal range rather than gender is intended to ameliorate the unfair disadvantages the Whiffs have over the Whim, the result of a longer history — a result of Yale’s male-only past — and therefore more funding, alumni support and name recognition. This plan, which also extends to a greater integration of the groups’ funding, advertising and booking, is exciting and deserves the praise it is receiving. But this moment provides an opportunity to reflect on discourse around gendered spaces on campus.
It is not my intention to pass judgment on the specific decisions of the senior a cappella groups around gender inclusivity, which seem well-founded and wise. However, the positive attention their changes have earned has treated the end of all-male spaces as an equivalent good to the end of all-women’s spaces. The Whiffs and Whim, in this scheme, are both single-gender organizations, and single-gender organizations are bad and ought to be ended. This is a non-nuanced approach that does not reckon with the important differences between gendered spaces for men and other gendered spaces.
Fraternities and sororities are outside the scope of this article: The dynamics around class and power in those spaces complicate any analysis of their function as gender-specific groups. But at Yale, it’s common to find social groups that are divided by gender, in both formal and informal ways. In thinking about how we interact with such spaces, we must grapple with the fact that spaces created by and for women and genderqueer people are necessary and powerful in ways that spaces for men are not.
Men have social power in ways that others don’t. Recent discourse around sexual assault and harassment illustrates this perfectly: Women are often forced to choose between pleasing men — sexually or otherwise — and losing their jobs. The constant pressure of being around men extends beyond sexual coercion and even into the most mundane moments. At Yale, I regularly watch men speak over women in class and at parties — on the day that I wrote this, I was interrupted twice by a man in just one seminar. It’s common for extracurricular groups to be formally led by men, although women often do most of the unseen and unappreciated logistical work. Women expend an incalculable amount of energy navigating these sexist dynamics, deciding if it’s worth asserting ourselves or if it’s easier to let a sentence trail off or just book the meeting room ourselves. For this reason, women have been creating places to be free of this pressure for centuries. Spaces that exclude men allow us to use our energy in creative, innovative and exciting ways rather than constantly working be heard. This is a creative potential that is sometimes stymied on our coed campus, and it can thrive in spaces without men.
Men’s spaces also allow men relief — without women around, the pressure to treat us as people lessens. Men’s spaces often foster a toxic masculinity in which men assess and compete for women, and it is far easier to make a rape joke in a room of only dudes. Male-only groups on campus deserve scrutiny and criticism. More often than not, they prop up rather than challenge existing sexist structures.
A notable exception to this is spaces devoted to men’s discussion of their own masculinity. Too often, women are the ones who must have discussions with men about the impact of their actions, and we must deal with men’s work on their sexism in addition to the sexism itself. A positive model of male-only space would be one in which men grapple with their own power together.
Taking down exclusive, toxic male structures should not require that spaces that provide respite from such forces also be dismantled. We can object to groups that consolidate and reify sexism while also insisting that organizations for women and genderqueer people are vital and powerful. Our campus will be better if we can appreciate that not all spaces defined by gender play the same role. We must advocate for groups that maximize the potential for a vibrant and creative community.
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Silliman College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .