At the start of the month, Whim ’n Rhythm and the Whiffenpoofs announced they would open auditions to singers of all genders, even as they preserve their respective vocal ranges. Meanwhile, Engender members had rush meals with SigEp brothers as part of their goal of making all fraternities coed.
Despite the passionate debate around whether these groups should admit women, both sides share one thing in common: They present gender integration as a moment of rupture. Proponents portray it as a giant leap for inclusion, while opponents dismiss it as a radical assault on Yale’s traditions. In reality, the latest saga is the logical culmination of half a century of coeducation — a project that began officially in 1969 but remains unfinished today. And to the extent that gender integration moves forward, it will be the product of social, cultural and economic change, rather than the abstract rhetoric of justice or progress.
Yale’s experience of coeducation is itself instructive. Former University President Kingman Brewster deserves credit for admitting women to Yale College, but his decision was as prudential as it was principled. After years of alumni opposition to coeducation, Yale and Dartmouth were, by 1968, the only Ivy League holdouts. In September that year, a large-scale Princeton study revealed that an overwhelming majority of bright high school students were drawn to coed colleges. Worried that the University would cede its preeminence, Yale trustees unanimously approved coeducation the following month.
Changing student attitudes, in fact, reflected changing student demographics. In the early 1960s, Yale aggressively expanded recruitment beyond the usual East Coast preparatory schools. For students who attended coed public schools rather than single-sex boarding schools, Yale’s all-male makeup felt increasingly anachronistic, as then-University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 has pointed out. The story of coeducation reminds us that gender parity and economic equity are inextricably tied.
Still, coeducation at Yale got off to a bumpy start. Men outnumbered women seven to one, and many women reported isolation, even hostility. Yale’s many clubs grappled with whether or not to admit women. Some, like St. Anthony Hall and the Elizabethan Club, went coed almost immediately. But many others — particularly the secret societies — resisted, sometimes for decades. In a sense, Yale’s a cappella groups and fraternities are the last frontier in this process.
Tellingly, however, institutional change represented a war of attrition rather than a war of revolution. When Skull and Bones finally tapped women in 1991, it did so after years of decline, as the most prominent juniors turned down bids from an organization which increasingly seemed quaint, irrelevant and out of touch. When then-Massachusetts governor John Kerry ’66 tapped Jacob Weisberg ’86, now editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, according to Alexandra Robbins’ book Secrets of the Tomb, Weisberg asked, “You’re a liberal — why do you support this organization that does not admit women?” Despite Kerry’s progressive politics, he could not bridge the generational gulf of experience.
Insofar as single-gender groups survive, therefore, they reflect student demand for these spaces. Given heightened interest in fraternities and sororities in recent years, we would do well to explore reasons for this demand — including the possibility that it may be supplier-induced demand. To a greater degree than top-down measures or strident activism, student sensibility will determine whether these groups go coed.
Meanwhile, single-gender groups must plan for the long haul, rather than reject change as a reflex. Mory’s and the Yale Club of New York both resisted female members and only started accepting women under intense pressure. But given the secular decline in private club membership in the second half of the century — Mory’s almost went bankrupt in 2008 — it seems unthinkable that these groups would have survived if they had not evolved to include women.
Conversely, administrators and activists must beware of high-handed tactics. When Harvard’s sanctions for students involved in single-gender groups go into effect, they will almost certainly backfire by forcing those groups underground. Worse, Harvard’s intrusive policy embodies a highly masculinized vision of authority — one which harkens to a patriarchal “in loco parentis” tradition. Indeed, it stands at odds with the ethos of student autonomy so foundational to the enterprise of coeducation.
Ultimately, the story of coeducation evinces a wider arc of social change. What seems unthinkable to one cohort will appear inevitable to another; what seems normal in one generation will appear antiquated in the future. As a first-year counselor, I have been struck by how so many first-year friend groups are mixed-gender, compared to those in my year. Whereas my class lived through a time where single-gender suites and floors were mandatory, they live in a moment where that’s unimaginable.
The latest debate about single-gender groups at Yale is not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .