Yale a cappella groups move away from single-gender memberships
The Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm broke away from their single-gender restrictions in 2018, instead auditioning prospective members of any gender on the basis of their vocal range. Over the five years since, many of Yale’s a cappella groups have also moved to mixed-gender memberships.
The Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s prestigious all-senior — and historically all-male — a cappella group, accepted its first female singer in February 2018, 114 years after its founding, when Sofía Campoamor ’19 broke the group’s tradition of only selecting male singers.
The Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm, Yale’s all-senior and historically all-female a cappella group, jointly announced their decision to consider candidates of varied genders in an early 2018 Facebook post. Since then, the Whiffenpoofs continued to welcome non-male members into its lineup, tapping its first woman of color, Neha Bhatt ’20, in 2019 and three non-male members in 2020.
The Whiffenpoofs continue to retain their original vocal arrangements, emphasizing their musical identity as being “TTBB” — a repertoire including Tenor I and II, Bass I and II voices — rather than an identity based on the gender of its members. Whim ’n Rhythm transitioned from its single-gender history as well, moving from all-female to “SSAA” — Soprano I and II, Alto I and II.
“I hope that my joining the Whiffs will energize the conversation around senior a cappella,” Campoamor said in a 2018 interview with the News. “I think it’s only the beginning — I don’t think we have finished creating an equitable and inclusive system for all senior a cappella singers.”
Five years since Campoamor’s historical acceptance, discussion on gender integration within a cappella space continues, as various a cappella groups have recognized and questioned the role of gender in these musical spaces. In the fall of 2022, the Singing Group Council — an umbrella organization that oversees 17 campus a cappella groups and their collective fall rush process — instituted a new rule requiring that a cappella groups consider auditions from students of all genders.
For student members like Dania Baig ’23, president of the all-gender a cappella group Mixed Company, all-gender membership played an important role in their decision to rush and eventually join certain a cappella groups.
“I knew that I could do well in SSAA groups, or generally women’s groups, but I wanted a fuller kind of sound and I wanted a co-ed environment,” Baig told the News in 2022. “I just feel that I’ve always kind of worked the best when there’s a balance of voices, of people, of opinions and of all sorts of things.”
For Ivana Barnes ’23, the musical director of the non-male group Something Extra, the non-male aspect of the group demonstrates how a musical space could specifically highlight and uplift the voices of gender minorities.
“A big part of the spirit of having a women’s group is fostering that space for yourself on campus,” Barnes told the News in 2022. “Especially because at Yale, women weren’t allowed for a while, so all the a cappella groups were all-male, so a lot of those groups have longer histories. I think it’s nice to have those spaces that we kind of carved out for ourselves.”
Sara Armstrong ’22, the musical director of Whim ’n Rhythm, pointed to the economic disparities between traditionally male and traditionally non-male or all-gender a cappella groups. She noted that traditionally male groups often have bigger budgets for travel and performances.
According to Armstrong, these financial differences can be partially attributed to generous donations from alumni who may not welcome the idea of gender integration.
While the decision for the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ’n Rhythm to become all-gender was made upon a group consensus, Gabriella Borter ’18, Whim ’n Rhythm business manager and former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine, and Whiff Music Director Kenyon Duncan ’19 explained that Whiff and Whim alumni were closely involved in the decision-making process, with more than 200 alumni participating in a survey in January 2018.
Even before the historic decision to allow non-men into the Whiffenpoofs, women first began auditioning in 1987. Since then, until 2018, the group repeatedly voted against scrapping male-only membership, with 2016 marking the group’s most recent vote to remain exclusively male.
David Code ’87, the first Whiffenpoof to vote in favor of all-gender membership in 1987, told the News he was so emotionally moved by the Whiffenpoofs announcement that he “cried like a baby.” Code said he received immense backlash for his vote, with Whiff and Whim members publicly humiliating and shunning him at the time.
In an interview with the News, Code stated that he was “grateful” to the Whiff and Whim classes of 2018 for “finally doing the right thing.”
“I’m amazed at the level of emotion that has welled up on me since I’ve got the news,” Code said. “I do feel sorry for 31 years missed for women who would have loved to sing in the Whiffs and would have been qualified, but I’m so glad this day has finally arrived.”
The Whiffenpoofs is the world’s oldest collegiate a cappella group.