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With Pledge To Admit Women, Harvard’s Spee Club Joins 21st Century

Tom Keane: "Are we in a time warp, somehow thrown back to the 1970s? Women in all-male bastions? Heavens-to-Betsy, what a shocking and bold move!" Pictured: A woman walks past Harvard University's Cambridge, Mass. campus. Last week, the Spee, a final club at Harvard, announced that it would admit women for the first time in its 163-year history. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Tom Keane: "Are we in a time warp, somehow thrown back to the 1970s? Women in all-male bastions? Heavens-to-Betsy, what a shocking and bold move!" Pictured: A woman walks past Harvard University's Cambridge, Mass. campus. Last week, the Spee, a final club at Harvard, announced that it would admit women for the first time in its 163-year history. (Elise Amendola/AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Harvard’s Spee Club is considering allowing women to grace its alcohol-besotted halls. The recent news has made national headlines, fetching praise from many corners, condemnation from others, and provoking this question: Are we in a time warp, somehow thrown back to the 1970s? Women in all-male bastions? Heavens-to-Betsy, what a shocking and bold move!

...even as the rest of society has become ever more equal... colleges and universities in many respects remain firmly stuck in the past.

Perhaps it is. For even as the rest of society has become ever more equal, accepting of the idea of women in the workplace, in the military, in social clubs and even, perhaps, in the White House, colleges and universities in many respects remain firmly stuck in the past — a past typified by the dominance of single-sex fraternities and sororities on campuses nationwide.

For those not up on their Harvardania, the Spee Club is one of eight all-male "final" clubs. Steeped in tradition, the clubs have been around for a while. The granddaddy, Porcellian, was founded in the 1790s. Spee is a relative youngster, dating from 1852. All of these clubs are men only. There are a batch of recently-founded women-only final clubs too – the first, the Bee, was in 1991 – but these are poor cousins (both in property and prestige) to the male versions.

What makes a final club any different from your common-grade fraternity or sorority? Not much, really. The final clubs are distinguished by their money, age, non-Greek (but still odd) names, and a lack of connection to a national organization. You won’t find a chapter of Porcellian at Michigan State, for instance.

Like frats and sororities, however, potential members get vetted and asked to join (at Harvard, it’s known as getting “punched”). But at the end of the day, the idea is basically the same: Boys get together with boys, girls get together with girls, and they all party a lot.

The barriers women once faced were remarkable, almost – in retrospect – ludicrous. As recently as the 1970s, the want ads of daily newspapers listed work available under two separate headings: “Jobs for Men” and “Jobs for Women.” Gender roles were strict. Men worked; women were at home. Social clubs – be they places for playing golf or venues where businesspeople met – strictly excluded women. And it was men who used to go to college; men may have put women on pedestals, but they rarely let them into the Ivory Towers.

That’s all changed. It’s now illegal to make sex a job qualification (with narrow exceptions, such as in acting). Women are now close to 50 percent of the workforce (albeit, on average still earning less than men). Rotary Clubs and country clubs now welcome women. (Although a few, such as Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club, went to great lengths to resist. It finally caved in 2012, admitting its first two female members --one of whom was Condoleezza Rice.) Courts have ruled against sex-based discrimination; the Supreme Court in 1996, for instance, told Virginia Military Institute it had to admit women. And women now account for a majority of those earning their degrees.

Given that, it is a curious thing that higher ed remains almost the last redoubt of segregation by sex. Yet that’s what Greek life is, and it is powerful.

Fraternities aren’t everywhere, and as a result, only around 9 percent of all four-year college students are members. But the averages obscure. In many schools, Greek life dominates: About 78 percent of students are in frats at Washington & Lee University, 50 percent at MIT and 46 percent at Dartmouth.

College should be a time for fresh thinking, not four years of indulging in anachronistic exclusion.

One would think the presence of Greek life on campuses perverse, a contradiction of higher ed’s core values. The idea behind post-secondary education – especially of the liberal arts variety — is to break free of the narrow constraints of families, neighborhoods, high school cliques and small circles of friends in order to explore new ideas and new kinds of people. Instead, frats and their ilk impose a social order of like-mindedness, one that is often elitist and anti-egalitarian. Those issues are exacerbated by their inherent sexism.

Spee has all of those problems, too. Indeed, just a few years ago, the club ago was forced to apologize for a party invitation that seemed just short of countenancing sexual harassment. Perhaps this year’s decision to punch women (hmm, wonder if that term will have to change?) is connected. Whatever the reason, it’s to be welcomed. Another club at Harvard, the independently-run Hasty Pudding (a theatrical club noted for its drag performances), was also pressed this year to allow women on stage. It said no, but one suspects that it – and other clubs — will eventually be forced by Spee’s example to reverse itself. And as Harvard goes, so goes the world? The school would like to think so, and in this case, one would hope. College should be a time for fresh thinking, not four years of indulging in anachronistic exclusion.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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