The sorority defense doesn’t stand up

Harvard's ban of single-sex clubs, even those catering to women, is right call

SEVERAL CURRENT and former Harvard sororities and fraternities recently sued Harvard in both state and federal courts, citing gender discrimination that violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the US Constitution. The sheer irony of this move is laughable.

In 2016, Harvard’s then-president Drew Faust banned students in sororities, fraternities, and final clubs (“same-sex social clubs”) from holding leadership positions or earning prestigious fellowships and scholarships — functionally disbanding many of those that refused to become gender-neutral. For context, final clubs are mostly centuries-old, mostly white, mostly male-only, and mostly wealthy (many own mansions in the heart of Harvard Square). Although modifying its official reasoning several times, Harvard has been motivated to prevent the cultures of patriarchal elitism and sexual assault that these social clubs, particularly final clubs, routinely enable.

To this end, all of these organizations lost their official Harvard student organization status in the ’80s, but their prevalence in Harvard undergraduates’ social life has long since persisted. They are relics of a much older and less diverse Harvard, but by owning many off-campus student residences, they dominate the undergraduate social scene. In the wake of Harvard’s sanctions, Greek life and final clubs have now launched their last-resort legal challenges. Like President Faust, I struggle to find sufficient reasoning to prop up outdated, exclusionary, assault-ridden institutions whose existences are predicated upon discriminating on immutable social characteristics.

These organizations have many of the top law firms in Boston on retainer, and are preparing to argue their case chiefly by framing a defense of women’s spaces (even though most clubs are male-only). So they accuse Harvard of gender discrimination — removing beloved sorority spaces key to “women’s empowerment” — even though these women-only spaces exist to provide refuge to the young women who find that so many other social spaces at Harvard cater exclusively to men. Across the country, sorority women have come to the defense of their Harvard sisters, arguing that uniquely female spaces are a necessity to navigate a world catering to the needs of men. But why continue to work within a broken system that doesn’t need to exist in the first place?

After all, single-sex clubs are deeply exclusionary (to gender non-conforming individuals, to those who cannot afford hundreds of dollars in semester dues and social gatherings, to those whose identities are outside the norm of a rich, white Harvard), unnecessary (plenty of other organizations on campus continue to cater to young men and women in supportive and often gender-specific ways), and can easily facilitate the culture of assault that Faust fears. Given the importance of inclusivity and the severity of sexual assault, I struggle to find merit in these last-resort lawsuits.

Harvard’s sanctions were in the best interests of its students, its mission, and its institutional future. Defending her decision in The Harvard Crimson, Faust invokes the history of gender segregation – noting how upset both men and women initially were when Radcliffe, a women’s college, merged with Harvard in the 1970s (a decision very few now regret), and how “separate had implied and embodied unequal.”

Eduardo González, whose ticket for student government president two years ago was the only one to support the sanctions, rejects the lawsuit outright and told me that “these organizations don’t have a place in the Harvard of today, let alone the Harvard of the future.”

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Rachel Adele Dec

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González, too, agrees that the opportunity for organic, internal change has come and gone. Minor shifts in financial stipends for those who could not afford the dues and the occasional welcoming of gender-nonconforming students does not make for the inclusive social environment that undergraduates so desperately need. The university has to compel the old guard to change, or it simply won’t happen.

Final clubs and fraternities have long been the refuge of men. Perhaps, instead of operating under a framework of their hegemony and buttressing our defenses against it, as we have for decades, we ought to now seize this opportunity to dismantle them head-on and uproot these antiquated systems of patriarchy.