After Harvard University announced plans on Friday to bar members of single-gender social clubs from leadership positions and scholarship endorsements from the college, many of Harvard’s women fought back.
The policy is an attempt to crack down on Harvard’s historic "final clubs," which are not officially affiliated with the university. The new rule, however, does not single out those groups, taking in the campus’s unaffiliated five fraternities and four sororities as well.
Students and alumni took their concerns to Harvard Yard and Twitter on Monday night, protesting the administration’s new policy and asking for women’s groups to be exempted. Many women expressed a need for safe spaces and wondered why they were being treated the same as the dominant and more-problematic male groups.
A Harvard spokeswoman, Rachael Dane, said the university stood by the new policy and will set up an advisory committee of administrators, faculty members, and students to put the changes in place.
"As we noted Friday, change is difficult and is often met initially by opposition," Ms. Dane said in a written statement. "That was certainly true with past steps to remove gender barriers at Harvard, yet few today would reverse those then-controversial decisions."
The university released a report in March saying that final clubs "have a disproportionate influence on campus culture — and, more importantly, one that is in many respects negative and helps perpetuate an environment where sexual assault occurs." Since then, the university has faced intense pressure to do something about the groups.
The report takes aim at "a strong sense of sexual entitlement" in the male clubs but also zeroes in on the apparent effect of that on the female clubs. According to the report, female seniors who are members of final clubs are much more likely to have been sexually assaulted than female seniors not in the clubs.
To current and former members of female clubs, targeting their groups along with the male ones seemed excessive.
Morgan Arenson, a 2006 Harvard graduate and graduate board member of the Sablière Society, an all-female final club, said she first thought that since her group did not share the problems of men’s final clubs — like a misogynistic culture and sexual assaults — any policy changes wouldn’t affect it.
Now, under the new policy, Ms. Arenson said she fears that if the Sablière Society is forced to incorporate men too quickly, it may not survive.
"There’s limited resources on campus, and we are sort of at the maximum capacity for our organization currently, so to have to add members or to change the structure of our membership would certainly strain that further," she said.
Membership expansion is far from the toughest issue the clubs must grapple with, Ms. Arenson said. The main obstacle is trying to integrate both genders into the historically single-sex groups while ensuring that the students feel at ease.
Ariane Litalien, a 2014 Harvard graduate and Kappa Kappa Gamma alumnae, said that she had been sexually assaulted at the university, and that her sorority had largely helped her heal.
Though she eventually opened up about the ordeal, Ms. Litalien said she initially felt isolated. It wasn’t until she spoke to other Kappa members and sought advice from a sorority leader who had been sexually assaulted that she felt safe.
After she started talking about it, Ms. Litalien said, other sorority members who had been sexually assaulted formed an anonymous support group within the chapter.
If the organization is forced to include men, Ms. Litalien said, she is not sure if the same type of security and healing would be possible.
Jenny Li, a 2015 Harvard graduate and former Kappa Kappa Gamma president, said many women in the organizations feel they are an afterthought in Harvard’s decision-making process. She said she had never been contacted by administrators with suggestions for policy changes.
"It was just sad to see Harvard make, I guess, an overcorrection and miss the foundation to the root issue they are trying to solve," Ms. Li said. "Lumping in sororities and fraternities seemed like very much an afterthought in the conversation."
Now sororities at Harvard have to deal with the side effects of a policy decision they had no part in crafting. Sororities that admit men will probably be forced to disaffiliate with their national organization, Ms. Litalien said.
The National Panhellenic Conference, the group that manages sororities and fraternities in the United States, released a statement on Monday urging Harvard to change its decision.
"While we understand and share Harvard’s goals of creating a safe and equitable environment for students, we are discouraged and disappointed by the policy announced Friday, as it mistakenly assumes the way to achieve those ends is to punish students for participating in single-gender organizations," read the statement. "We urge Harvard to reconsider this policy."
But Wendy Murphy, a lawyer who helps students file federal sexual-assault and discrimination complaints, said the new policy could end up working in favor of the protesting students.
Women cannot be equal, she said in an email to The Chronicle, if they continue to hold that structured, single-gender environments carry advantages.
"The protesting women are no doubt well intentioned — but they’re in fact marching for the ability of deeply sexist men who are fundamentally opposed to women’s equality to be elevated BY Harvard to positions of leadership and influence, on campus and around the world," Ms. Murphy wrote.