It is an early fall evening, and men in crisp, white shirts walk briskly down Mt. Auburn Street in small groups, chatting quietly, loafers clicking against the brick sidewalk. Blue blazers and neckties flap in the breeze. The sight is an uncommon one at Harvard these days, with jeans and sweats the everyday mode of dress, shed only for House formals, it seems. But these undergraduates are off to formal dinners, in Boston and its environs, at the Somerset Club, Locke-Ober's or the Wellesley home of an alumnus. It is punching season again, and whether it's among roommates, in the dining halls, or on the pages of the Crimson, the ongoing existence of Harvard's final clubs is a hotly debated topic.
Last September, in a groundbreaking decision, the Fly Club voted unanimously to allow women into the club as members. That decision, as well as a boycott of final club parties enacted by Women Appealing for Change (WAC), breathed new life into what had looked like a moribund debate.
But the Fly's alumni council later voted to postpone the decision for a year, thereby giving a new class a voice in the decision, and some say the momentum was lost in the wait. In September the club issued a press release that stated, "This year's punching season will begin in early October and select the 158th class of Fly Club members. And, as it has been since 1836, they will all be male."
The issue of final club membership has been an increasingly complex one since 1985, the year Harvard orphaned the groups. When the clubs ignored official suggestions that they go coed, Harvard severed all ties with them—a move that forced them to find their own heat, water, and telephone lines (but not members) elsewhere. Some argue that Harvard thus washed its hands of the issue; the independence of the clubs allowed them a distance that even the Massachusetts Committee Against Discrimination—following a 1987 complaint lodged against the Fly Club by Lisa Schkolnick '88, with the help of Law School professor Alan Dershowitz—said could not be legally contested.
"Harvard made a tradeoff that allowed the clubs to remain male bastions," says Sarah Winters '95, co-chair of WAC. "We're appealing for coed punching, and while there are many other problems with final clubs, nothing else can be tackled before the issue of sexist exclusion. The boycott last year was intended to encourage the clubs to rethink their exclusionary policies; by encouraging women to stop going to their parties, we hoped to get the men to think about their reasons behind wanting women there."
WAC membership consists mainly of women with close relationships to the clubs. Admittedly disappointed by the Fly's decision, they have decided not to continue their boycott this year, opting instead for a less direct media approach. "For some women," notes Winters, "the boycott was a difficult thing, and many members of WAC were unwilling to give up two years of final club parties, especially after the way the Fly vote was handled. There was a chance last year and they dropped the ball. That chance will be a long time in coming again."
"I was pretty excited for the club to go coed," says Walter Sipe '95, an inactive member of the Fly Club. "The discussion last year went really well, and there was a lot of support behind it. Perhaps the club lost those core members, but I don't think it's so much a changing of the guard. The issue just wasn't taken as seriously this year, and now it's dead in the water.
"Every class has its own character," Sipes continues, "and a lot of guys come in liking the clubs the way they are. Many of the men pushing the coed issue last year were seniors. I think as people get on in college, they feel that an all-male environment has less to offer than they thought it would."
Founded in the once entirely male environment of Harvard, the final clubs have resisted more than twenty years of full coeducation. Originally, only two clubs existed; the Porcellian and the A.D. had memberships composed solely of seniors. The Fly, Spee, and Delphic served as "waiting clubs" for underclassmen. At the turn of the century, the Phoenix, Fox, Owl, and D.U. were founded, and all nine clubs soon began to admit members in the fall of their sophomore year.
The final clubs currently represent a mere 10 percent of Harvard's undergraduate male population, and some members argue that the clubs are not Harvard University. Yet in the minds of many, they remain what Cleveland Amory '39 called them in The Proper Bostonians in 1947: "the real be-alls and end-alls of Harvard social existence." Once a refuge or proving ground for the social elite, the final clubs today host most of the parties at Harvard.
Yet the status of women at some of the clubs is clearly marked at functions they're invited to attend. Members alone may pass through the front door, while women must come in via a smaller entrance on the side or back of the building.
The one club that generally stands apart from the discussion is the Porcellian. While the other eight clubs have moved toward open parties in recent years, the Porcellian maintains a uniform policy of not allowing entrance to any nonmembers.
"The PC. is the only club that really draws a line that doesn't lead to confusion," says member Nick Peterson '95. "It's a home away from home, a place where you can turn to get away from the bustle of everyday life at Harvard. I have a lot of close friends in the club, a support network almost. My view is that the PC. is very different from the other clubs. It's not about sex, nor showing off to women—it's about friendships among men."
Even WAC ventures to say that Porcellian members "aren't hypocrites." While some of the final clubs have taken on a fraternity-like feel, the Porcellian remains quiet and removed. "In some ways I respect the Porcellian argument," says Hallie Levine '95, who has recently written about the clubs for both the Crimson and Boston Magazine. "They're undeniably elitist, but they don't simply use women and then kick them out when they're inconvenient to have around. The Porcellian has also been able to maintain some of the ambiance of Harvard's past, which the Fly and a few others have done as well. But the rest are now just guys and beer, and there's not much tradition left in them. They've disintegrated in that sense."
It is often argued that women should form their own clubs, and one—the Bee—does actually exist. But the Bee goes virtually unnoticed, partly because it lacks a clubhouse. Instead, members meet once a week for tea or a museum visit. "Women's clubs don't have the capital or housing of the final clubs," says Winters. "It's just not economically feasible to buy a house in the Square these days, and, beyond that, you can't duplicate 150 years of tradition and connections."
Some final club members fear that a coed punch would turn their club into a "meat market." Others note that after Princeton's clubs went coed, many women were asked to join simply because they were considered attractive or were dating a member at the time. Although Yale's secret societies and Princeton's eating clubs have successfully integrated women, the status of Yale's Skull and Bones is uncertain because membership is never disclosed, and Princeton's clubs went coed only after a lawsuit.
The issue of elitism in the clubs makes up the other half of the debate. Some students are willing to pay fees they cannot really afford in order to be members. While a few clubs maintain that some financial assistance is available, they are still not accessible to all men who might want to punch. "If someone is elected and there's a financial problem, it will be solved," says one Porcellian member. "But we can't have a whole class of people who can't pay their way, and neither can Harvard itself."
"I have had some interaction with the clubs even in my own efforts to avoid them," says Marco Torres '96. "I find them trying, and, as someone who is ethnic and gay, I feel doubly excluded by them; most clubs would not welcome a gay member, and as a Latino, I see them as a reification of Harvard's already overwhelmingly white presence.
"I view them as institutions that undermine a personhood that goes deeper than the wallet, skin color, or sexual orientation," Torres adds. "People say that Harvard itself is exclusive, or that friendships are inherently based on exclusion; they offer these as justification for the existence of final clubs. I think that it's fine for men to feel they should have their space, but when it's marked out by exclusion, it infringes upon everyone else's space."
One would be hard-pressed to find a presiding sentiment these days, and while the discussion continues, the final clubs are comfortably separate and thriving. Until a desire for change again grips the membership, the clubs will remain as they always have, their oak-paneled doors opening—and closing— as they please.
Since writing this column, Jeremy Faro has been elected a member of the Porcellian Club.