Monday, November 6, 2017

Guest post by 23 undergraduate women

Do Not Punish Harvard Women for Men’s Behavior: Vote Yes to the Lewis Motion
It is astonishingly paternalistic for Harvard to threaten the support groups of hundreds of women in the name of ridding the university of elite men’s clubs. This should spark outrage among faculty, administrators, and students, but instead has, among many, merely sparked a “what a shame” reaction. “What a shame” that the sororities and women’s groups doing good on our campus, empowering women, providing desperately needed support for women, leading charitable fundraisers, and contributing so significantly to women’s mental health “have to go.” The premise has been that women must not be allowed to join groups without men – for their own good – because it is the only way to “get at” men’s final clubs. An underlying justification has been that women must be protected from making bad social decisions such as waiting in line to get into men’s final club parties. Banning women’s off- campus groups is not and has never been about opening women’s support or friendship groups to men, in order to end some supposed form of discrimination against men. The consistent refrain of “it’s a shame” that Harvard must eliminate women’s groups through sanctions or to otherwise deal with the behaviors of men is outrageous and unconscionable. Make no mistake – this is sexism – as it has existed in the past but now in more insidious form, as it is now clothed in anti-discrimination verbiage and purported rationale. This point has been previously made, but women’s protests, begging for Harvard to hear them, marching in unity, have been met with the response that women groups are unfortunate collateral damage for a more noble cause – this cause of protecting them. This is egregious. How can it be tolerated?
Incorrect assumptions and biases exist regarding sororities. I had some of those same assumptions before I came to Harvard. They were wrong. The truth is that Harvard sorority women are diverse, intelligent, and serious-minded, from different socioeconomic groups, with different religious beliefs, political views, sexual orientations, personalities, and experiences, coexisting in friendship, kindness, and unity and providing safety for women. No parties or alcohol are allowed in the sororities’ spaces. Sororities are inherently and intentionally values-based organizations. New member education includes training on standards of behavior expected by the sorority nationally, strict policies regarding alcohol and drugs, education about sexual assault, healthy relationships, bystander intervention, and more. Sorority members have credited the support they have received from these off- campus groups with helping them overcome depression, suicidal feelings, eating disorders, and other mental health issues in ways that on-campus groups have not. Dismantling off-campus social groups in which one-third of women on campus have found significant support and improved mental health outcomes is both illogical and harmful. When the rationale for doing so is based on a perceived necessity to curb men’s behavior, it becomes indefensible.
Philanthropic commitment and community service are significant sorority values and emphases. Alpha Phi’s motto is “Union Hand in Hand,” and its philanthropic focus is Women’s Heart Health. Delta Gamma’s motto is “Do Good,” and its philanthropy is Service for Sight, serving the blind and visually impaired and funding sight conservation research. Kappa Alpha Theta’s motto is “Leading Women,” and its philanthropy is Court Appointed Special Advocates, serving and advocating for children in the foster care system. Kappa Kappa Gamma’s motto is “Aspire to Be,” and its philanthropy is Reading is Fundamental, working to promote children’s literacy. Sororities promote friendship, leadership, kindness, character, and service intentionally - declaring that those qualities are as important as, if not more important than, being accomplished. Sisterhood is the goal, not a side effect.
The most vocal and impassioned opposition to the sanctions has come from women, not the men’s final clubs, because the final clubs can evade the sanctions and function much as they always have. I obviously do not purport to speak for all women, including all sorority women, but I am one of hundreds of current Harvard women and thousands of alumnae who have found strength and support in off-campus sisterhood. More women than men are adversely impacted by the penalties of the Khurana sanctions. Are we not at a time in our country and history where we recognize the urgent need for women to have the freedom to unite in friendship and sisterhood, to embrace the values they deem important, and to speak out against injustice? We must demand an answer to the question – why is it acceptable for sororities to be swept up in the anti-men’s final clubs frenzy? Why not, as our peer schools Yale, Princeton, and Stanford have done, work on the issues deemed problematic, rather than banning off-campus women’s groups (as well as other off-campus groups) with threats of penalization? Why are hundreds of Harvard women’s voices being silenced?
The sanctions and penalties are overbroad, unjust, and have a disproportionate adverse effect on women. Unconscionably, sororities are completely left out of the discussion on the effects or reason for penalties. No acknowledgement is made that going coed is not possible per the national rules and charters of sororities, and therefore sororities would simply have to be closed, while men’s final clubs - the primary target of the sanctions – would be able to make meaningless adjustments to come into technical “compliance.” (For example, some of the men’s club proposals include their members not becoming “real members” until after graduation, allowing the finals clubs to exist as alumni clubs, which would not be impacted by penalties or sanctions.)
The question of the sanctions is not a question of whether or not any off-campus social organizations need reform, but whether or not University sanctions will accomplish any intended goals. All proposed plans thus far would force sororities to shut down, while men's final clubs - the intended targets of the sanctions - will be virtually unaffected. Clubs will either go underground, perhaps like underground fraternities at Amherst or like secret societies at Yale, or, as more recently discussed, will become alumni clubs, of which students will not "officially" be members until they graduate, taking the clubs even further out of the administration's purview and making them even more untouchable for reform than they currently are. If the administration's goal is truly reform, rather than simply meaningless action on paper, the only way to achieve that is to work with clubs, rather than further alienate or threaten them. In response to current sanctions, overwhelmingly, behind closed doors, most men's clubs have lawyered up and dug in their heels, knowing they can get around anything thrown at them by the administration, with little to no functional change, in a way that organizations without comparable resources or with national bylaws cannot.
The idea that national sorority groups are in some way pernicious or nefarious is based on false and discriminatory stereotypes. These national organizations provide invaluable leadership training, are grounded in shared values, and focus on critical issues affecting women. Last month’s issue of one of the national sorority magazines, for example, featured the organization’s specific efforts to address violence against women, including leading the conversation on consent and providing resources and opportunity to confront sexual violence. I would ask those who assume they understand what these groups offer in terms of mental health and other support whether they have actually tried to learn about what sororities do. Has UHS or the administration ever even studied the positive impact of sororities on Harvard women’s mental health or the adverse impact of losing such groups that more than one-third of Harvard women have chosen to join?
If Harvard students want to be members of organizations that have national networks and governing bodies, on their own time, with their own money, without use of Harvard’s name, and not in Harvard’s spaces, they should be allowed to do so. They certainly should not be penalized for being part of groups dedicated to their well-being even though Harvard does not vet or monitor such groups. Harvard women are capable of making their own decisions about what groups empower them.
I hope for the emotional well-being of one-third of the women on campus, that the administration and faculty reconsider the notion that the “health and well-being of our student body” necessitates telling young women that joining together for strength and mutual support, in organizations explicitly protected by Title IX, is an offense so severe as to be deserving of suspension, termination, or severe penalty.
I urge the faculty and administrators not to adopt punishments that would penalize women from exercising their freedom to join in sisterhood for support, unity, friendship, empowerment, and philanthropy. Such actions are not progress, nor do they promote justice.
Instead, I urge passage of the Lewis motion, which protects women’s rights and wellbeing. Passage of the Lewis motion allows women’s groups to continue to exist and also provides the administration the opportunity to address desired final club reforms, as our peer schools Yale, Princeton, and Stanford have done, without driving male final clubs underground.
Margaret Wilson, Harvard College Class of 2019
Jordan Virtue, Harvard College Class of 2020
Hayley Edgerley, Harvard College Class of 2019
Cora Neudeck, Harvard College Class of 2019
Samantha Perri, Harvard College Class of 2020
Kathleen Barrow, Harvard College Class of 2019
Sophia Zheng, Harvard College Class of 2020
Kristine Falck, Harvard College Class of 2020
Kaitlyn Rabinovitz, Harvard College Class of 2020
Delaney Tevis, Harvard College Class of 2019
Emily Luu, Harvard College Class of 2019
Rebecca Ramos, Harvard College Class of 2017

Sophie Lipson, Harvard College Class of 2017
Caroline Gentile, Harvard College Class of 2017
Emma Wheeler, Harvard College Class of 2017
Bella Gomez, Harvard College Class of 2017
Rachel Milam, Harvard College Class of 2017
Hailey Reneau, Harvard College Class of 2017
Tina Murphy, Harvard College Class of 2017
Savanna Arral, Harvard College Class of 2016
Laura Gullett, Harvard College Class of 2016
Sarah Scalia, Harvard College Class of 2015, HBS 2019
Julia Kee, Harvard College Class of 2016


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very thoughtful and articulate piece that hopefully won’t fall on deaf ears. I wholeheartedly agree and applaud this message. At the same time, and although it may be hard for some to believe, much the same could be said of the men’s final clubs today. It would be similarly correct to say that “The truth is that Harvard [final club men] are diverse, intelligent, and serious-minded, from different socioeconomic groups, with different religious beliefs, political views, sexual orientations, personalities, and experiences, coexisting in friendship, kindness, and unity...”. The assault on men’s final clubs began as an attack on behaviors, but when that argument began to unwind in the face of reality, it notably shifted to an attack on the concept of “exclusivity”... which, viewed through a different lens, is the crux of the close associations that engender the many positive outcomes cited in this letter.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.