I’m not here to lambast the final clubs for the inequality and gender, race and class-based discrimination they perpetuate. While those negatives undoubtedly exist, the recently proposed ban on “Unrecognized Single Gender Social Organizations” does little to fix these harms. To truly help female students, Harvard should focus on making concerted, proactive policy decisions that support and empower women.
As an institution of great influence, power and wealth, Harvard certainly has an obligation to attempt to dismantle the systems of oppression it once created—but banning USGSOs would be a move of little consequence. Harvard’s history is rife with examples of the systematic exclusion of female scholars. For example, it was not until 1967 that Lamont Library, the Harvard library in which I sit today while writing this article, began to allow women through its doors. A further fifty years passed before Harvard appointed its first female university president in 2007. In light of this history of exclusion, it may seem like banning unrecognized single-gender organizations is a powerful action; however, it is at best a fleeting, ineffectual, symbolic measure.
This recommendation does little to address the reality of being a female student at Harvard because it does not proactively work to end rape culture. In 2015, 31.2 percent of female Harvard seniors reported experiencing “non-consensual penetration and sexual touching,” just ahead of a terrifying national average of 27 percent. In the wake of this finding, a Harvard committee released a report recommending increased funding for sexual assault prevention and response, more mandated student education and training, and regulation of the final clubs. While Harvard has been quick to act against the final clubs, strong support for the other initiatives has not materialized. Moreover, Harvard has systematically ignored recommendations on ending rape culture and implementing stronger policies to empower women, made by female students themselves.
Instead, as early as May 2016, the administration touted sanctions with an “explicit goal of ending the gender segregation and discrimination of [USGSOs],” while President Drew Faust expressed that these sanctions addressed “deeply rooted gender attitudes, and the related issues of sexual misconduct.” Since then, the approach recommended by the USGSO committee has evolved from sanctions to an outright ban. Rather than following the holistic approach advocated by the Harvard committee’s report discussed above, the administration chose to convene a second committee to further study the final clubs, which has went on to recommend a unilateral ban on USGSOs, treating it as a silver bullet for ending gender-based discrimination and violence.
On a perfect campus, female students would feel safe drinking at parties or walking by themselves at night without fear of assault. Women would feel able to reject unwanted romantic advances without threat of retaliation. Women would feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly about experiences of sexual assault. But this is not a perfect campus, and whether or not the final clubs continue holding parties is inconsequential. Attempting to shut the doors of the final clubs appears to be the administration’s crusade rather than a concerted, evidence-based attempt to protect women.
Ultimately, when it comes to creating a campus atmosphere that is safe and inclusive to women, the fate of the final clubs matters little. There are many more effective, more feasible policies to implement. Harvard must increase funding and resources for sexual assault prevention training; improve and expand resources for victims of sexual assault; and discourage rape culture by taking sexual assault allegations seriously and preventing victim blaming. Furthermore, Harvard should take steps to develop more nuanced policies that take into account the disproportionate incidence of sexual assault among trans students.
Most importantly, Harvard must substantively engage with female students and allies to find meaningful policy measures that support and empower women, rather than looking to promote a trendy, headline-grabbing ban on USGSOs that does little for the people it purports to help.