Commentary Magazine

Sacrificing Sisterhood at Harvard

Wikipedia Commons.

Much has been written here at COMMENTARY about Harvard’s ill-conceived war on “unrecognized single-gender organizations.” At issue are fraternities, sororities, and Harvard’s famously exclusive “finals clubs.” All of these groups already lack official status at Harvard, but starting with the class of 2021, Harvard promises to punish anyone who dares to join one. Such heretics “will not be permitted to hold leadership positions in recognized student organizations or on athletic teams.” They will also “not be eligible for letters of recommendation” from the Dean’s office for scholarships, including the prestigious Rhodes and Marshall, that require such a recommendation. In the name of inclusion, they must be excluded.

As Harvard explained, “the final clubs, in particular, are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogeneous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent.” Which is why—I wish I were kidding—sororities must be destroyed. On August 5th, Harvard’s chapter of Delta Gamma sorority announced that it would shut down. Wilma Johnson Wilbanks, president of Delta Gamma’s national organization, said that Harvard’s new policy “resulted in an environment in which Delta Gamma could not thrive.”

Harvard has gamely asserted that the sororities are part of the same ancient culture of privilege and exclusion as the finals clubs. And sororities play a minor role—the main villains are the “deeply misogynistic” all-male finals clubs—in the 2016 report on sexual assault at Harvard that launched the push for the new policy. But Harvard’s Delta Gamma chapter, founded in 1994, is an unintended casualty of a policy designed to crush all-male clubs. Harvard had initially planned to allow female-only clubs to remain “gender-focused” for five years after the new policy went into effect. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a critic of the new policy, pointed out, such special treatment probably would have violated Title IX, a civil rights law that governs campuses that receive federal funding.

The relevant section of Title IX reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX would seem to prevent Harvard from punishing men for belonging to all-male fraternities if it does not also punish women for belonging to all-female sororities.

Although one cannot prove that a lawyer whispered in Harvard’s ear, this Title IX problem may well explain why Harvard quietly dropped the five year grace period for sororities. But it might also explain why sororities were dragged into the new policy in the first place. If Harvard had gone to war solely with all-male clubs, its lawyers would have had the hard task of explaining why, under Title IX, a university can “decide that women’s groups can exist but men’s cannot.”

To win its war against misogyny, Harvard had to sacrifice sisterhood.

After all, Harvard’s justification for attacking single-sex organizations made liberal use of the term “diversity.” The university undoubtedly sympathized with the protesters who, reading out of the diversity playbook, insisted that all-women organizations are “safe spaces” for women. “Change is hard,” they said. What they meant was: “if we want to protect women we’ll need to take away their freedom of association.”

If you want to make a social justice omelet, you have to break some eggs.

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