Early last month, Harvard’s administration faced backlash from fraternities, sororities, and other campus organizations after putting restrictions on single-sex student groups. The restrictions–which prevent members of single-sex clubs from serving as team captains or leaders of university-recognized student clubs–arose out of fears that these organizations had perpetuated discrimination and exclusion on campus. The policy resulted in the elimination of nearly every single-sex organization associated with Harvard, prompting these organizations to either close their doors entirely or become co-ed.
As a member of an all-women’s organization, I was conflicted about this news. Although I thought of myself as a supporter of organizations like sororities, which profess to foster positive relationships between women, their all-male counterparts seemed to lack a noble purpose. Discomforted by the prospect of a double standard, I ultimately agreed with Harvard’s actions and began reconsidering how my own involvement in single-sex organizations may have negative ramifications. I even questioned the validity of single-sex institutions in general. Ultimately, I found myself asking whether or not they would be able to sustain themselves in the future. Was Harvard a one-off, or ahead of a curve?
On one hand, I find all-men’s institutions unnecessary and illegitimate. These institutions seem to vaguely support the exclusion of women with a sometimes unhealthy justification: girls make it harder for guys to be guys, a vague phrase that alludes to anything from touch football games to degrading women; therefore, they say, men need their own space for “brotherhood.” With the exception of a few all-men’s institutions that specifically seek to support minority groups–like the Yale Black Men’s Union, for instance–most fraternities and other men’s organizations have no real mandate for ‘empowering’ men. Instead, they seem to solidify men’s already-dominant position in society, all while barring women from entry, reminding them of their own subjugated social position.
Even though all-women’s institutions may be valid in their efforts for gender equality, their history does not preclude them from following a course charted by their male counterparts.
On the other hand, women-only institutions were developed and continue to function as a reaction to years of the exclusion discussed above. In the United States, most all-women’s colleges were established as a direct confrontation to the long history of female exclusion from higher education. Barnard College in New York City, for example, was founded due to rallying efforts of young women against Columbia University’s refusal to admit women.
While the country’s all-male and all-female institutions might have disparate origin stories, it became increasingly clear to me that they were destined for the same fate. Even though all-women’s institutions may be valid in their efforts for gender equality, their history does not preclude them from following a course charted by their male counterparts.
For one, the growing number of people who do not identify as cisgender (i.e. do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) calls the future of gender-based institutions into question. Most all-women’s colleges require students to identify as female at the time they fill out their application, and although recent policies have extended this to include transgender students, there is still ambiguity on how admission standards pertain to non-binary or gender-fluid applicants. Accordingly, all-women’s institutions must attempt to provide a sanctuary for women, while also fluidly defining who counts as one. As soon as one of these institutions begins to discriminate against non-binary and gender nonconforming people in the name of homogeneity, they contradict the fundamental principles of empowerment on which they were formed, and ignite the same frustrations that all-male groups ignited among women.
Moreover, adamant supporters of these institutions fail to recognize that in 2019 we should not have to huddle into our gender-based corners to feel accepted and supported by those around us. We can cultivate those values universally across and between different identities we all hold while avoiding excluding people that do not have fit within the old gender-based framework. Whether or not single-sex institutions can survive in this climate can only be tested with time, but one thing is for sure: in their current state, these institutions no longer reflect the capacity of our society to accept and include.
We can cultivate those values universally across and between different identities we all hold while avoiding excluding people that do not have fit within the old gender-based framework.
The future of single-sex institutions is at best uncertain. The (rightful) inclusion of non-binary people in an increasing number of these organizations may move them away from their origins. As the once-rigid lines of gender-based organizations become blurred, they reflect the new communities of comfort and friendship in our society, demonstrating that these values are not intrinsically tied to one’s gender group, or any demographic group, for that matter. Single-sex organizations are not evil, but they do reflect some antiquated beliefs surrounding gender. When Harvard took steps earlier this month to phase them out of campus life, they communicated an important message: we can and must do better.