CAMBRIDGE — More than 200 female Harvard University students pushed back Monday against a new policy to discourage participation in single-gender clubs at the Ivy League school, a move that will affect sororities and other women’s groups.
During a raucous rally on Harvard Yard, student demonstrators from an organization dubbed the Crimson Women’s Coalition used a hockey stick to unfurl a banner across the facade of a campus building that read, “Hear Her Harvard.”
That brought a cascade of cheers from demonstrators, who say the university’s policy to crack down on single-gender clubs, which will take effect with the freshmen class in 2017, will deprive them of a community of women who gather to assert their rights, in a world where female voices are often marginalized.
“My women’s organization has been more than a social organization,” said graduating senior Whitney Anderson during the rally. “It has been a mental health respite, a place to discuss sexual assaults . . . where I became a feminist, and where I refound my voice.”
The demonstrators were protesting against a plan that Harvard announced on Friday to bar members of 14 so-called final clubs, as well as nine fraternities and sororities, from receiving recommendations for prestigious scholarships from undergraduate dean Rakesh Khurana.
In addition, the plan will bar club members from leading campus organizations and sports teams.
The policy will apply not only to the university’s eight all-male final clubs, but also its six all-female final clubs, five fraternities, and four sororities. Many final clubs maintain off-campus houses in Harvard Square where members have meals and socialize.
Because the clubs are highly secretive, it is not yet clear how administrators will identify individual members. Harvard officials say implementation will be worked out by an advisory group that will be appointed.
The policy is a culmination of a push over the past year by Khurana and other administrators to persuade the male clubs to accept women. So far, two have.
The restrictions were announced amid a mounting standoff between the elite clubs and college administrators, who say the organizations foster a culture that leads to sexual assault.
But during Monday’s rally, demonstrators said that by targeting female clubs as part of the plan, administrators were ultimately doing a disservice to women on campus.
To illustrate the point, protesters held signs bearing slogans such as, “Women’s Groups Keep Women Safe,” and “Collective Punishment Is Not a Harvard Value.”
They also chanted slogans that reverberated across the august yard, including one mantra that went, “What do we want? Female spaces! When do we want them? Now!”
But Harvard officials contend the new policy is part of a broader push to eliminate all forms of gender discrimination on campus.
“As we noted Friday, change is difficult and is often met initially by opposition,” said Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane in a statement Monday.
“That was certainly true with past steps to remove gender barriers at Harvard, yet few today would reverse those then-controversial decisions. We continue to believe that gender discrimination has no place on Harvard’s campus. At the same time, we support the right of every community member to express their views.”
Among those voicing opposition during the rally was Caroline Tervo, an undergraduate who said women face discrimination in a variety of areas.
Those include the classroom where men are called on more often, the workplace where many women earn less than their male counterparts, and in social settings where females are “targeted and shamed for their sexuality,” Tervo said.
Her women’s groups, Tervo said, “have been invaluable parts of my experience.”
“They have introduced me to leadership positions and given me confidence,” she said.
After the speeches, which were repeatedly interrupted by loud cheers and chants, the demonstrators walked a single lap around the yard in solidarity.
And while criticism of the new policy was vociferous at the rally, Dane, the university spokeswoman, said reaction has varied.
“In recent days, we have received messages of support from many members of the broad College community,” Dane said. “We have also, as you know, received messages of concern and opposition.”