CAMBRIDGE — Just blocks from the multimillion-dollar brick mansions owned by Harvard University’s legendary all-male final clubs is a separate world.
Here, drab office building basements and former storefronts have been retouched with white lace curtains, comfy couches, and brightly decorated walls. Scattered around Harvard Square, these rented spaces are home to several of the university’s sororities and women’s final clubs.
There are no taxidermy collections here, passed down over generations, or grand staircases, and there’s barely enough room in some of them to throw a boozy party. Instead, it’s where Harvard’s undergraduate women say they pad around in their socks, gather to binge-watch Netflix shows, prep with their friends for job interviews, and compare notes on birth control.
But as Harvard attempts to crack down on all-male final clubs, a proposal to ban membership in exclusive clubs could have a disproportionate impact on women, who belong to such organizations in greater numbers.
“These sanctions unfairly punish women’s groups,” said Pauline Ryan, who graduated from Harvard this spring and was a member of a sorority and a women’s final club. “The administration often highlights Harvard’s mission of preparing its students for the ‘real world,’ but what they fail to acknowledge is that the real world still has ‘old boys clubs’ and that therefore women’s organizations remain necessary balancers and spaces that empower women.”
Earlier this month, a university panel recommended that Harvard bar students from joining private, off-campus clubs — a plan that would ultimately need the approval of university president Drew Faust. While the main target of the proposal is seven all-male final clubs, which administrators blame for unruly parties that have led to underage drinking and sexual assault, and for fostering a divisive culture, the recommendation calls for phasing out all elite social clubs, including fraternities, sororities, and female final clubs by 2022.
That has angered many sorority and female final club members, who say they have been swept up by the university’s efforts to crack down on these all-men bastions that draw some of the wealthiest male students on campus.
There are four sororities and four all-women final clubs for Harvard students. Membership is hard to calculate, because the groups keep their rosters private and some women join both sororities and final clubs. But Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean at Harvard College and vocal opponent of the proposed policy, estimates that 900 women belong to such clubs — as opposed to 675 men.
“A lot of the conversation has been around male clubs; that’s particularly frustrating,” said Camille N’Diaye-Muller, 21, a rising senior and the undergraduate president of the Delta Gamma sorority. She said she and many women support the university’s aims to create a safe and inclusive space for students.
“We don’t believe this will deal with sexual assault and exclusivity,” she said. “A policy like this will do more harm than good.”
Harvard officials declined to comment on the committee’s recommendations.
But in its report, the committee acknowledged that there are distinctions among the single-gender clubs and that many of them formed as “well-intentioned antidotes to the effects of the final clubs.”
But the final clubs and other such exclusive organizations create a “pernicious” influence on undergraduate life, according to the report.
“In order to move beyond the gendered and exclusive club system that has persisted — and even expanded — over time, a new paradigm is needed, one that is rooted in an appreciation of diversity, commitment to inclusivity, and positive contributions to the social experience for all students,” the report states.
While sororities say they have an open recruitment process and try to match women with an organization, not everybody gets in. The Harvard Crimson reported that 280 women signed up for sorority recruitment this year, but only 193 received invitations to join.
The women’s final groups, La Vie Club, the Bee Club, the IC Club, the Pleiades Society, are even smaller and invitation-only. Many rent space from the men’s final clubs and hold joint events.
Several women at Harvard said the sororities and women’s final clubs have been their refuge at a hypercompetitive school, where power is still held primarily by men.
While women outnumber men on US college campuses, accounting for 57 percent of enrolled students, at Harvard men make up about 52 percent of students. Though Faust became Harvard’s first female president a decade ago, the tenured faculty remains predominately male, with women accounting for between a quarter and just over a third of the tenured or tenure-track faculty, according to Harvard data.
Many of Harvard’s sororities and women’s final clubs started more than 25 years ago as an alternative social space to the male final clubs and fraternities.
For Rebecca Ramos, 22, a Delta Gamma who graduated in May and plans to be a high school teacher, her sorority was the place where she could relax most at Harvard.
The high-achieving students who get into Harvard have spent most of their high school lives participating in a gamut of activities and are eager to re-create that experience when they arrive on campus. But getting into many of Harvard’s extracurricular organizations, whether it’s the debate club, dance club, or social-service organizations, can be competitive.
Students have to go through a “comp” process, which either stands for competency or competition — the origins are in dispute. The requirements include essays, interviews, multiple tryouts. Many try, few succeed.
Ramos said she applied to join more than a dozen groups as a freshman but got into fewer than a handful, and was struggling to find her place on campus, when she joined the sorority.
“Harvard can be a very difficult place to be a student,” she said. “A lot of people at Harvard have this mask, that everything is great. It’s about, ‘Did I get the perfect internship that will land me the perfect job?’ But the sorority is a place where women feel comfortable taking that mask off.”
She said she has confided in her sorority sisters when she was stressed about how she was doing in college.
Sororities and single-gender clubs also help women form networks that can help them land jobs, provide recommendations for graduate school, and offer support if they move to a new city, members say. Members and graduates say that the ban may push the bad behavior of the men’s final clubs that Harvard is hoping to rein in further underground and make it more difficult to monitor.
Ariel Stoddard, who graduated from Harvard in 2010 and was a member of The Sabliere Society, an arts-based women’s final club that went coed this year, said having women’s social groups is important. She belongs to a women’s networking organization in Los Angeles, where she now lives.
“There are groups and clubs that exist across all ages and affiliations,” she said. “They provide a huge social support.”