NEW HAVEN, Conn. — In 1987, David Code — then a member of Yale’s Whiffenpoofs, the country’s oldest collegiate a cappella group — staked out an unpopular position: It was time for the group to admit women. The Whiffenpoofs possessed unparalleled resources, he reasoned, and he knew of female singers who wanted and deserved a spot in their ranks. The debate grew “ugly and personal,” Code said, before the rest of his Whiffenpoofs class reached a unanimous conclusion: They would remain all male.
Three decades later, that finally changed, when on Monday the Whiffenpoofs tapped Sofia Campoamor, a junior, as the first female member of the group since its founding in 1909. “This isn’t something that I ever expected, and I’m so excited,” Campoamor said.
The break with tradition immediately rippled across Yale’s campus and alumni community.
“I cried when I heard,” Code said. “I am thrilled. I am delighted. And most of all, I want to meet this girl. I want to hear her voice. This is something I’ve dreamed about for years. The Whiffenpoofs should have gone coed in 1968, when Yale went coed. Finally, 50 years later, meritocracy is here — and it’s long overdue.”
The campaign for the Whiffs to accept women gained momentum only recently. After the Whiffenpoofs voted against admitting them in 2016, a record number of female singers auditioned anyway and an online petition circulated urging the Whiffs to reverse the decision.
Then, last month, the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ‘n Rhythm — Yale’s all-female senior a cappella group — announced that they would admit singers based not on gender but on their designation within the world of a cappella singing, with the Whim functioning as an SSAA group — referring to Soprano I and II and Alto I and II — and the Whiffenpoofs keeping its TTBB standard, referring to Tenor I and II, Baritone and Bass.
Auditions for both groups spanned most of February. About 40 students tried out for the Whiffenpoofs, according to Kenyon Duncan, the group’s current musical director; Campoamor sings Tenor I.
“This class of Whiffenpoofs is exceptionally talented, and Sofia is right there with them,” Duncan said. “I don’t expect everyone to look at the decision and see what we see. But if people judge Sofia based on her quality as a singer, they would reach the same conclusions that we have.”
Uniquely, members of the Whiffenpoofs take a leave of absence after their junior year to perform, often visiting more than a dozen countries and giving 200 to 250 concerts. Duncan said the world tour is paid for by the group’s substantial concert fees.
The group enjoys wide name recognition and has sung in the White House for presidents, including Barack Obama, both George Bushes, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Until now, there has been a clear trajectory for Yale a cappella singers. In their first two years, students can audition for a range of groups, including single- and mixed-gender options. But come junior spring, there are only two all-senior groups to audition for: the Whiffenpoofs and Whim ‘n Rhythm, whose members have not traditionally devoted a year to touring the world.
“Admitting a woman definitely creates new options for next year for a lot of us,” said Anna-Sophia Boguraev, a sophomore at Yale who currently sings for the all-female New Blue a cappella group.
According to Gabriella Borter, the business manager of Whim ‘n Rhythm, 32 juniors auditioned for the group this year, an unusually high number. The one man who tried out dropped out before selections were made.
In January, Hasty Pudding Theatricals, a Harvard theater troupe that put on its first production in 1844 and has never had women performers, said it would encourage women to audition this year.
At Yale, students and administrators hypothesized that older alumni — particularly those who graduated before Yale admitted women — are more likely to oppose the Whiffenpoofs’ decision to go coed. Several older alumni recently told the Yale Daily News that the Whiffenpoofs would struggle to retain their trademark sound were they to admit women.
“I hope the decision to have alternative genders participate in the Whiffenpoofs was made for artistic and not for political reasons,” C. Daniel Bergfeld ’65, a Whiffs alumni who has served as secretary of the group’s board of trustees, said in an interview. “I think a downside of this is it might possibly change the sound of the Whiffs, which is an all-male, very robust sound. And that in turn could jeopardize the appeal of the Whiffs in their current marketplace, if you will.”
Still, John Wilkinson, a 1960 Yale graduate who later served as Yale’s dean of students and university secretary, said that while many of his peers will have misgivings with the decision, they will ultimately adjust.
“The only surprise here is that it didn’t happen sooner,” Wilkinson said. “I’ve watched so many of these changes in my life, from coeducation to admitting women to senior societies, and after they happened, we look at one another and try to remember what the objections were, what the issue was, why was this even debated.”