When Harvard announced their decision to effectively outlaw single-gender organizations on campus last spring, reactions were mixed.
The policy, which will be implemented starting with the class of 2021, will preclude members of unrecognized single-gender organizations from holding leadership positions elsewhere on campus, as well as from receiving letters of recommendation from faculty members. In making the decision, the university cited findings of “deeply misogynistic attitudes” in single-gender organizations that contribute to unsafe sexual environments.
On the surface, the change seems positive. But some, including Harvard graduates Morgan Arenson, Eugenia Huh and Ariel Stoddard, expressed fear of disenfranchising women in the social scene as a result of the rules change. In a column for The Harvard Crimson, the three noted that if male organizations become co-ed, subsequent women members will be at a disadvantage due to the male domination of these groups, both historically and in their alumni networks. Additionally, there’s a fear that women’s groups that traditionally acted as female-centric safe spaces will go extinct.
But inclusivity is not incompatible with safe spaces — gender diversity benefits all, and Harvard’s rules change seeks to express this. The change will help to reduce sexual violence and empower people to seek out whichever social circle they prefer to join. And while the new policy may not do much to ensure that currently single-gendered organizations will diversify any time soon, the issue isn’t that simple.
This is especially true of traditionally male-only organizations. Cultural perceptions of fraternities linking them to misogyny and rape culture mean that women might not join in droves. In the long run, however, fraternities will hopefully lose that social stigma and become co-ed, philanthropy-centered organizations that truly exist for the benefit of the community.
While concerns about disruptive men coming into all-female spaces and threatening members are certainly valid, they are likely also overemphasized. Clubs would still have the ability to eject troublemakers regardless of gender. Women’s spaces will still be supportive of women — the only difference will be a greater degree of inclusiveness for men and non-binary individuals.
And, for now, traditionally female organizations don’t have to worry about an immediate upheaval of their structure. Noting the concerns of Arenson, Huh and Stoddard, as well as the historical inequity faced by women, the university granted a three-to-five year “bridge period” to these traditionally female groups to empower them to continue to focus on women’s issues while transitioning into inclusive organizations. The goal is that currently existing safe spaces will continue to exist while figuring out how to be safe and inclusive simultaneously, which will require more than accepting a member’s gender identity as assumed support. After the bridge period, the contributions of the organization will be assessed, as well as their progress toward gender inclusivity.
Until then, Harvard shouldn’t be criticized for failing to protect women’s spaces. By allowing students to join organizations regardless of gender identity, the change will both help men’s organizations distance themselves from a culture of sexual violence and make female-centric spaces more inclusive.
While rule changes such as this won’t end rape culture overnight, it’s a step in the right direction toward more inclusive communities. And that’s something everyone can benefit from.