Verbum Ultimum: Questioning Spaces
Two weeks ago, Harvard University’s administration handed down a historic ruling that stated that starting with the Class of 2021, any undergraduate members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations would be banned from holding captain positions on athletic teams or holding leadership positions in any recognized student groups. Members of these organizations, which at Harvard include finals clubs and Greek houses, will also not be eligible for fellowships like the Rhodes or Marshall scholarships. This decision, which came in the wake of a sexual assault investigation that shined a very unflattering light on Harvard’s single-gender social organizations, has sparked a lot of discussion around the country about the merits and drawbacks of social organizations that inherently exclude half of the student body based on gender. Whether they be Greek houses or secret societies, single-gender organizations have all but dominated Dartmouth’s social scene since there has been one. However, in the wake of intense national discussion concerning Greek houses and the decision from a peer institution to all but abolish any social organization that does not go coed, we are left to question: what are the merits of single-gender social organizations?
To be perfectly clear, this is not a condemnation of the Greek system or single-gender organizations in general, nor is it a call to make all Dartmouth social organizations coed. However, we think it is worth examining the reasons people usually give for keeping social organizations single-gender and whether or not these rationales still hold true in 2016. When asked to defend the Dartmouth Greek system, proponents often cite a few reasons for the system to remain intact as is. Some of the most popular ones include philanthropy, the creation of lasting student-alumni networks, the creation of a social space for students to cut loose and the fostering of bonds between like-minded individuals. It would be interesting to examine how these would be affected were single gender organizations to go coed.
When defending Greek life, proponents point to their philanthropic achievements. At Dartmouth as well as other schools, fun philanthropic events hosted by Greek houses often end up raising a lot of money and awareness for good causes. While this remains a solid argument for the Greek system in general, there isn’t any reason that coed houses could not put on the same kind of fundraisers and do the same kind of good work.
Members of single-gender organizations often laud their organizations as a great way to form connections with alumni and help secure students opportunities going into an increasingly competitive job market. Again, this is probably true; if you have a level of social familiarity with a potential employer that other comparable candidates don’t, then it would definitely give you a leg up when looking for work. But again, we don’t see any clear reasons why this wouldn’t be the case for coed social organizations. Perhaps the argument could be made that such a change would make some of the more traditionally inclined employers uncomfortable, which could in turn make them less likely to treat someone from the newly coed organization with extra favor.
As far as creating a social space where hard working students can cut loose, the arguments for single-gender organizations become slightly more difficult to analyze. We would argue that people are going to have fun with their friends, regardless of what gender identity those friends have. However, others would say that having a space that belongs to them without the social pressures they’ve assigned to the opposite gender is important. Yet, that argument begs the question: why would people need to be around only their own gender to feel comfortable in a space? Why not define ownership of your space by the people who are part of your organization, rather than having gender be a prerequisite to being a part of that organization?
Finally, many argue that single-gender organizations offer the opportunity for people to create lasting bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood among peers of the same gender in a safe and comfortable space. In a perfect world, needing a single-gender space to grow close to people and to feel safe and comfortable should be a non-issue. If men and women were equal in each other’s eyes, then they should be able to form lasting bonds with people around them with whom they identify, regardless of their gender. However, we do not live in a perfect world. On college campuses across the country, including our own, there has been a disproportionate amount of violence perpetrated by men against women. This makes this issue even more complicated. In theory, men and women should be equal and should be able to inhabit the same space. But in practice, women have time and time again been the victims of violence perpetrated by men in male dominated spaces. So, although they can promote further distinction along gender lines, single-gender organizations provide safe spaces for women.
For decades, many students arriving at Dartmouth have considered single-gender social organizations a given. Perhaps, however, we should look more closely into the reasons why we keep these single-gender. Some of the arguments don’t hold up as well as they should, while others are predicated on disturbing truths that shouldn’t even be true in the first place.
The editorial board consists of the editor in chief, publisher, both executive editors and the editorial editor.