Dang, that’s a nice campus.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Harvard University’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority is going gender-neutral in response to new sanctions imposed on single-gender social clubs. The women-only group announced on Monday that it will break with its national organization to become the co-ed club Theta Zeta Xi, according to The Harvard Crimson.

The decision follows Harvard’s controversial and long-fought decision to institute heavy sanctions on members of final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. A message on newly-minted Theta Zeta Xi’s website explains that the club “voted unanimously” to transform into “an independent organization in good faith with Harvard’s social organization and nondiscrimination policies.” The Crimson explains:

The College’s sanctions—which took effect with the Class of 2021—bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from holding student group leadership positions, varsity athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships.

Going gender-neutral is a way to protect members from those penalties—it’s also a way to improve student interest in sororities, which has taken a dive in the wake of sanctions. Theta Zeta Xi says it will still prioritize creating “social and networking opportunities to help support women to be leaders” and aim “to bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds who share a ... belief in the value of women’s empowerment.”

The club is just the latest of several Harvard-adjacent single-gender groups to go co-ed. In January, the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma went gender-neutral. Last year, two fraternities and four single-gender social clubs opted to go co-ed.

The Harvard Corporation, the school’s top governing body, has characterized the penalties push as a way to recognize “that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity.” But it’s also been fueled by concerns over behavior among men-only clubs in particular.

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As John Sedgwick wrote last year in Vanity Fair, the administration’s rhetoric heated up after “a risqué account of final-club party antics appeared in Elle magazine in November 2015, written by a female Harvard graduate who had participated in them.” That account included such details as a naked-lady ice sculpture with “enormous” breasts (“if you crouch beneath her thighs, you can guzzle a shot of Rubinoff vodka that a hoarse-voiced senior will pour for you down her icy frame,” wrote the author, Mattie Kahn). “Soon it was open season on the final clubs as places of Rabelaisian debauchery, where unsuspecting (or even suspecting) women were defiled for male sport,” wrote Sedgwick, who in hyperbolic male journalist fashion compared “the anti-club campaign” to “the second Iraq war” (something about the mission shifting with the facts).

But Sedgwick’s piece, despite all the eye-rolls it inspires, makes the salient point that this campaign has “now done a number on the other single-gender clubs that Harvard surely did not really want to wreck—the all-women clubs that have risen up to provide their own routes to power, bypassing the hegemonic patriarchal culture.” The question is whether women-only clubs remain the best way to bypass “the hegemonic patriarchal culture.”