A Gender-Based Hypocrisy

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Upon reading some of the comments and responses to the piece I published yesterday on Harvard’s recent sanctions against single-gender social groups, I’ve thought more about the nature of this policy and the reason it needs to apply unilaterally across these organizations. As one reader named Kevin notes:

While I can’t speak specifically for Harvard, the Black fraternities at my Alma-mater had non-black members. The majority of the membership tended to be black but they didn’t discriminate as long as you genuinely showed interest. Personally, I think that while it may be inequitable to also include all-women groups, it is fair. One can not justifiably defend a double standard while championing fairness.

In the article, I argued that the sanctions were flawed for including groups that haven’t faced the same kinds of critiques as all-male final clubs. Additionally I reasoned that single-gender women’s groups ought to be preserved because of the systems of power in place that spur a need for these safe spaces.

While I still believe that this latter point is an important one, I do think it can ultimately be somewhat hypocritical. Men’s organizations have clung to the importance of tradition and history in defending their continued existence. And I found myself arguing for the preservation of the women’s groups, partly based on similar reasoning—namely an aversion to change—along with a belief that the structure and support of such groups would be threatened by this development. Justifying the presence of women’s groups and not men’s also seems to suggest that men aren’t interested in the same types of community, and that in itself feels deeply unfair. That said, the all-male groups that are responsible for specific “power imbalances,” a toxic culture, and elevated cases of sexual assault, should be explicitly punished and singled out.

As the university has noted when explaining the basis for such sweeping sanctions, gender discrimination doesn’t have a place anywhere at Harvard, in any organization. And this realization, while a tough one to come to, is accompanied by the fact that there are many women’s and men’s support groups on campus that are open to everyone, regardless of gender and other qualifying factors. Similarly, affinity groups for students of different ethnic backgrounds invite diverse membership—and have thrived.

The success and openness of these types of organizations could serve as possible examples for current single-gender social groups as they grapple with figuring out what comes next.

Also, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences with single-gender social groups: hello@theatlantic.com.