For more than a century, these Bonesmen were all white men. Even in 1964, the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act, Skull and Bones failed to induct an African American. The discrimination didn't go unnoticed: Future Senator Joe Lieberman declined a tap that year because of it. "The changes this year were not sufficiently significant," he wrote in his letter of rejection. Instead, he joined a society called Elihu, which was known for its progressive practices.
"Worries of a lack of diversity died in realizing that the group will range from a Catholic Socialist to a fat cat, St. Paul's, Fence Club type," Lieberman wrote.
The following year, the Order inducted Orde Coombs, a black student and herald of racial equity. "Skull and Bones wanted to tap campus leaders," says Barrington Daniels Parker Jr., a federal judge who was Coombs' classmate, "and Orde was a big man on campus."
Though the group's policy banned women, it didn't include racial restrictions, Bonesmen say. "Orde was chosen because he was a smart, interesting guy who happened to be a minority," says a Bonesman from his class. "He became my first real African American friend." Most of the delegations that followed upheld the precedent, but African Americans were tapped only in token numbers.
It was Coombs' club that tapped a trophy-winning debater who was president of the Yale Political Union: John Kerry. At the time, such accolades were often rewarded with membership: the Yale Daily News editor(Lieberman), the football team captain, and the student council president were Bones shoo-ins.
So were legacy taps. George W. Bush was the seventh Bush scion to enter the Order, a result of his family lineage, Bonesmen say.
By the 1960s, dozens of Yale secret societies had been created, and all but three --Skull and Bones, Wolf's Head, and Scroll and Key -- admitted women shortly after the university turned co-ed in 1969. Though the Bonesmen of 1971 proposed women's integration, older alumni balked at the plan.
The Order suffered an unprecedented decline for years thereafter. New Haven had become a hotbed of student activism where patriarchal values were offensive. Increasingly, top Yalies rejected Bones bids in favor of more progressive societies. In 1986, when Kerry personally tapped Jacob Weisberg, now editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, Weisberg responded, according to Alexandra Robbins' book , "You're a liberal -- why do you support this organization that does not admit women?" Like Lieberman, Weisberg joined Elihu instead.
"There were rituals that some women would find offensive," says a Bonesmen from the 1960s, who refused to elaborate. "Some [alumni] wanted to fight to make sure those traditions didn't have to change."
The Bonesmen of 1991 wrote a letter to their alumni saying the society had become known as "flagrantly discriminatory and bigoted," according to Robbins' book. In a spat that made national headlines, members past and present voted to settle the issue. When the pro-women faction won, dissenters led by conservative icon William F. Buckley obtained a court order that negated the measure. But Buckley's troop lost a second society-wide vote, and the first Boneswomen entered the Tomb.