UP CLOSE: Single-gender groups reckon with shifting attitudes

Single-gender groups reckon with shifting attitudes

Published on April 20, 2017

In the spring of 1987, Melinda Stanford ’87 walked into the Saybrook Athenaeum Room to audition for the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the first all-male a capella group in the country —  only 18 years after the college had accepted women. Although Stanford — one of the first women to audition for the group — knew that her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” would not earn her a place on the Whiffs, she considered her audition a statement against the group’s longstanding policy of admitting only men.

“The point that we were trying to make was that women were not equal, not even close,” Stanford said. “I just thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ As a musician and, to be honest, as a really good musician, I would have been a Whiffenpoof if I had been male.”

Thirty years after Stanford and eight other women auditioned for the Whiffenpoofs, these symbolic tryouts continue. Around 15 female and nonbinary students auditioned for the Whiffs this year, the largest-ever nonmale turnout in the group’s 108-year history. But none of these students will join the group in the fall, as the Whiffs remain committed to their all-male membership policy.

As the Whiffenpoofs face increasing pressure from portions of the student body to expand their membership, other single-gender organizations on campus have come under similar scrutiny. In January, around 13 women attended the rush events of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which voted last year to open its rush process to female and nonbinary students but did not offer them bids because of the organization’s national regulations.

Yale was founded as an exclusively white, all-male space. It remained that way for over a century, until it graduated its first African-American student in 1857. A century and a half later, the University admitted its first female students.

But today’s Yale is radically different from the one formed in Saybrook Colony in 1701: Yale students are seen as being overwhelmingly progressive, even earning the University the moniker “The Gay Ivy” for its inclusive campus climate. Still, organizations formed on the basis of gender persist.

The question of whether single-gender organizations are in tension with Yale’s progressive spirit is a complicated one. As the voices in favor of integrating these spaces grow louder, those who believe they should be left untouched remain committed to their positions: Many contend that female-only groups are important sites of empowerment while others maintain that the right to create organizations based on gender identity, whether male or female, is part and parcel of the right to freely associate. In the midst of heated student discussion, administrators walk a thin line between creating an inclusive environment for all Yalies and, at the same time, avoiding too heavy-handed an approach.


With the conversation about gender on college campuses quickly coming to the forefront, students within and outside of single-gender communities at Yale disagree on how to move toward an equitable solution. As Yale officials grapple with student voices critical of gender-exclusive spaces, administrations at other colleges and universities have taken the issue into their own hands, some placing restrictions on single-gender groups and others banning them altogether.

In 1990, Middlebury College dissolved fraternities on its campus following a 1989 incident in which one fraternity scrawled vulgar words on a female mannequin which was then left outside its house. According to Middlebury’s Vice President for Academic Development Timothy Spears ’80 — who was present throughout the incident’s aftermath — the episode caused a “huge stir” and initiated a long discussion on campus about whether the college should even have fraternities.

“It was a kind of flare up of really unfortunate incidents on campus that precipitated the discussion, but the issues had been there for a while,” Spears said.

One year after the incident, Middlebury’s board of trustees mandated that fraternities either start admitting women or dissolve altogether. Spears noted that most of the fraternities dissolved, and Greek life was soon replaced by a system of coed “social houses.”

Although Middlebury was among the first colleges to dissolve fraternities, it was actually Williams College in Massachusetts that led the charge in the 1960s — before women were admitted to the school — out of concern for the impact of fraternities on students’ social lives.

More recently, in May 2014, Amherst College banned students from participating in unrecognized sororities and fraternities, though on-campus Greek life was abolished in 1984.

Just months later, in September, Wesleyan University ordered that residential fraternities accept women as full members. And last year, Harvard College instituted a policy banning members of single-gender fraternities, sororities and finals clubs from becoming the captain of a college athletic team, holding Harvard-recognized leadership positions or receiving university endorsements for some major scholarships.

In an interview with the News, Yale’s Associate Vice President of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said the Yale College administration is not currently looking to pursue the integration of single gender organizations, noting in particular that fraternities and sororities are private organizations that fall outside the University’s purview.

“There are inequities [between fraternities and sororities] but because they’re private organizations and because they own their properties, they set the parameters for how the members choose to operate there,” Howard said.

Yale is home to four all-female sororities that are affiliated with national chapters and nine all-male fraternities affiliated with national organizations. Yale’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon disassociated from its national chapter last year and now operates independently as Leo. There is also one coed fraternity, Fence Club, which was originally founded as a chapter of the national fraternity Psi Upsilon but disaffiliated in 2009 by accepting female members.

Still, Howard said his office looks to maintain a close relationship with Greek life organizations. He added that he hopes to have conversations with students about how to tackle issues like discrepancies between fraternities and sororities, and even engage with national Greek organizations when necessary.

With regard to registered single-gender student clubs, Howard said that although there is a variance of opinion among administrators, as a whole, Yale does not consider these organizations problematic so long as there is “equal opportunity for students to participate in the community.” By way of example, Howard noted that there are all-male, all-female as well as coed singing groups for students to join.

“The University does not get involved in who should be a member of a particular singing group,” Howard said. “It’s not our place to dictate the membership of any particular club or activity but to ensure that people of all genders have access to these types of opportunities.”


The Whiffenpoofs famously take off an entire year from school to tour for nearly 200 days and perform in over 25 countries. The group, which consists of 14 senior men, has performed for generations in venues like the White House, the Rose Bowl and Carnegie Hall and has cemented its place in the American pop-culture zeitgeist.

Since the 1970s, the Whiffs have voted multiple times not to admit women. In 1987, Whiffenpoof David Code ’87 cast the first-ever vote in favor of admitting women to the group. Though the motion failed, Code went on to spearhead the movement that led to Stanford and her classmates auditioning in protest.

While Yale has changed dramatically since Code and his classmates occupied its halls, the face of one of its most prestigious organizations remains the same.

In the group’s most recent vote on the issue of gender integration, which was held last November, 10 out of the 14 members of the current Whiff class voted to keep the group all-male, according to incoming Whiffenpoof Caleb O’Reilly ’18.

“It breaks my heart,” Code said, that 30 years later his “beloved Whiffenpoofs” remain firmly against admitting women.

“There were decades when the Whiffs did not admit blacks, and they didn’t admit Jews. At the time, the Whiffs believed that to admit them would disturb the essence of what it means to be a Whiff,” Code said. “They sought to preserve ‘some kind of intangible something’ by keeping the group ‘pure.’ These days, their refusal to tap women is just their latest discriminatory attempt to preserve ‘some intangible whatever.’”

But to other current and past members of the organization, the “all-male sound” argument has some weight.

Current Whiffenpoof Luke Stringer ’18 said the sound of the group was a concern raised by group members during the discussions prior to last year’s vote. Stringer said that all-female, coed and all-male choirs have very different sounds, adding that women’s voices tend to be in different in terms of musical range as well as timbre.

In a comment to The New York Times in 1987, Rick Knutsen ’87, then the musical director of the Whiffs, said that admitting women would mean redoing approximately 300 songs in the Whiffenpoof repertoire and having to “start all over again.”

However, O’Reilly called this argument a “weak defense.”

“Our value judgements of a cappella sound are not rootless or objective,” O’Reilly said. “Our musical tradition has always privileged male voices. That, I think, is a questionable premise to begin with.”

Both Code and O’Reilly suggested that rearranging some of the group’s musical arrangements is a small price to pay for a step toward greater gender equality.

But for other singing groups at Yale, changing the signature sound to accommodate female voices has been less of an issue.

For example, the Yale Glee Club, founded initially as an all-male chorus in 1863, went coed in 1970, the year after women were admitted to Yale. According to Glee Club alumnus Linus Travers ’58, Musical Director Fenno Heath ’50 MUS ’52 completely revised between 30 and 40 arrangements previously sung by male voices for over a century the summer following the Glee Club’s decision to admit female singers.

“Almost all of the traditional college songs that had been sung for generations are still in the Yale song book, but in coed arrangements,” Travers said.

According to Code, some traditional Whiffenpoof songs may not even require adjustment. Although such singers might be rare, Code said there are female tenors who could easily blend into existing Whiff arrangements.

Current Glee Club Director Jeffrey Douma said that during the first year that women attended Yale, there were both men’s and women’s glee clubs. Douma said the two clubs toured together in the spring, after which students from both groups agreed to merge into one mixed chorus. Robert Bonds ’71 and Ellen Marshall ’71, then presidents of the men’s and women’s Glee Clubs, respectively, were instrumental in convincing Heath that this was the right thing to do, as were Heath’s own daughters, Douma added.

“The Yale Glee Club went coed because it was the right thing to do,” Code said. “The Whiffs should have gone coed too.”

However, drawing a parallel between the Glee Club and the Whiffenpoofs may not be so straightforward. According to Travers, the integration the Glee Club was an administrative decision brought about by financial necessity rather than an internal one driven by ideology. Unlike the Whiffs, who operate as a private organization, the Yale Glee Club director is a faculty member at the Yale School of Music and the chorus is a registered campus club. The Whiffenpoofs are a 501(c)3 tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, funded by alumni donations and revenue from performances.

Travers said the University did not have the resources to sustain the separate women’s chorus, and Yale administrators — in consultation with Heath — consequently arranged for the two groups to merge.


(Anvay Tewari)

Today, four female-only and five mixed-gender singing groups are recognized as part of Yale’s Singing Group Council, which also includes the Whiffs and five additional all-male groups.

Whim ’n Rhythm is a senior female a capella group created in 1981 as an alternative to the Whiffenpoofs. Though Whim members do not take a year off to perform, the group tours internationally each summer and performs locally throughout the academic year.

Despite calls for greater equality in the a cappella community, some members of Whim have been outspoken critics of a mixed-gender Whiffenpoofs, arguing that integrating the group would cripple their own organization. In an interview with the News earlier this year, co-business manager of Whim Zoya Afridi ’17 said integrating the Whiffs would “effectively dismantle” Whim ’n Rhythm by drawing away potential members each audition cycle.

“Sure, we don’t have the same earning power or profile or privilege as the Whiffenpoofs do currently, but we’re still leaps and bounds of where we were even 10 years ago, and we were only founded 35 years ago,” Afridi said. “So, I think we’ve come a really long way.”

Becca Young ’18, who auditioned for the Whiffs this year and is a member of the mixed-gender a cappella group Red Hot and Blue, argues that the Whiffs’ privileged status makes it unfair to limit membership only to men. Similarly, Jackie Ferro ’17, one of two women to audition for the Whiffs last spring, said that while she thinks Whim would survive Whiff integration, it is more important to fight for gender equality than to preserve a single group.

“There is this sort of arrogance contained in this sense of ‘Oh my gosh, my group would be threatened, so you cannot do something that would benefit a lot of women,’” Ferro said.

And Code, echoing these arguments for greater equality of opportunity, pointed out that today, just as it was 30 years ago, Whim has fewer concert invitations and earns less money annually than the Whiffs. After decades without a change, Code said it is “silly” to still be waiting for things to improve.

During fiscal year 2013, the Whiffenpoofs made $424,601 in total revenue, according to the group’s tax form Form 990, accessed via the website guidestar.org. Whim, on the other hand, made $95,528 — less than a quarter of the Whiff’s earnings. Since 2011, the Whiffs have consistently earned over $300,000 dollars, whereas Whim — excluding fiscal year 2012, during which the group earned $102,506 — has consistently generated less than $100,00 in revenue.

“Whim claims a coed Whiffs would somehow denigrate them,” Code said. “But ‘separate but equal’ was racist in America’s history of segregation, and it’s sexist here.”

Back in 1987, when Code pursued a coed Whiffenpoofs, he was the lone voice for integration in the group. He described the “incredible backlash” that resulted from his advocacy, which led to him being shunned and isolated by his peers.

But 30 years later, O’Reilly said there are more voices supporting integration than there have been in the past. While he is unsure about what the breakdown of numbers would look like if a vote were to take place in the group’s 2017–18 iteration, O’Reilly said the recent emergence of pro-integration voices should prompt serious conversations about the issue “at the very least.”

“I think something will happen,” O’Reilly said. “I don’t know if it will be the Whiffs integrating, or a new group being formed or there being some arrangement between Whiff and Whim ’n Rhythm, but I think within the next few years there will be changes made to the senior a cappella structure.”

Throughout most of the 1970s there were no auditions for the Whiffs. John Meeske ’74, a Whiff alumnus and former long-time administrator at Yale, said that “in his day” the 14 Whiffs simply sat in a smoke-filled room and talked about the men they thought would be good candidates for the following year. Now, with the protest of women who persist in auditioning for the group despite recognizing they will not be admitted, it seems the group is inching closer and closer to expanding its membership.

Still, those involved in the Whiffenpoof debate remain at odds about the path forward. And while the argument for an integrated Whiffs appears morally compelling, any resolution to the question runs the risk of antagonizing the same groups it seeks to empower or undermining the very institution that all students deserve to be a part of.


The debate around single-gender organizations is not restricted to the a cappella community. And though the discussion has focused on all single-gender Greek organizations, fraternities have attracted particular scrutiny.

Since Yale welcomed its first fraternity in 1836, Greek life has gained considerable popularity. Last year, the University saw an addition to its sorority presence with the addition of Alpha Phi and is currently considering adding another fraternity to the mix.

Although Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, in 1974 an amendment was introduced to Title IX ruling out the existence of single-gender Greek organizations as a form of sexual discrimination. And in May 2016, the Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights wrote in a joint “Dear Colleague” letter that single-sex fraternities and sororities whose membership consists primarily of college and university students — and which do not pay federal taxes under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code — are exempt from adherence to Title IX.

Spared from Title IX guidelines, fraternities and sororities have become part of the fabric of U.S. collegiate culture. But this year, Engender — a student group formed last fall to advocate for greater gender-inclusivity on campus — coordinated the attendance of women at the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon’s rush events, in an attempt to challenge the male-only membership policy of Yale fraternities.

In an interview with the News, Genevieve Esse ’19 and Ry Walker ’20, the director of operations and development, and the director of national advocacy for Engender, said that in advance of this year’s Greek life recruitment process, the organization reached out to all 12 fraternities on campus requesting that women and gender nonbinary students be permitted to participate in rush events alongside men. Esse said a majority of fraternity leaders did not respond, and of the approximately five who did, three denied the requests, citing national fraternity bylaws which they said prohibit people who do not identify as men from participating in rush events.

Although only SigEp ultimately allowed women to rush, some members of Engender initially met with the president and co-president of the fraternity Leo.

Esse said a few women were going to attend Leo’s first rush event at Lily’s Pad above Toad’s Place in January but heard from the leadership of Leo that “it might not be a good idea to go” because it could be a hostile environment.

“It was an open bar, and they said ‘We don’t want to pay for alcohol if they’re not even going to get bids,’ like they were going to be wasting their resources,” Esse said. “Which is interesting, because I’m pretty sure that’s not how open bars work.”

The president of Leo did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.

(Anvay Tewari)

Around 13 women eventually participated in SigEp’s rush process knowing that they would not receive bids. Esse said individual experiences of the rush events differed: While she personally enjoyed the process, a number of women who participated found it “uncomfortable.” Esse added that while SigEp leadership strived to maintain a welcoming environment during the process, the disproportionate gender ratio contributed to feelings of discomfort.

“A lot of the guys who were there wouldn’t speak to me because they didn’t know whether the frat brothers were going to be pro gender integration or against it,” Walker said. “They didn’t want to seem like they were on the side of the girls in the room if that was going to [disadvantage] them later in the rush process.”

Tyler Morley ’18, the president of SigEp at the time of the most recent recruitment period, did not respond to multiple email requests for comment on this year’s coed rush process.

Towards the end of recruitment, Esse said, some of the women sat down with individual members of SigEp for traditional rush meals.

“Some of these were two-hour long meals,” Esse said, who attended several rush meals. “At the end of it, all of them said ‘This is really weird, because if you were a guy I would totally have you in this place.’”

According to Esse and Walker, Engender’s focus is the gender integration of Yale’s all-male fraternities. They added that their organization is singling out fraternities from among other single-sex organizations because of the “social weight” these particular all-male spaces carry and the professional opportunities afforded to fraternity brothers after they graduate.

And unlike singing groups, fraternities are purely social organizations, Esse said, adding that if Greek life could be reimagined from scratch in 2017, the idea of segregating based on gender would be untenable.


While both Esse and Walker said that in an ideal world, no organizations would be based on gender — as only then would everyone across the gender spectrum feel truly included — Engender is not currently looking to push for the gender integration of Yale’s sororities.

In the Greek community, the need for all-female spaces may be in tension with the social pressures to integrate single-gender groups. Reconciling the desire to have a fully integrated Yale campus in principle, with the reality of the need for all-women spaces in a still hostile environment requires a delicate balancing act — one that is not helped by the double standards with which fraternities and sororities are still treated.

“Sororities do provide a safe space for women and, to an extent, empower women,” Esse said. “When women were first admitted into men’s colleges, they were denied many resources and out of that came the all-women’s social movement and social clubs.”

And if fraternities become coed, Esse said the need for all-women spaces like sororities would likely decrease.

Kappa Alpha Theta, the first women’s fraternity to open a chapter at Yale in 1985, was established at Indiana Asbury College (now DePaul University) in the latter half of the 19th century, when women were first admitted to the school.

“The four young women admitted to Asbury in 1867 were not readily welcomed by all students or instructors,” said Liz Rinck, the sorority’s national director of communications. “Initially the women were taunted by male students — apocryphal Theta history says the men stamped their feet (a sign of disrespect) when the women entered chapel services each morning.”

Rinck said that while women may not face the same challenges today, female voices remain marginalized. The need for a space to find that voice is relevant to today’s college student, she added.

In a similar vein, Dani Weatherford, the executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference — an umbrella organization for 26 national women’s sororities — noted that the all-female organizations were founded at a time when women on American college campuses were at best only “grudgingly accepted by their male peers.” Weatherford added that while the obstacles facing women today may not be “as in-your-face,” she still sees an important role for women’s organizations.

And in the minds of students, the argument in favor of preserving sororities is more compelling than that of preserving fraternities. According to a Yale Daily News survey in April, 213 of 573 student respondents supported integrating fraternities, whereas only 135 supported integrating sororities. Some students who commented said they viewed female-only organizations as more justifiable than male organizations because of pre-existing discrepancies between men and women, while others said that admitting men would defeat the purpose that the spaces were set up for.

But despite different attitudes toward these two kinds of single-sex spaces, an overall minority of survey respondents believed either space should include other genders.

In an email to the News, Heather Kirk, the chief communications officer for the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said students who join fraternities find valuable leadership, academic and personal-growth opportunities through “brotherhood and the fellowship of men.”

The president of Delta Kappa Epsilon declined to comment for this story, and leaders of eight other fraternities did not respond to request for comment.

While sororities were created to empower women and provide them with a female equivalent of the camaraderie and leadership found in fraternities, Esse and Walker noted that there are persisting inequities between sororities and fraternities. For instance, the National Panhellenic Conference requires that sororities keep their houses alcohol-free. And its “Policies and Best Practices” document mandates that Panhellenic funds cannot be spent on alcoholic beverages “for any purpose.” Fraternities, on the other hand, are subject to no such national regulations.

When asked about this discrepancy, Weatherford said the history and founding of sororities is rooted in scholarship, leadership and engagement on campus — principles which lead Panhellenic groups to prioritize substance-free living environments. She added that the vast majority of collegiate members who live in sorority housing are also under the age of 21 but did not comment on why the same arguments do not apply to fraternities.

“There’s a lot more scrutiny involved with the operations of sororities,” Esse said. “The number one question I get from men who appear progressive is ‘why don’t you just try to advocate for equal rights for sororities,’ but they don’t realize that many women have made these efforts against their national organizations, and it has never worked in their favor.”


Amid growing national acceptance of the idea that gender encompasses more than just male and female identities, and in the absence of a heavy-handed administrative approach towards single-gender communities at Yale, select students are taking the lead in raising awareness about how these spaces disadvantage students who do not conform to the gender binary.

In an interview, Maria Trumpler, the director of LGBTQ resources at Yale, said single gender organizations rely on an “outmoded” understanding of gender.

In 2016, the North-American Interfraternity Conference formed a working group to look at leading practices around transgender inclusion, Kirk said, both inside and outside the context of fraternities and higher education.

“With the increased attention around the needs of transgender students, fraternity members — undergraduate and alumni — are reaching out, prompting fraternities to seek greater education to navigate this developing area in the way that best aligns for their organization,” she said.

Two years ago, the SigEp National Board of Directors officially opened membership by a unanimous vote to people who identify as transgender. In an email to the News, Director of Communications for Alpha Epsilon Pi Jonathan Pierce said that any student who identifies as a man may seek membership in the fraternity. The national organizations of Sigma Chi, Sigma Nu, Zeta Psi and Alpha Delta Phi did not respond to requests for comment on their policy regarding transgender students.

In the case of sororities, Jonathan Coffin, communications director of the National Panhellenic Conference, said all NPC groups are “women’s organizations,” but added that each national sorority sets its own specific membership policies. Rinck said that those who identify as women are eligible for membership in Kappa Alpha Theta. And Eily Cummings, the senior director of marketing and communications for Pi Beta Phi, said the sorority is a “women’s organization for individuals who live and self-identify as women.”

Still, of the 26 sororities in the NPC, only a small minority have publicly-available policies with language that is inclusive of transgender women.

While national fraternities and sororities seem to be moving towards greater transgender inclusivity, most make no mention of gender nonbinary or gender-questioning students whatsoever.

Isaac Amend ’17, a member of Trans@Yale and staff columnist for the News, said that while he does not have a fundamental problem with single-gender organizations, these groups can become a concern when they ignore students who do not identify as male or female. He added that he has a number of nonbinary friends who are trans-masculine but who do not identify fully as male, as well as nonbinary friends who are trans-feminine but do not necessarily identify as female.

And Vicki Beizer ’18, public relations coordinator for the Women’s Center, said single gender organizations are, by definition, exclusionary and social spaces should be open to people of all gender identities.

A gender nonbinary student named G, who declined to provide their last name for privacy reasons, said they do not attend parties hosted by Greek organizations and described a single-gender a cappella group’s event they recently attended as uncomfortable.

G, who auditioned for the Whiffenpoofs this year in protest of the group’s all-male policy, said that while they recognize people have a right to assembly, it is more important to reflect on how social spaces affect people who are excluded from them.

While G said they are optimistic about the direction of gender inclusivity on campus, they added that “things are moving slowly.”

“Queer people and gender nonconforming people have been doing the hard work of making it more comfortable to exist in these spaces,” G said. “As long as people keep doing that, it will get better, but only incrementally, and only as much as the administration allows it to.”

It is easy to draw battle lines over an issue as contentious as a single-gender organizations, with either side of the divide certain of the “right thing to do.” With clear disagreements both between and within the various communities affected by the issue, and the lack of representation afforded to gender nonbinary persons, this question does not lend itself to neat answers or quick resolutions. It is evident that single gender organizations, at Yale and beyond, have a long and storied history, but the question of if and when they will become history is yet to be determined.


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