According to an opinion piece in The Harvard Crimson, while the final clubs occupy "huge physical and imaginary spaces at the center of campus", they are completely unaccountable to the University's anti-discrimination and social justice standards, foster "de facto sexual violence" and racism, use women as "props in male-dominated spaces". A number of policies have been adopted by the University to discourage students from joining single-gender social clubs, which in their turn are suing Harvard for spreading negative stereotypes about their members.
Final clubs are like fraternities, only much fancier, with taxidermy bears, first-edition novels in wood-paneled libraries and placards memorializing "our brothers" who died in the Civil War. Boys in final clubs actually wear suits and ties to dinner.
A former female student wrote: "women at Harvard really do wait in tiny dresses outside ominous front doors on cold evenings to be ushered in, enduring endless once-overs in order to play in a certain sphere of the university's social scene..."
"A few weeks ago, I get to the door of the Spee and this kid outside goes, "Oh, you're not on the list. Is there a member you could call?" And I'm like, "First of all, I've been here for four years. Why am I still doing this? Second, honestly, I sit across from you in section, dude."
Here are a few of the most prestigious final clubs:
Founded in 1791, the club does not allow nonmembers beyond the bike room. Members have included Teddy Roosevelt and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twin internet entrepreneurs portrayed in The Social Network.
Bill Gates is a former member of the 119-year-old club. It's "where the nicest guys and the most professionally ambitious belong."
Punch season begins in September and lasts until the annual Harvard-Yale game in November. For a club's first event, around 200 sophomores are invited to a cocktail party. After that, the list is cut to around 50. According to a former member, "the next event is typically a date event at a castle in Newport, Rhode Island. You put on a coat and tie and get bused down there with your date". Thirty punches are brought to a final dinner at the club, and 10 or 20 of them become club members. Some clubs even fly prospective members out for all-expense-paid trips to New York City or Los Angeles. "We want the coolest kids on campus to be in our club."
According to critics, the all-male final clubs were reprehensible because they were unfair to the women they excluded. They provided clear paths to money and power via a network that worked like a private LinkedIn for the rich.
In the 1990s women founded all-female organizations to complement the all-male final clubs. There are now five such female clubs: the Bee, the IC, La Vie, the Pleiades, and the Sabliere. But the all-male clubs still dominate social life on campus. Only male clubs own real estate. Their mansions are scattered around Harvard Square and are worth millions.
Several of the final clubs, chiefly the Porcellian and the A.D., forbid the presence of guests of either gender in the clubhouse. As a member pointed out to the Crimson, if the clubs were to admit women, the "sexual misconduct" there could only rise.
In 2015 the Fox initiated nine women into its ranks as provisional members. "In selecting those women, we followed the formal Fox voting practices by which every Fox has been elected to the club throughout its history," club representatives wrote in the Crimson. "The only criterion for their membership was, 'Will she be my friend?'"
Critics point out that opening the punch process to women still keeps them in a submissive position with respect to the clubs: "This is what it really looked like at the Spee this fall: You have 40 or 50 twenty-something-year-old guys inviting 18- and 19-year-old women into a historically all-male institution with no female guidance and no oversight."
According to a plan first floated by the Harvard administration in 2016, if single-sex social clubs do not transition into a full acceptance of Harvard values of non-discrimination by going gender-neutral, any outed members would be forbidden to represent Harvard as a captain of a sports team or an elected leader of their class, and they would not receive Harvard's backing for scholarships or other postgraduate honors.
The latest plan would ban outright the participation by Harvard students in "final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations." Under such a ban any undergraduate found participating in these organizations would be expelled or suspended.
Critics argue this violates the right to freedom of association. To get at 500 male final-club members, Harvard would sacrifice 400 female ones, plus nearly 700 members of other sororities and fraternities. Because all the male clubs own their buildings and support themselves, the university can't legally stamp out these clubs for being single-gender.
The membership of the final clubs being mostly secret, no one knows exactly who the members are. Ironically, Harvard's continued battle with the final clubs has only made them even more exclusive.
The clubs are cracking down on guest lists and letting fewer outsiders in. "Everyone's terrified of pictures and lawsuits, of a student getting too drunk at the club", said a member. "Harvard's own actions discourage first-generation and less-well-off students from venturing into new territory", for fear of being expelled. "Conversely, let's say you're a scion of the 1 percent of Harvard and there's a family business to go to or there's a lot of social capital to fall back on... You'll size up the risk and you'll take it."
Several national fraternities and sororities sued Harvard University in December 2018 over its rule that discourages students from joining single-gender social clubs, arguing that the school's policy discriminates against students based on their sex and spreads negative stereotypes about students who join all-male or all-female organizations.