Ivy League After Dark

Spend Saturday night at Princeton, and you’ll see why women trail men on elite campuses. America’s top colleges attract students through their old traditions. So can young women finally crack the old-boys club?

03.21.11 10:03 AM ET

“Bro! Is that you?!”

And with that, the Princeton undergrad throws up his arms, tossing his beer backward into a shelf of weathered Henry James volumes, and hurdles across the room to embrace his friend, nearly toppling two young women in high heels and tiny dresses.

It is Saturday night at Princeton, upstairs in the library of one of the school’s more exclusive eating clubs. Safe within high walls crowded with black and white photographs of old white men, young men are wrestling; young women are playing drinking games.

The scene is tame enough, but as administrators across the Ivy League grapple with stubborn campus gender divides, these elite social clubs—where modern co-ed culture meets old-boys tradition—have found themselves the target of scrutiny.

Many women at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton describe a break between their academic and social lives. By day, women earn top grades, start clubs, and interact easily with male friends, if at times strangely stuck in second place. But by night, some say, the mores of a male-controlled culture dominate. This behavior—and the affiliated phenomena of binge drinking and sexual assault—is far from limited to elite social clubs, but these clubs introduce a power dynamic that can alienate newcomers, particularly women.

Members cut lose by spilling drinks on a 1923 edition of Gibbon, tackling large taxidermied animals, doing lines of cocaine off the Class of 1910 portrait.

Institutions such as Harvard’s Porcellian Club, Princeton’s Ivy Club, and Yale’s Skull and Bones are the stuff of legend, deeply ingrained in the culture of universities that went co-ed only in the last few decades. Most of the clubs (Harvard’s eight all-male final clubs are a notable exception) now admit female members, often following protracted legal and intra-alumni battles. But many students and professors feel the clubs present a major challenge for a co-ed environment.

Put cynically, the daughters of Radcliffe women—women who, in the '60s and '70s, fought to enter Harvard’s classrooms—are now free to spend Saturday nights at the door of the Spee Club, waiting for a male member to let them inside.

“You learn right away that’s where the cool parties are,” one recent Harvard alumna says.

Benedict H. Gross, who was dean of Harvard College from 2003 to 2007, said final clubs had “secondary effects” across Harvard. “I think they affect more than the percentage of people who belong to them.” (Gross also pointed to a “love-hate” relationship between students and the final clubs: men in final clubs might rule the scene by night, but faced populist backlash when seeking campus leadership positions.)

At Princeton, the daughters of those same women who made classes co-ed a generation ago now dine at eating clubs, where three-quarters of upperclassmen belong. The clubs are the heart of undergraduate culture.

And yet, eating clubs, like their more shadowy peers, enjoy a subversive appeal stemming from their uncertain relationships with host universities. In the '70s and '80s, with the arrival of female undergraduates, Title IX, and a rising drinking age, universities faced heightened exposure in an increasingly litigious culture. The clubs cut financial and legal ties, and today exist in a kind of limbo, answering to alumni rather than college administrations.

Thanks to that position the clubs host decadent house parties with any form of authority far from the scene. Members both celebrate and upset the signs of fusty tradition that surround them: spilling drinks on a 1923 edition of Gibbon, tackling large taxidermied animals, and doing lines of cocaine off the Class of 1910 portrait. Taken this way, revelers might be doing their best to subvert the manly paradigm.

In some respects, Yale presents a counterpoint, where secret societies are not a huge party scene and keep a low profile. Students are “tapped” junior spring for one of the school’s dozen or so societies, groups of about 12-15 men and women who gather weekly in “tombs,” apartments, or houses around New Haven for meetings, meals, and parties.

At Yale, I met with Rachel Achs, a senior who is in a secret society and has served as an officer at the Yale Women’s Center. Achs says she, personally, has not had “gender issues” in her society, and hasn’t heard of any from friends in other societies.

She noted that, despite the clubs’ inherent elitism, many tapped members with wide-ranging backgrounds and interests. (Princeton and Harvard’s clubs have increased diversity, which some students attribute to campus athletics. Yale students are often “tapped” for academic and extra-curricular achievements as well as their social network.)

It is often fraternities at Yale that challenge co-ed civility: in recent years, DKE pledges have marched in front of the women’s center with signs reading, “We Love Yale Sluts,” and “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal!”

Whether or not this flippant misogyny results from these schools’ male traditions, it’s hard to imagine it does not affect the self-image and professional progress of female undergraduates.

One Princeton girl, a member of a club, says that “the pressure for girls to dumb themselves down” was a “huge problem” at Princeton. (“They all start dressing the same, too,” she adds.) A few Harvard women spoke about the retro thrill of guest status in the final club world, in which invitations to “Gatsby”-themed parties betoken status, the security of exclusivity. At Yale, the “tapping” period tends to bring out the sycophants of both genders.

Institutions change, but social hierarchies tend to be slow-budging. These upper-crust, traditional networks are a huge part of why young men and young women choose to go to Ivy League schools.

“You are buying into that network,” says one recent Harvard alumna.

Rebecca Davis O'Brien is a writer based in New York City. She served as an associate managing editor and columnist at the Harvard Crimson and has written for the New York Times, Parade, and, among other publications. Her first book (working title: The King's English), a memoir of her two years working at a boarding school in Jordan, will be published by Algonquin Books in 2011.