Gender Separatism on Campus

A week ago, I had a lot of opinions about fraternities at Amherst that were largely in support of the Board’s decision to enforce the previous ban. This stemmed mostly from my personal experience of everyday misogyny and alienation at Amherst, but has been further bolstered by the confirmation of that same experience on the part of the countless other women I’ve talked to who went or still go there today. I can’t tell you how many times this feeling of a nuanced, coded, day-to-day social inequality has been validated and reaffirmed not just by the women I hung out with on campus, but even by the Amherst alumnae I’ve met after graduating.

When I moved to Boston two years ago, I made the conscious effort to immerse myself in the social life of a new city, and as a consequence I met all these different Amherst alumnae that I’d never really known all that well while I was a student. I even got involved with the Amherst Women’s Network’s alumnae initiative, which at the time was really just an excuse to hang out with some cool new chicks from my alma mater. To this day, I’ll be at a party making small talk with a fellow alumna when the conversation will turn to what our social lives were like while we were at Amherst; you know, the whole, “It’s so funny how we kinda hung in different crews, ‘cuz I always saw you in Keefe and we took that Sarat class together…” conversation.

And then comes the weird part: time and again, this conversation will somehow morph into a discussion of what it was like to be a woman on campus. And I’m not talking about rape here, guys; I’m talking about the day-to-day trials of navigating a male-oriented social scene. It’s staggering that so many of us have this one overarching experience in common: that we were socially limited and biased against —  in ways both large and tiny, both obvious and insidious, both systemic and individualized  —  just because of our gender. So how could one possibly come up with a valid argument in support of an antiquated social system founded on gender exclusivity, given the ground level reality of womanhood at Amherst?

But then I found myself on Facebook reading Dan Cluchey (’08)’s status update in defense of Chi Psi. For those who didn’t read or hear about it, he pointed to all the wonderful men of Chi Psi who have used their fraternity status to advocate for sexual respect, deconstruct harmful stereotypes of masculinity in a safe space and become organized, active allies to women and other marginalized groups on campus.

And THEN I read Carlos Bello (’14E)’s piece in the Student, which took Dan’s point a whole bunch of steps further  —  and pretty much blew my mind. I couldn’t possibly summarize it here, so just do yourself a favor and read it if you haven’t already. You should also go ahead and read this, because I’m contextualizing a lot of my argument within the (apparently largely ignored) research that Jeremy Simon did about our institutional memory on this very issue.

What I’m about to write is coming from a place of immense empathy, friendship and gratitude to the Carlos Bellos and Dan Clucheys of the world  —  but it comes with an impassioned plea.

To Dan: I am overwhelmingly grateful for the work that you and Chi Psi have done toward combating sexual assault at Amherst. I believe you when you say that Chi Psi is a “factory of allies” who are fighting the good fight, and I’m truly heartened that there are guys like that at Amherst, especially within the fraternity system. I share your trepidation about the future of Amherst without that kind of role modeling in place. I’m saddened that the board’s decision means that you are dealt a great loss, and I certainly understand your wanting to defend an in-group experience that has been very positive for you and even for the larger community.

To Carlos: Thank you, so much, for sharing your story. I was friendly with you at Amherst, and I could always tell that you were a brilliant, multidimensional and deeply good kid. The loyalty, support and open-minded inclusiveness that your DKE brothers have shown you has even brought me to tears, and I found myself questioning my deeply-held beliefs after I read your article. So know this: I want you to have all that. You’ve endured an unbelievable amount of hardship in the past four years, and no one in their right mind would say that the love —  if I may be so bold as to call it that, because I think it is indeed love  —  that you’ve experienced from DKE is fundamentally wrong in any way.

But to both of you, I have to ask: what about the experience of women? Not just with regards to sexual safety, but with regards to our social flourishing? I understand why you want to hold onto your groups and your experiences, and I accept that they have been largely ethical and positive and almost entirely inclusion-oriented. I just don’t understand why the inclusion of gay, poor, racially and religiously diverse members into your club has to be predicated on the exclusion of women. I don’t understand why the healing power of “brotherhood” can’t be the healing power of “siblinghood.”

Did it ever occur to you that we might want to be a part of the filial love and solidarity that you so graciously extend to each other? Did it ever occur to you that we might not want to be just your girlfriends, friends and hook-up buddies, or some outside community that you learn how to champion and support when it comes to the sexual assault issue  —  that some of us might actually want to be your sisters?

Well-intentioned protestors, what I’m asking you to do here is twofold. First, I want you to consult the opinions of those whom your fraternity excludes: women. Not only your friends and girlfriends, but as many members of the Amherst community of women as you possibly can. Include a multitude of different intersectionalities; it’s important to see how the results change along the lines of various power identifiers, and I cannot and will not pretend to speak to anything but my own experience as a white, heterosexual, cis-gender female student. So ask us all, and ask us not just about sexual assault, but about our baseline experience as young women trying to be ourselves within the social life at Amherst. Ask us how it feels to never be in the ‘club’ with you. Ask us how it feels to have your “mystic circle” lorded over our heads, to sit beside you quietly while you all tell inside jokes and recount stories of events that we never could have been present for, an outsider on a basic level. Ask us how it feels to be considered fundamentally separate entities, excluded from the possibility of forming the kinds of deep familial bonds with you that you’ve formed with your “brothers,” purely on the basis of our gender.

But Jess, you say —  can’t the women of Amherst just form sororities or sorority-like social clubs if they want what we have?

Well, this brings me to my second request: I’m asking you to consider the issue from a sociological, contextual level. There was no such thing as “separate but equal” in the history of race relations. Why should we continue to pretend like there is such a thing in gender? We’ve seen with hundreds of other schools that the existence of a parallel structure for women does nothing to lessen the occurrence of sexual assault. In fact, sorority members are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than non-members. Yikes. Let alone the fact that sororities do nothing to solve the issue of teaching men how to treat women as complex, multidimensional equals on a less obvious level —  like to stop calling women sluts and whores for the same sexual behavior they themselves indulge in, for starters. Even if they did provide a positive social alternative for women, sororities still inevitably serve to cement the process of ‘othering’ that leaves so many of us marginalized within the dominant campus culture.

You don’t need to read Foucault or take a WAGS class to recognize the existence of privilege and systemic inequality, and how alive and well it is on campus today. You don’t have to be an individually sexist person to participate in  —  and benefit from  —  a social system that excludes and disempowers women. To use the argument that “men need a safe space to deconstruct stereotypes of masculinity” as a basis for supporting the fraternity system, and “why don’t women just go and form their own alternative social structure if they want that support,” is to discount the history and context of male privilege at Amherst College, and how it is still, after 40 years, a fundamentally alienating and marginalizing place for women because of structures that predate co-education  —  of which fraternities are only one example.

We were one of the last colleges of our kind to let in women (which, not coincidentally, was also protested at the time on the same premises of protecting male-only spaces), and we were one of the last to abolish on-campus fraternities. That old-boys-club vibe still permeates campus life today, as evidenced not just by the high occurrence of sexual assault but also by the day-to-day experiences reported by a lot of female students of being pushed to the periphery  —  outside of classroom, yes, but even within it as well (jump to the part about student Leslie Quiroz ’13, and believe me when I say that she’s not the only one).

But there’s obviously still a dilemma here. What happens when experiences like Carlos’s and experiences like mine, and like Caroline Katba ’15’s, and like Dana Bolger ’13’s and like countless others’ on both sides of this argument exist side-by-side in the same place and time? What happens when a huge step toward equality for one is a huge step backward for the other? We absolutely cannot and should not just invalidate one or the other experience, and then proceed to make unilateral policies in the name of reaching Amherst’s ‘true’ mission of equality, justice and a safe and inclusive space for all. It’s an oxymoron, let alone a blatant hypocrisy.

Which brings me to my proposed alternative. A good male friend of mine went to Middlebury  —  a comparable small, elite, northeastern liberal arts college and fellow NESCAC school —  and joined something called a “co-ed social house” there. For all intents and purposes it is a ‘fraternity’, even boasting a Greek-letter name to boot. But it’s fully and equally co-ed, and has been almost as long as it has been in existence. The result of this (in this one instance, I will mention as a caveat, and operating off of my observational data only) is that it has extremely varied and diverse constituents who are fundamentally treated equally regardless of their gender and sexuality. Its members are people from all different racial and religious backgrounds, international members, gay members (more than one), straight members, who-knows members, etc. Women are sisters; as in, multi-dimensional human beings who are included in the solidarity and the inside jokes —  neither the objectified recipients of a sexual judgment nor out-groupers in need of defense. I asked my friend once if they ever refused potential pledges, and he said very rarely, since the group by nature is so self-selecting; you go to the parties and events as a freshman, and then only if you decide you like the people, the general ‘vibe’, and the dogma do you actually pledge. And you’re choosing from multiple co-ed options, each with its own tenets and ambiance. The only time they don’t allow someone to join is if his or her behavior or attitude creates an unsafe environment —  most often in the case of a guy “creeping” on the female members.

Imagine that: a world in which the safety and wellbeing of women is not just considered, but actively protected! And —  my key point —  not just because these women need allies, but because they’re one of you. They’re a part of your group, too.

I bring up the option of co-educational fraternity-like structures because I really believe that wanting a specialized in-group experience can be a strong and innate cultural, if not human, yearning (bear with me, Anthro professors). The fun of the inside jokes and the formative group-bonding experiences, the rites and rituals, the power of feeling like you have a ‘crew’ as strong as blood to which you belong, whose members you can both count on for support and advice and leverage for future opportunities  —  Carlos’ story proves how positive this system can be. And that’s what the well-meaning protestors are really defending, if I may be so bold as to speak for them. They want to keep their jokes, their rituals and their strong bonds to each other; all of which are solidified only by the existence of a merely symbolic structure —  literally just a set of symbols  —  that provides the unified basis of something bigger and older and more cohesive than them, to which they get to belong.

So maybe there is a way to create a space for this experience and eliminate or at least reduce the operations of privilege along gender/race/class/sexuality/religious lines. I honestly believe that social exclusivity and in-group formations in some manifestation is never going to go away —  because people crave it, frankly, and because the output is overwhelmingly strong and powerful to its members. But we can try to remove biopower from the equation, and we can actually structure that powerful solidarity in a way that it encompasses —  and even learns from  —  those who have been historically disenfranchised. Women included.

In summary, what the defenders of Amherst’s fraternities in their current form seem to be fundamentally discounting is that the first step toward creating a place of gender equality —  where women at Amherst don’t feel alienated, harassed and disrespected, where they are never made to feel less-than on the basis of their sex lives, and where only a sober yes means yes —  is ending the gender apartheid. Not by eliminating the existence of safe spaces  —  there can still be separate dialogues even within a co-ed fraternity  —  but by eliminating antiquated social systems that perpetuate gender separatism. These systems, because they are rooted in Amherst’s deep history of sexism, and because they are operating in a still-unequal context today, go largely toward furthering the marginalization of our female community, often in very nuanced and insidious ways (as in, not just sexual assault, guys!).

Just one example of these nuanced ways, since we’re sharing our hurtful experiences: I was once hanging out with a bunch of DKE guys in Stone when they brought up a distant friend of mine and starting calling her a “slut.” It was a big joke to them that she had slept with a lot of their frat brothers. One of them even giggled that she “likes to get naked.” Everyone had a good snicker at that. I remember this experience clear as day, since here I thought I was choosing to spend my time with one of the “nice-guy” frats. And I felt small, and powerless to say anything. How could I, when they didn’t even seem to understand why attaching derogatory categories to a woman’s sexual activity is misogyny in the first place?

Would they have said those things about my friend if she were actually a member, rather than a visitor, of their social club? Would they have said those things in front of me if I were one? I can’t know the answer now, but it’s definitely a question worthy of further exploration.

So let’s open ourselves up, administrators and students both, to a discussion of the potential alternatives. Yes, fraternity members of Amherst  —  this means letting go of the social structure you already have in place and accepting being cut off from the parent fraternity organization (many of the frats here already are anyway), with all of its history and implications. I say this because it will not be enough to simply open up the existing fraternities to women. We tried that before and it didn’t go so well. You’ll have to start fresh, building something new and better from the ashes of the old and flawed. Yes, it means letting go of your claim to the righteousness of exclusively-male social clubs, which sound innocent in your articles but in practice only serve to push women to the margin and force them to become guests at their own institution of learning. It will probably require some rebranding: “social houses” maybe, instead of “fraternities,” to borrow from Middlebury, and some negotiation with the Board about the on or off campus status, the regulation requirements, the dogma around which each house is organized and so on. We can look to other comparable institutions to see what they’ve done in similar situations. And yes, you might have to change some of your rites and rituals, you might have to modify the pledging process to be more gender-neutral, you’ll definitely anger some alumni. All of those things are probably great losses to you.

But think of what you’ll gain —  you’ll gain sisters. You’ll gain the right to call yourselves truly inclusive. Show me a frat that is built off of a foundation of including female members, in addition to racial and ethnic minorities, international students, working class members, Muslim and non-Judeo-Christian members and LGBTQ-identified members —  and I’ll show you an organization that’s really dedicated to diversity, inclusion, sexual respect, safety, social equality and especially community and familial love on campus. Amherst would have a much harder time banning that kind of an organization.

And why wouldn’t you want that? Why would you want to be brothers and women, when you could be brothers and sisters?

This piece originally appeared on but was republished here at the request of the author.