06/09/2014 03:18 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2014

The Boys in the Back Room

I recently attended my Harvard 20th reunion and found myself, late night, in a familiar (and surprisingly unchanged) place: the party room of one of Harvard's eight all-male "Final Clubs." "Final" in this case refers to a time when young men joined after belonging to a now-nonexistent social "waiting" club. They are a vestige of an era when the college itself was all male and the majority of its students came from elite prep schools.

The university around these clubs has changed. Now Harvard is 49.3% percent women and a thriving example of diversity: economic, racial, and international. But the Final Clubs, while more diverse than they were in the past, are still all male. When women are allowed to enter, club bi-laws dictate how, when, and where: through dingy side doors in some, only as far as the foyer in others, not to the expansive "private" areas in all.

Harvard is an institution people look to for leadership, not just as a pre-eminent university, but as an incubator of future leaders -- a kind of city on the hill. Recent news reports may say Palo Alto is the new Cambridge, but around the world Harvard is still a flag bearer for excellence, forward thought, and equal opportunity. The Final Clubs are a fly in the ointment. Though technically "independent" entities (Harvard renounced connection to them per Title IX legislation in 1984) the clubs are still of Harvard if not legally under its umbrella, and they remain a part of undergraduate life. After all, their members are Harvard students and alumni and they occupy prime real estate in the heart of Harvard Square.

At best they compromise an obscure corner of the university (only ten percent of male undergraduates are members, though certainly the percentage of students who attend parties there is far greater). At worst they create a divisive trickle down effect of sexism, objectification and even misogyny that pervades the undergraduate experience and is still palpable at a reunion 20 years later. With their historic buildings, wood paneling, and sepia toned portraits of members past, the clubs have an air of institutional gravitas. This is not lost on their members -- or on the women who attend their parties as unequal guests. Run of the mill frat boy behavior can seem stamped with the approval of history.

I am ashamed of the time I spent frequenting these places as an undergraduate: I grew up in a liberal household, daughter of an ACLU lawyer and political science professor. I read feminist fairy tales and finished my large public high school with a strong sense of self. I knew hanging out somewhere that I had to enter through the back door or keep to certain circumscribed areas was demeaning. And that the power dynamic of a group of young men entirely in control of a social situation was not right.

I was ashamed at the time too. On campus, the clubs have always been a polarizing force -- there are those who enter them and those who don't. But the choice to go in or not is not made in the abstract. Ninety percent of Harvard students live on campus and Cambridge and Harvard zealously enforce underage drinking laws which limits options for parties. Until recently the college lacked a student center or any kind of nighttime hang-out space.

I still remember the first time I went into a club; I was with a female friend and two male friends looking for a party, not to get drunk, but to meet people. It must have been in the first two or three weeks of freshman year. We found ourselves outside an attractive building with music coming through the windows, crowded with people and rare signs of college social activity. We didn't know it was a final club. My girlfriend and I were swallowed up into the throng; we lost our male friends. Not, as we thought at the time, because it was so crowded, but because, we learned later, they had been kicked out. From then on it became clear Harvard was a place that presented certain obstacles to men and women being friends.

I'd like to have been the kid whose convictions in my own equality and dignity as a woman trumped my desire to fit in and be included, but I wasn't. The clubs and their rules were ridiculous, but I could handle it, I thought. And for the most part, I was right. But it is a shame that young women (and men, who have to decide whether to "punch" or not) are faced immediately with such a compromising choice. Harvard of all places should be a university that exalts its student's best qualities and helps them learn to make smart decisions and further their nascent sense of right an wrong.

Twenty years ago, my friends and I figured the clubs as single sex institutions were on the way out. My senior year, undergraduate members of a prominent club voted to go co-ed. What happened to this? The alumni wouldn't ratify the idea apparently. But other comparable institutions have gotten beyond this: Princeton's eating clubs and Yale's secret societies are all co-ed.

Yes, there are female final clubs now (the first one was founded in 1991) but the comparison is moot. These female social clubs have none of the tradition, history, or real estate the men's clubs do. They are however an effort on the part of their founders and members to achieve some sort of emotional parity -- territory the college itself (hello Radcliffe? where are you?) has not ventured into.

In the wake of the Santa Barbara killings and the recent revelations about sexual misconduct cases on college campuses, it seems embarrassing that these anachronistic clubs continue to operate under their ancient status quo. Even their strongest supporters can't make the case that they facilitate better relations between men and women, or even reflect our current societal standards. And shouldn't that be a critical objective for the community of a leading university?

I don't know. As I was reminded last weekend, I'm just a woman. I'll leave it to the boys in the back room to discuss.