Maddie Bogert ’19 remembers waiting outside the door of one of Yale’s fraternities during her first year at Yale. She was with a group of friends, both male and female, and a fraternity brother at the door told her group that the women could come in but not the men, “which was horrifying to me and awful,” Bogert said. She remembers thinking, “I don’t want to be let into this party as a sexual object.”
This incident stuck with her. Now a junior, she is a member of Engender, a student organization at Yale with the stated mission of creating a more inclusive social environment on campus. According to Engender, this starts with the gender integration of Yale’s all-male fraternities.
Multiple members of Engender said that the root of a host of issues on campus, including sexual assault and harassment and power imbalances in the social scene, lies in the fact that fraternities exist as all-male spaces. The group believes that the issues of sexual assault and harassment on campus cannot be solved if fraternities continue to exist in their current single-gender form.
“At the end of the day, even if sexual assault is an important issue to a man, for most men it will never be as important, as urgent, as critical as it is for most women, because they’re just not threatened or affected by it in the same way,” said Will McGrew ’18, a co-director of Engender.
While Engender seeks more than fraternity reform, other campus groups like Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale and the Communication and Consent Educators work with fraternities and in other venues on campus to educate students about sexual assault prevention. Helen Price ’18, who co-founded Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale and was a co-director of the group until this fall, said she considers coeducation a “medium-term” goal and that, in the short term, Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale is focused on helping fraternities create safer sexual environments on campus.
At the same time, she wrote in an email to the News, “It’s unproductive to talk about sexual assault as if it only happens at fraternities. It’s a problem in all social spaces at Yale, and we need to be having a broader conversation about how sexual disrespect is normalized in our campus culture.”
Engender’s most publicized tactic has been the group’s repeated attendance at Sigma Phi Epsilon rush events. SigEp is the only fraternity at Yale to allow women to participate in its rush process. Last academic year, Engender began asking fraternities to consider coeducation. According to McGrew, most fraternities did not respond to Engender’s request to rush. Others, he said, declined to integrate their rush processes, citing freedom of association as a reason for remaining single-gender. This year, about 15 to 20 nonmale students rushed the fraternity with the group, according to Anna McNeil ’20, a co-director of Engender. Eleven students submitted bids, she said, all of which were rejected.
In addition to his leadership position with Engender, McGrew is also a member of SigEp, which, he acknowledged, some people find hypocritical. He rushed the fraternity his first year, although he said he’d always been skeptical of all-male spaces. McGrew emphasized that he has formed close relationships with many of his fraternity brothers and said that many members of SigEp are feminists.
At the same time, he said, his loyalties lie with individual members, not the organization itself. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to be blindly loyal to a national organization that wants to implement de jure, by definition, sexist policies,” he said. Bogert, who rushed SigEp with Engender this year, said that McGrew’s position as a member of SigEp was invaluable to the group’s ability to rush the fraternity. “Without him, I don’t even think we would have had access to the rush calendar,” she said.
Because Engender has so far focused its efforts exclusively on the gender integration of Yale’s fraternities, some of the group’s detractors criticize its logic as hypocritical. Grant Richardson ’19, a member of the LEO fraternity, said that he thinks Engender targets fraternities because they are an “easy punching bag” compared to other single-gender groups on campus, such as sororities and sports teams. “It’s easier to target fraternities, because some fraternity brothers have committed sexual assault, so it has kind of a bad connotation in that sense,” he added.
Engender does not have an official position on sororities yet, and the issue of all-female spaces is contested within the group, according to McGrew. Still, multiple members of Engender emphasized that the focus on fraternities stems from the significant difference in impact that fraternities and sororities have on campus. McNeil emphasized that sororities are not “sexually predatory environments” in the same way that fraternities are. McGrew agreed. “It’s always more problematic when a powerful group segregates a less powerful group away from itself than it is vice versa.”
Other critics of Engender maintain that there is a unique value in single-gender spaces. One anonymous fraternity president emphasized what he says is a particular benefit inherent in all-male spaces. “The friendships formed in fraternities occur in groups of all males because they allow for greater vulnerability, sensitivity, and shared experience,” he wrote in an email. “It is especially important to have these elements in a time where there need to be honest conversations about what it means to be a man.”
In a recent op-ed for the News, Richardson, the LEO member, pushed back against the idea that all-male groups breed misogyny and argued that the tight-knit social groups created through fraternities are valuable in their own right. “Fraternities are all male for a reason — it begets brotherhood,” he wrote.
Members of Engender say that any value in a single-gender space is outweighed by concerns surrounding Yale’s sexual climate and gendered social dynamics. “I don’t really think the alcohol-fueled, sexually predatory nature of fraternities makes that their primary function on this campus,” McNeil said of the idea that fraternities can be valuable bonding spaces for men. Richardson disagrees, continually emphasizing the brotherhood aspect of fraternities. “Simply put, guys act differently when there are girls around,” he said.
In many ways, this is the crux of the issue. Members of Engender and members of fraternities both agree that social spaces are altered when women enter previously all-male spaces and that men change their behavior when they are around women. The two groups simply disagree about what this means.
Members of Engender see gender integration as a way to fix what they see as harmful gendered power dynamics and an unhealthy sexual environment on campus, particularly within fraternities. They believe that these issues will not change until women are allowed to enter these spaces.
“There’s a way in which men change their behavior when women are around,” McGrew said.
If any fraternity at Yale were to choose to permit women to join, it would likely first need to disaffiliate from its national organization, which typically preclude nonmale students from joining. Disaffiliation does come with challenges for fraternities; national organizations often own fraternity houses and provide insurance, allowing fraternities to host open parties without fear of liability.
It’s unclear to what extent and with how much seriousness SigEp in particular has discussed the possibility of coeducation. According to an email obtained by the News, in January 2017, the group responded via a Google Form to the question, “How do you want the fraternity to respond to the group of girls planning to rush?”
Members were able to vote for one of three options — not to allow women to rush at all, to allow women to rush but not offer them membership or allow women both to rush and to join the fraternity. In the email, former SigEp president Tyler Morley ’18 wrote that, should the chapter vote to extend membership to women, “There is a very real possibility in this case [the national organization] would choose to sell the house and revoke our chapter.” However, he added that SigEp nationals had not “expressed a clear dissatisfaction” with the possibility of allowing women
to rush without offering them membership. Morley did not respond to request for further comment.
In a subsequent email, Morley wrote that after a “very close vote,” the fraternity would allow women to rush, but would not offer them membership. According to McGrew, the combined votes for allowing women to rush and allowing women to rush and join narrowly edged out the votes against allowing women to rush. McGrew said that SigEp did not revote on the issue this year but again allowed women to rush without extending to them offers of membership.
Women who rushed SigEp with Engender said that some fraternity brothers seemed genuinely interested in the idea of coeducation. However, Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21, who attended the first SigEp rush event with Engender, described the process as “super uncomfortable.” She described the members of SigEp as practicing “performative allyship,” a sentiment echoed by Bogert, who also rushed SigEp with the group this year. They said that, at times, it seemed like members of SigEp were putting on a show of acceptance. Jojo Attal ’21, a co-director of Engender, agreed, saying that sometimes it seemed like members of SigEp were “asking for our forgiveness.”
McNeil, one of Engender’s co-directors, said that drinking games at rush events were typically “almost exclusively male,” something Kumar-Banerjee mentioned as well. “You’re a part of the scenery when you’re there, you’re not allowed to actually engage in the rush process,” Kumar-Banerjee said.
Attal said that, at each of her five rush meals, the SigEp member she ate with seemed to be on the side of coeducation. “They just are stagnant in their infrastructure and action,” she said. Bogert agreed. “One of the brothers said to me, … ‘I think fraternities will not be here in 10 years,’” she said. “I just think they’re not really willing to give up all of the privileges that they have right now.”
This is a sentiment echoed by multiple members of Engender. They tended to agree that fraternity brothers are genuinely interested in making fraternities safer spaces, particularly with regards to sexual misconduct and assault. And the women who rushed SigEp with Engender said that some members of the fraternity seemed interested in discussing coeducation. At the same time, they emphasized that even fraternity brothers who are open to the conversation are typically not compelled to act.
“I think it’s difficult to talk about social change as a thought experiment,” McNeil said. “The conversations surrounding the benefits of coeducation are decades old at this point, centuries old.”
Bogert said that one of SigEp’s rush chairs, Yani Fabre ’20, told her that the fraternity was “looking at ways to disaffiliate and negotiating ways to disaffiliate.” Fabre did not respond to the News’ request for comment at the time. After publication, he came forward to deny the quote. McGrew said that he thinks SigEp is very divided on the subject of gender integration but that members of the fraternity don’t talk about it much, at least openly.
Engender’s next steps include a plan to bring the issue of coeducation to the Yale administration, in the hopes that the administrators will be willing both to push fraternities to go coed and to assist them in the process of disaffiliation. Members of Engender point in particular to a passage in the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, which they say could be construed as prohibiting single-gender organizations. McGrew said the group would be working on filing a formal complaint with Yale over the next few months.
Associate Vice President of Student Life Burgwell Howard wrote in a statement that the administration “does not take a position on who is the member of any student organization, just as long as they are students in good standing with the university and are not under any sanction or restriction.”
He added, “Yale students select members for their clubs and groups, and in the case of our Greek organizations, they also adhere to the policies of their national organizations. And while the policies for many of these organizations are slowly changing to more accurately reflect the changing definitions of gender, there will inevitably be a lag that raises questions about how we will interact here at Yale.”
There are also whispers of a national lawsuit, though the details seem murky at this point. Kumar-Banerjee, who is not on Engender’s executive board, said she didn’t know much about a potential lawsuit, and that the group is “pretty tight-lipped” on the subject “because they don’t want the frats to know what their line is going to be.” Kumar-Banerjee said that she had heard that a potential lawsuit would be a national lawsuit filed against fraternities across the country, not just at Yale.
According to McNeil, who is the co-director of Engender’s legal work, a potential lawsuit is on the back burner now that the group has begun to have conversations with the administration.
For the time being, Engender will continue to knock on fraternities’ doors, pushing for coeducation. Fraternities, it seems, will continue to push back. The future is uncertain.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Yani Fabre's '20 denial of his comments made to Maddie Bogert '19.