The radical changes that Yale went through in the late 1960s brought an end to the defined role of societies as respected campus icons and drove them into the nebulous limbo that continues today. When bombs are exploding in the Whale [Ingalls Rink], Black Panthers are stirring up passions on the Green, and o my! I have classes with women!, the propriety of two free meals a week with fourteen relics of the past was doubted by many undergraduates.

—Yale campus tabloid Rumpus, April 19971


The prevailing characterizations or perceptions of the women who entered Yale in the fall of 1969 were variously of superwomen, pioneers, “geisha girls,” potential wives, or confessional mothers, but not seen as individuals or campus leaders or scholars. Two angry coeds complained in the News in 1972 that they felt “no Yale man is under the pressure a woman here feels to ‘be all things to all people’—including the roles of Mother Earth figure, sex counselor, friend—and general Superwomen.”2

While the question of their membership in the senior societies seemed initially to be deferrable, should that significant policy decision be made by their male membership and respective graduate boards, the women still faced the same question that had bedeviled prior minorities in Yale College: how would so few in a visible caste produce recognized, peer-elected leaders? Nor was legacy status any particular driver. Because of the gender quota, alumni daughters had about half the probability of being admitted to Yale College as alumni sons. To the classes of 1973–1976, Yale admitted the following numbers of women legacy applicants: 50 of 269; 46 of 235; 49 of 196; and 74 of 210. In those classes, 42, 37, 34, and 47 women matriculated, respectively.

The number of coeds was to increase incrementally, once new housing became available, but the admissions quota on women was only dropped forever in December 1972. By 1979, women comprised almost 45 percent of Yale College, yet not until fall 2010 were females to constitute more than half the Yale undergraduate population.3 Fully half of the Yale senior society abovegrounds were to be slow in bringing women into their delegations’ memberships, and not until 1991, over two decades after their first year of admission, were females to be invited as fully fledged members to cross the iron-doored threshold of the last, and oldest, of the aboveground tombs to welcome them.

Harvard College did not exhibit a different standard at the apex of its social system: up in Cambridge, despite the incorporation of the Radcliffe women into Harvard classes and many shared extracurricular activities, women were simply not admitted to the eight exclusive male final clubs. Having an undergraduate membership of around 40 apiece, they admitted as members only 3 percent of that university’s 6,600 undergraduates. In 1984, considering these organizations to be “private,” and after they uniformly refused to admit women, Harvard severed ties by cutting off A.D., Fly, Delphic, Spee, Owl, Phoenix-SK, and Fox from the university steam system, and decreed that with the exception of athletic teams and choral groups, no single-gender organizations could advertise events or meet on campus. The failure of Owl to include women caused Senator Ted Kennedy to resign in 2006, and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick was criticized on the same grounds for his membership in Fly.4

Carving out their own social space on campus, Harvard women founded five women’s clubs between 1991 (by which date coeds had been permitted to join all but one of the Yale abovegrounds) and 2008, beginning with Bee and followed by the Isis, Pleiade, the Sabliere Society, and La Vie, accounting in their aggregate number about 5 percent of eligible female undergraduates. Males left out of Harvard’s final clubs themselves joined fraternities, rather than founding new final clubs, or some analog of Yale’s underground senior societies, or of its underground coed societies with the Seven Sisters colleges. Not until the fall of 2015 did one of the Harvard men’s final clubs offer to elect women.5

In their first years in New Haven, the new Yale women believed that their proportional distribution among the twelve residential colleges was at their personal cost, even though giving the men the experience of living in a coeducational environment. Two female members of the class of 1973 called on the university to end the discriminatory admissions quota which limited their intake: “Until Yale recognizes that women as well as men may be ‘leaders’ (responsible contributors to society), no woman can have equal status at Yale.” An undergraduate petition calling “upon Yale University to end sex discrimination in all aspects of university life,” supported by a “strong affirmative action program,” attracted 1,793 signatures and was presented to President Brewster and representatives from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the department’s special visit to New Haven on April 16, 1971.6

Where it counted most, in securing leadership positions in Yale College’s traditional student publications and organizations, the women’s extracurricular climb was very slow. In 1978, a woman was elected president of the Political Union, and another became editor in chief of the Yale Daily News in 1979, with a second in 1988. In 1989, the first woman was elected president of the Yale College Council; in 1995, women were both the union’s president and speaker; and only in 1997 was the second woman elected to the YCC presidency. The college’s males who discouraged or directed women away from positions of leadership and responsibility had no hatred or dislike of women. Rather, the idea of women as leaders was, in the first two decades of coeducation, simply a function of the same sort of callousness which in essence underlay the barriers that handicapped people found across the country until the 1970s.7 So, if women were to be taken into the senior societies, it could not be on the old metric of leadership of a major campus organization.

The societies were initially perplexed at the prospect of coeds. Even the alumni board of a professedly liberal society like Manuscript, knowing that some change was inevitable, had decided before the females were to arrive in the September 1969 that, although a majority of its trustees had no objection to women as undergraduate members, it was more “prudent to wait to assess the sentiments of undergraduate members whose actual experience with coeducation will make them better judges of its effects on an undergraduate group.” The chair of Manuscript’s tap committee that year joked that the society could choose to revise the procedure whereby new members were physically tapped. “We could one-up Bones and other cross-town rivals in acquiring a female member by simply blowing in her ear. ‘She would follow us anywhere,’ he reasoned.”8

The tapping procedure for the next incoming delegation of Manuscript was indeed revolutionary, but not in any way that might have been foreseen when the tap chair made his quip. The boarding up of the Manuscript house to its undergraduate members just before May Day in 1970 meant that there was no delegation elected for the class of 1971, while the society’s trustees struggled with the question of whether to call it quits after eighteen successful years or to reconstitute the society on some new basis. Douglas Crowley, a graduate member of the class of 1963 now back on campus, was approached with this dilemma in September 1970 by Ian Siggins, a fellow Manuscript board member and then the Episcopal chaplain of the university.

Siggins advised Crowley that the senior seminar of History, the Arts, and Letters (“HAL”) had a remarkably pleasant and able group of ten, all of whom were not then in any society. HAL, a now-discontinued major, was then an intense two-year program of interdisciplinary studies focusing on European intellectual and cultural history (its detractors sometimes called it “Cocktail Party 101,” while its supporters saw value in its cross-fertilization of music and art with history and philosophy). Additionally, HAL’s faculty included leading professors involved with Manuscript in this era, including Cleanth Brooks, Beekman Cannon, and Eugene Waith, so in some sense the stars were favorably aligned for the otherwise startling proposition that the entire HAL contingent, although smaller than fifteen, be made the compact core of a 1971 delegation for Manuscript.

Two other Yale senior societies had admitted women to membership by this date: Book and Snake and the ever-liberal Elihu, in the chaos of May Day when there was no Tap Day, had each quietly elected five coeds, who had been among the 250 admitted to Yale as juniors and transferees from other institutions in 1969. This revolutionary event in senior society history was not reported at the time in the campus newspaper or elsewhere. Among those women admitted to the sophomore class in 1969, there were now three women in HAL in the class of 1971, who welcomed the opportunity to join Manuscript. The addition over the early part of the academic year of like-minded recruits from other humanistic disciplines, including women from the class of 1972 who joined early, enabled a roughly equal representation of men and women in the full delegation. In later years, Manuscript was to call this group the “Renaissance Class,” representing the rebirth of Manuscript from a temporary grave. It was a remarkable group for Yale College as well, even if the odds toward success were stacked by its preexisting intellectual excellence: the delegation produced a Clare Fellow, a Henry Fellow, a Marshall Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Rotary Fellow.9

The key feature for the saga of the senior societies, of course, was that women were now, by the spring of 1971, members of three of their number, albeit with a significant gender imbalance, but nonetheless holding meetings with the men. Yet other impediments to social and political equality of the sexes in New Haven were still solidly in place. What President Brewster affectionately called the “barbaric mixer,” where women were bused in from the Seven Sisters campuses to Yale’s residential colleges for mixing with the men at weekend dances, did not end with the admission of Yale’s own coeds. This weekend system, where the males had time-controlled interactions with non-Yale women, or away from New Haven at the mixers held on the Seven Sisters campuses, did not suddenly cease as the center of campus social life. Mixers were still deemed necessary because of the eight-to-one ratio of men to women on campus; conversely, many Yale men might conclude that to date a local coed was to take on at least seven other rivals.

Upperclassmen in their old social grooves were especially perpetuators of this model and practiced an “incest taboo” against dating women in their residential colleges. Of roughly 1,000 women then admitted, only 31 of those dancing to the music of B. B. King at the 1970 prom were from Yale. Coeducation, in other words, commenced with a separation of social/romantic life and “everyday” life, with men and women developing friendships or brother-sister relationships more than romantic relationships, which still tended to be confined to the weekend.10 Nor, in a senior society system which often used its graduates in the administration and faculty for recruitment, did the coeds have mentors or role models. Yale University employed only two tenured and three female professors in 1971, while only 7 percent of the assistant professors were women, no associate professors were women, and of course, none had been Yale undergraduates who had experienced senior societies as members.11

Again, despite Yale’s emphasis on athletics, a fundamental part of the college’s established center of social interaction since the late nineteenth century, none of the programs of varsity sports, club sports, or residential college intramural sports had been adapted for women upon their arrival at Yale. This lack of opportunity was not designed maliciously, but was instead part of a greater—and national—social disregard for the place of women in athletics, to be changed dramatically by developments in the judicial case law and federal regulations resulting from the passage of Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972. This law was itself an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which stated in part that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Yale’s initial pace in developing a women’s athletic program was consistent with the Governing Board of Athletics’ report that determined “which sports are ‘safe’” for females. Following the 1973 appointment of a woman director of recreational and instructional programs, thirteen women’s sports subsequently were granted “varsity” status: tennis, field hockey, squash, basketball, crew, fencing, gymnastics, swimming, lacrosse, volleyball, cross-country, track and field, and softball. Yale’s only undefeated athletic team in the year of graduation of the freshwomen who arrived in 1969 was the women’s tennis team; the next year, the Yale women’s basketball team won its first victory in Ivy League competition by beating Radcliffe 42–27. National news was made when, in the Yale physical education director’s office some twenty varsity women crew members, protesting unequal locker rooms and shower facilities, bared their breasts, inscribed “Title IX.” Increased funding for women’s varsity sports followed, so that by 1986 they were competitive within their division.12

Initially, too, the most prestigious social organizations barred them. President Brewster charged his special assistant Sam Chauncey not only with handling the administrative aspects of coeducation on campus, but with bringing private institutions identified with Yale into the new social order. Obedient to this direction, Chauncey demanded that the Yale Club of New York City, not at all controlled by the university, admit women to membership on the same basis as all the male Yale degree holders, on the threatened but legally baseless penalty of being denied the use of the Yale name (the New York Yale Club admitted women in 1969, but not until 1974 were they permitted access to all areas of the club other than the swimming pool, where nude bathing had been the prior regime).

For another example, Mory’s, the famed Yale drinking establishment and unofficial Whiffenpoof headquarters, only admitted female members in 1974, after several lawsuits and the loss of its liquor license.13 And when Chauncey went with the same request on special mission to the corporate board of his old senior society Wolf’s Head, the trustees, citing what they styled his fundamental misunderstanding of the society’s ethos, summarily expelled him from membership in a closed board meeting held in an upstairs private dining room at Mory’s—and then had the group’s lunch tab billed to Chauncey’s house account.14

More typical of the oldest abovegrounds was the initial reaction of Scroll and Key. As soon as women were known in 1968 to be admitted to Yale College, much passionate talk ensued about admitting them to the society during each succeeding election season. The pressure to admit was to mount as other, less venerable societies took them in. The first argument was that Keys ought to reflect the composition of Yale College (not that in some ways it ever had), and the second, that coeds’ absence gave a objection to those who had no other quarrel with the place.

The Kingsley Trust Association membership was solicited in 1970 for its opinion of coeducation: while 42 responses from Keysmen applauded the idea of inclusion, 125 expressed significant reservations, and the split was not always on generational lines (although a majority of respondents from the classes prior to 1951 signaled opposition by a ratio of four to one, while younger classes split approximately evenly). A graduate committee concluded in 1973 that no single graduation year’s delegation should have the authority to determine so significant a change, “until such time as it is clear that coeducation is plainly the desire of the Kingsley Trust Association.”

Not until the winter of 1975 was another committee of this aboveground’s graduates appointed to make a recommendation, which again concluded that the society should remain all-male. In 1977, the football quarterback resigned from Keys because its alumni would not even let him make a pro-coeducation plea to their convocation. A third committee, reporting in 1982, imposed a moratorium for five years until induction of the class of 1988 (in which year a coed was to scrawl “Phallocentrism is boring” across their hall’s steps). The trustees, pushed along by graduate member and former Yale president Bart Giamatti, formally recognized that their society had drifted more and more from the center of campus respect, as verified by their election results, where too often the reason had been their stance on women. They resolved to admit them, without a vote of the full graduate membership, beginning with the class of 1990 after a year of preparation. This decision was announced in the New York Times before graduate members received their formal notice letter, which, the newspaper said ruefully, was equivalent “to discovering you had marital troubles by coming home to an empty house.” The six women to whom Keys offered election, including one African American, the co-moderator of the BSAY, all accepted. The delegation of 1991 was to elect a woman to its highest office.15

The same sort of internal debates contemporaneously roiled Skull and Bones and Wolf’s Head, comprising with Keys the three oldest in the system, all of which had chosen not to admit women for decades after coeducation was introduced. They were pressed annually to the contrary by their successive delegations, starting with the Bones club of 1971’s attempt to tap two women. A delegation of current members and recent graduates drove to New York City, “in someone’s microbus, you know,” one of them recalled, “marijuana smoke billowing out the windows,” to meet an alumni gathering who fed them cocktails and dinner at a French restaurant on the Upper East Side. The establishment’s representatives there told their New Haven visitors that the club did not belong to fifteen Yale seniors with dilated pupils. The outraged alumni thwarting that particular attempt (over the contrary opinion of former Yale admissions director Inky Clark) included McGeorge Bundy, George W. Bush’s uncle and investment banker Jonathan Bush, and public relations legend John “Tex” McCrary. They threatened, if the undergraduates persisted, to shut down the tomb for a year and choose the next delegation themselves16 (as Manuscript’s trustees had indeed done the year before, for different reasons).

Similar rebuffs in the public perpetuation of all-male cultural institutions in a now-coeducational establishment that was Yale College led many women to question whether “Yale really had a genuine commitment to educate us [women], or whether we had simply been brought into the student body because it was thought that the future white male Yale leaders would need to know how to act with women and blacks.”17 Even demographic equality was slow in coming: it was not until 1974, five years after initial coeducation, that the Yale admissions department was to adopt a policy of sex-blind admissions18 (although Harvard did not do the same with Radcliffe women until two years after that).

Nevertheless, despite all these institutional and attitudinal obstacles, a few more women gained membership in the aboveground senior societies simply because they were present. “With girls around,” one society member from the late 1950s was to observe pithily but correctly, “you couldn’t do any of that stuff with a straight face.”19 In the wake of the membership reforms in Elihu and Manuscript, the two old Sheff societies Book and Snake and Berzelius in the spring of 1971 each elected five females to their respective delegations for the class of 1972.20 At that date, from the Yale feminist viewpoint, progress ground to a halt, and the all-male holdouts among the abovegrounds, Bones and Keys and Wolf’s Head, were to be publicly pilloried for their stance for the next two decades. But, truth to tell, the three most ancient societies had an even larger challenge in maintaining a place of respect within Yale College.

Combined with the presence of women on the campus, which upended the fundamentals of all preexisting male undergraduate hierarchies and their vaunted—but increasingly disrespected—status, was a genderless disdain for “elitism.” This was in the air from the late 1960s, making “leadership” less potent as a precondition for society membership (and that had never been true for all societies, or even all the slots in any of them). The attitude to which the cries of “elitism” gave voice ultimately transcended all questions of racism or sexism. Rather, the feeling was one of compulsive egalitarianism, opposed per se to any system that, for whatever reason, in whatever fashion, rewarded one individual over another.

Yale history professor Gaddis Smith was to remember: “The climate of the sixties was one that looked down on distinction, elites, and special privilege. The societies experienced a withdrawal from self-congratulatory publicity, because there was embarrassment over that. There was some discussion that the societies were in their last years because they were too out of touch with the new cultural climate.”21 Campus publication editorial boards seemed to agree. The last Yale Daily News listing of society elections had appeared in the spring of 1967; the last lists to appear in the class yearbook were in 1969 and 1970, and for the 1971 yearbook, Keys, Wolf’s Head, and Berzelius had to take out a paid advertisement to appear. A News columnist was to maintain that senior society members were “no more different or more talented or even more likable than any random sampling of 15 Yalies.”22

Even the societies’ storied rosters of national leaders in politics and business now worked against them. The issue of the “old boy network” was critical to the debate over the all-male groups. They smacked, said a member of the Yale Women’s Center, of the old Yale adage “Put a few white men in a room and let them run the world.” A coordinator of the Undergraduate Women’s Caucus wrote in a letter to the News that, since joining an all-male society was thought to bring “job opportunities after graduation” and “business and political networking later on,” it was “ridiculous to maintain that the secret societies’ exclusion of women is an apolitical and morally neutral act.” Responses of the societies’ graduate members to the effect that the delegations were stratified horizontally by class year with only intermittent contacts with alumni from the preceding or following years (unlike a fraternity), and that it was deemed bad form to list a secret society on a resumé, were summarily dismissed by the critics.23

The presidency of George H. W. Bush, and the pre- and postelection fascination of the media with his undergraduate membership in Skull and Bones, did not help. When Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev were conducting a summit in 1989, a satirist’s column in the New York Times had the American president offering the reformist Russian leader aid in joining the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank:

“Gorbachev: Do not think me ungrateful, but actually, I was hoping to join the real insiders’ club —Skull and Bones.

“Bush: I don’t know, Gorby. It’s not the ethnic thing, but if I can’t get Maggie [Thacher] in . . . these guys are real conservative.”24

The Yale Daily News front-page article for the spring 1971 elections, authored by a woman and announcing the sudden but substantial admission of females to the societies in the second year of rising women seniors in the college, was titled “Women Enrich Tombs.” It celebrated the fact that “four senior societies and one fraternity-secret society have enlarged their spirit of brotherhood to include brothers and sisters. They are Book and Snake, Manuscript, Berzelius, Elihu, and St. Anthony Hall.” The just-initiated women of the class of 1972 quoted in the piece cited various reasons for joining, including the pioneer spirit, curiosity, and iconoclasm: one in Book and Snake said, “I joined for the same reason I came to Yale,” and another in a second, unidentified aboveground said she “hoped to break as many all-male traditions as possible.”

But many more named the desire to end the social isolation they felt as a significant gender minority in a large, predominantly male institution. These women considered themselves “well accepted by their spooks” and praised the benefits gained from membership as a major justification for accepting their invitations to join. They felt that both genders had made natural and acceptable accommodations to the new intimacy, although they noted small changes in the men’s behavior around women. Most remarkably, the News article noted that “these upperclass women have found more easily in an exclusive organization what they could not find ‘naturally’ in the Yale community.” As incoming sophomore class transfer students, they had had more difficulty establishing themselves socially than had the women in the class behind them with twice their numbers. Against all expectations, the senior societies, or at least a substantial component of the larger system, had performed their traditional task of integration of the college’s newest caste. Coeducation’s “widespread implications,” the article concluded, “have affected and changed one seemingly inviolate institution—the secret society system.”

On the societies’ side, the male members were said to have recognized the need to make women members for “both humanistic and economic reasons”: diversity was traditionally a goal of membership, and financial pressures increased the incentive. Although the ratio of the sexes within the canonical number of fifteen members continued to present problems, the quick and dramatic alteration in membership policy had redeemed the system, assuring it of a continued existence. The changeover from brotherhood to “brother and sisterhood” was most painful, not within the new, mixed-gender delegations, but on the alumni side. St. Anthony’s, the “fraternity-secret society,” was threatened with possible exclusion by its national headquarters if it accepted women, but survived the challenge and even compelled change in the organization’s national constitution.25 And the graduate boards of those more conservative societies, choosing not to permit the admission of women within the first year that junior class women were available for election as rising seniors, were to continue their formal and increasingly marginalized opposition for decades.

The “hypocrisies” of senior society members swimming in the newly egalitarian sea of Yale College continued to be called out. Shortly following the spring 1971 article on “enrichment” of the tombs by women appeared a News column titled “Unspooking Tombs.” This turned out to be the last piece to be published on societies in this academic year, which ended with a strike by custodial and maintenance workers that in fifty days caused more violence and vandalism than had occurred during the May Day upheaval of the prior spring. All the themes of the social(ist) reform petitioners of the 1969 juniors were sounded again by the columnist. “How can one black militant, a leading spokesman of last spring’s Mayday activities, choose to be among the current members of one of the most exclusive senior societies, a society which still doesn’t have any women in it? How can one of the organizers of the charity drive for New Haven justify belonging to a society whose building sits unoccupied for most of the day, while thousands of New Haven residents live crowded together in cramped apartment buildings? How can one of Pierson’s most outspoken defenders of the community last spring now be a member of a society that does nothing for the community?”26

The criticism was not completely fair. Back when the “community” was perceived as just Yale College, Wolf’s Head on its fortieth anniversary in the 1920s had funded three undergraduate scholarships, and other societies had similar histories of gifting college-wide scholarships or undergraduate prizes in their members’ names. The society always most generous of all to Yale had long been Scroll and Key, and in this new era of an enlarged “community,” the Keys delegation of 1970 had made two loans, one to the radio station WYBC and a second to the Yale Record, the first loans made outside the membership of the society, because they wished to open out toward the broader community, in this case to other worthy college organizations.

The same year the Keys board approved grants to the Yale Charities Drive and to the Calvin Hill Daycare Center, followed in 1971 by grants to the Student Community Housing Corp., to Afro-American, Inc., and to the Hill Daycare Center again, with yet more community organization grants made in 1972. In 1976, the Kingsley Trust Association was to present the Yale Corporation with a gift of $100,000 to initiate the John Hay Whitney Professorship in Yale College.27 This society’s generosity to the university itself and to non-member student prizewinners, commencing in the late nineteenth century with establishment of the John Addison Porter and Ten Eyck prizes, was unparalleled and, prior to the Whitney professorship gift, largely unknown.

In the election season of 1972, the societies were to run the gamut in their responses to the continuing barrage of criticism. On the one end was Elihu, which published a letter declaring its current delegation (the very first of any society to include women) saw “no purpose in secrecy and therefore intend to be completely open and honest regarding our activities, procedures, and election criteria.” They maintained “a house, not a tomb . . . which is open to members (undergraduate, graduate, and faculty), their guests, and the invited public.” “Education,” broadly understood “to mean the intellectual and the personal, the formal and the informal,” was their programmatic theme: “basically, it is up to each year’s group to design their own educational experience.” In the hopes of a diverse incoming delegation, they openly invited any member of the junior class interested in their society “to call 436-1328 in the evenings and leave a message for the chairman.”28 This senior society’s demystification was complete.

On the spectrum’s other end was Skull and Bones, which continued its own tradition, constant for the decades from 1963 through the 1980s, of publishing a letter in the campus newspaper detailing the dates before which no junior would be contacted about election, and after which in the week preceding Tap Day some juniors would be notified of an election offer, to be supplemented by additional offers on Tap Day itself. No other senior society, aboveground or underground, made any public announcement of policy or program. The week thereafter, three days before the date of elections, an unsigned notice appeared in the News declaring that “Societies Elections” would take place in student rooms at eight o’clock. On Tap Day itself, the campus newspaper ran the list of those elected as new Whiffenpoofs, but there was no mention then or thereafter of the senior societies.


In 1977 a classmate of George W. Bush’s from the class of 1968, Ron Rosenbaum, published a magazine article titled “The Last Secrets of Skull and Bones,” which has been called “the locus classicus of all Bonesology” (an honorific bestowed in apparent ignorance of George Frazier’s Esquirepiece of 1955, which was both longer and more accurate about Yale’s oldest senior society). The volume of Esquire magazine for 1977 containing Rosenbaum’s piece had by the early 1980s been so often worn and mutilated by readers that it had to be put into the preservation section of the university library, although photocopies were kept available at the reference desk, which were themselves then pilfered; the New Haven public library copy of that year’s bound volume also disappeared.29

Rosenbaum took fierce joy in relating and “exposing” the society’s traditions, but his true, elegiac theme was that Skull and Bones was in decline, possibly terminally. Its offers of election were increasingly rebuffed, and its formerly secret rituals—thanks partly to articles like Frazier’s and Rosenbaum’s—increasingly known. Manuscript, by the mid-eighties, was virtually open to the public except for one dinner a week, and St. Elmo’s, Berzelius, and Book and Snake became known for inviting guests to themed parties. Except for the three oldest of the senior societies, membership was not taken as seriously as in the past, and each year, some members quit, a practice virtually unheard of in the most of the 1960s and before, and many seniors were increasingly casual about attending meetings.30

The larger problem was simply that elitism, on which the secret societies’ prestige and exclusivity had been grounded for almost one hundred fifty years since Skull and Bones’s founding, was now dishonored and derided by the current undergraduates. A Yale Daily News Magazine article in 1974 heralded the change: “The myth that the societies set out to tap the top 15 WASPs in the class is no longer correct.” A Bones alumnus was quoted there as saying that “The homogeneity of the senior society has been replaced by a respect for individuality. The idea of bringing in campus leaders has disappeared. It doesn’t matter any more that the candidate’s the captain of the football team. If the guy’s an asshole, we don’t want him.”

Although the college newspaper still ran articles on the societies in April during election season, the pieces’ titles and tone became increasingly dismissive. Many if not most students seemed hardly aware of them, and one student was quoted in 1980 as saying, “I know absolutely nothing about them. I mean, they don’t do anything, do they?” A column from 1982 complained that “Any education they provide is tangential to their basic purpose [alleged to be exclusivity] . . . in order to set their members apart.” No mention whatsoever was made of their historic tradition of honoring campus organization leaders by election. The New York Times article published that year on Tap Day found that “many students seemed more interested in the impending deadline for senior essays and the assignment of dormitory rooms for next year.”31

When the national wire services reported in the late winter of 1991 that Bones might elect women, the Yale Daily News did not even run a follow-up story. That society, the paper’s (female) managing editor told the Boston Globe, is “not a burning issue. It’s an elitist thing, and elitism isn’t in anymore.”32 No better evidence might be found than the fact that the first campus newspaper treatment on the prospect of women finally entering Yale’s oldest senior society was in the News’ April Fool’s Day issue, titled “Bonesmen Vote to Tap Animals.” This reported that the society “decided to admit members regardless of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus or species. Rumored to be among this year’s tappees are animals, wild and house-broken, fictional characters, and folks who have never even heard of Yale . . . President Bush ’48’s dog Millie is on the Bones short-list for tap night April 18.”33 Even Bull and Stones in its day a century before had not been so scathing in its disrespect.

At the end of the century, another major magazine study discerned a very different theme in the membership of the senior societies, foreshadowed in its title: “Tomb of Their Own: What’s Really Wrong with Skull and Bones,” an article for the New Republic by Franklin Foer. “To put it crudely, Yale’s secret societies—once ground zero of the Eastern establishment—are now high temples of political correctness, the ultimate in Ivy League politics,” in a year when the Bones delegation had “more women than men and as many African Americans as WASPS.” Back in the day, he noted, the societies were proudly, even offensively elitist, having a purpose of shaping the characters of leaders who would in turn shape the world,” a “kind of noblesse oblige” that modern students found “deeply embarrassing.”

The increasing derision of societies turned on its head the charge of elitism which had caused them to be largely shunned or even extinguished after Mayday, and they altered to save themselves. “Beginning in the late ’70s,” Foer wrote, “they swung open their doors to women, gays, and minorities—people anxious to join, if only to proclaim victory over the racist patriarchy. And, once the societies were filled with people of color, white liberals had fewer qualms about joining.” Approaching the new century, the senior societies were flourishing again, Skull and Bones having virtually no turndowns in the previous five years. Wolf’s Head and Berzelius, he reported, regularly then had more African Americans than whites; the current Bones club was comprised of “three African-Americans, four students of East Asian descent, two Jews, and a Latino, the balance being white”; and all groups dividing their elections more or less equally between men and women.

Foer’s fundamental complaint was that the diversification of the societies had been effected in a strange way. The logical path would have been simply to honor the hallowed rhetorical commitment to demonstrated leadership or other proven or perceived merit, namely seeking out Yale’s highest-achieving students of all races and backgrounds. This had clearly happened with the influx of talented blacks in the late 1960s, but was harder with the coeds who until the mid-1990s were too few in number and generally excluded from campus leadership positions, other than athletic captaincies of women’s varsity teams. “But the rush to diversify [thereafter] wasn’t an effort to finally live out the ‘best and brightest’ creed,” Foer lamented, “it was an escape from that creed, an effort to deny that groups like Skull and Bones represented an elite at all—because, if they did, then no one could rationalize joining.”

In consequence, the dominant criterion for membership became identity: not what you had done (newly denigrated as “line-tapping,” as in the “line” of football captains or of Yale Daily News chairs), but what you were. Elections degenerated into an elaborate quota system in which outgoing members jostled to make sure they had successors who looked like them. A Korean American student in Wolf’s Head threw a tantrum, breaking into tears and storming out of the meeting when his delegation proposed choosing a student of another Asian American extraction; this provoked an argument by a Chicano clubmate who said he felt strongly that a Chicano perspective should always be represented, which could not be done by a Puerto Rican or Salvadoran. “If you’re head of the Korean American Students at Yale or the Black Student Alliance or the Yale Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Cooperative,” Foer wrote, “you’re a solid bet for Bones. At Wolf’s Head, the presidents of certain African American and Latino fraternities are usually shoo-ins. But, if you’re a black student who heads the campus anti-abortion group or a lesbian physics major who’s never attended an anti-homophobia rally, you don’t stand a chance.”34

The old standbys, the head of the Political Union or the News chairman, were rarely tapped by the top societies, being seen as unseemly climbers. The result was predictable, virtually a repetition of what had occurred in the founding of Wolf’s Head over a century before: those excluded in 1997, starting with the passed-over Yale Daily News chairman and the untapped woman president of the Yale College Council, formed a new senior society, called “Hack and Tool,” meeting in the Athenaeum Room of Saybrook College.35


For the senior societies which remained all male, nothing in applicable law required the admission of women. Prohibiting sex discrimination in private clubs was not a matter of federal law, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but of tests under Connecticut state law. Bones and Wolf’s Head met those tests, which distinguished private clubs (exempt from most anti-discrimination laws) from public meeting places (which are not), in having “generally selective” membership, “formalized procedures” for becoming a member, and no services provided to non-members in furtherance of trade or business.36

Nevertheless, graduate committees of Skull and Bones had considered coeducation within the society in 1971 and again in 1986, and both times these committees were unanimously against any such change. The outside world continued to mock. The Boston Globe columnist George Frazier, recollecting in a 1973 column about the Yale-Harvard game a Bones legend which he had written about in his 1955 Esquire piece, teased: “The presence of puellae in the student body [at Yale] isn’t exceptional, for these days they’re ubiquitous. But who would have thought that there’d come a time when they’d be in secret societies, a circumstance that might give Bones some temptation to proselytize, since wrestling in the nude is wrestling in the nude, and where does it say anything about a member’s sex?”37

Reenergized by the admission of women into Scroll and Key (and St. Anthony’s Hall now had a female majority), leaving only Wolf’s Head and Skull and Bones as the last all-male abovegrounds (and the only two Bonesmen on the Yale Corporation were now outnumbered by five female trustees), the newly initiated Bones delegation for 1990–91 in the spring of their junior year again pressed their society’s corporate board and graduates revisiting the tomb to reconsider the perennially deferred issue of coeducation. In the fall, they doubled down, advising the board that they were considering tapping women in the following spring’s elections. In measured response, believing it time to conclude the matter decisively, the Russell Trust Association organized a series of six meetings in February 1991, to be held in New Haven, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., to involve in the discussion as many graduate members as possible before the organization’s midwinter graduate meeting in New Haven in late February, preceding a definitive vote at the board’s meeting the first week of April (and thus before the next annual elections).

Wolf’s Head, too, was under public pressure: Benno Schmidt Jr., Wolf’s Head alumnus of the class of 1964 and president of Yale since 1986, had publicly announced that he would not attend society functions until it admitted women. Wolf’s Head had voted on coeducation in 1976, and the votes were overwhelmingly against, approximately 700 to 12; Yale administrator George Vaill, from the Wolf’s Head delegation of 1935, observed that coed societies had had problems with rules against dating when members became attracted to one another. Another alumnus threatened to “raze the building” before permitting the reform.38

This seemed irrelevant to most students. An article appearing in the New York Times in 1979 titled “Ivy League Women Face Social Barriers” reported that the previous few years had seen men “chosen by the more prestigious all-male [Yale senior society] groups turning down membership in favor of a coeducational” one, and quoted a female member of Berzelius, which was coed: “The all-male clubs are seen by a lot of people as snobby, over-the-hill places, and the activist women on campus aren’t oriented to anything as traditional as that.”39 In the spring of 1984, posters appeared across the campus featuring the symbols of Keys, Bones and Wolf’s Head, and saying, “DON’T FOOL YOURSELF DON’T JOIN The members of these societies are not the ‘best men’ of Yale. They want us to think they are. These men are either too spineless to say no to being ‘chosen,’ or they wholeheartedly endorse continuing a patriarchal power structure.”

Another poster appeared in 1990, after Scroll and Keys’ admission of women, reading: “JUNIOR MEN: DON’T SELL OUT. TURN DOWN SKULL AND BONES AND WOLF’S HEAD.”40 When the story of the Bones board’s deliberations ran on the Associated Press wire, it included a quotation from Sara Romelyn, a Yale senior and project coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center, who said that the fact that clubs like Bones and Wolf’s Head were still seen as “icons of the Yale experience” sent “a strong message that Yale women are still not 100 percent welcome.”41

Prior to the April 1991 meeting, the RTA board, under the new leadership of Muhammad Saleh (born in Palestine and a member of the 1968 Bones delegation with George W. Bush), met frequently with the undergraduates and heard the results of the regional gatherings, to all of which the current club had sent representatives to argue their case. The trustees decided to submit any final decision to the membership at large as a recommendation, while requesting the graduate members to vote ratification of the board decision (not the path that Scroll and Key had taken two years before in effecting the admission of women by board vote only, without graduate ratification). This, a significant modification of the prior proposal for resolution, which foresaw only a board vote, meant that there would be no final decision before the next day of elections.

In a six-page, single-spaced letter from the undergraduate club addressed to “Most Worthy Alumni,” meant to be private but—sent out in 850 copies—soon quoted extensively in national newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as in the campus newspaper, the board was accused of having been “coerced [by the political pressure of some graduates] out of a leadership role it had promised to fulfill.” The letter damned as unworkable a board resolution which proposed forming a twenty-member club composed of ten men and ten women, who would eat together and debate at their Thursday meetings, but would break into separate gender groups on Sundays to share their autobiographies and emotional (sexual) histories.42

The 1991 club’s seniors then decided to act unilaterally, without asking for further prior permission, and tapped seven women, refusing to release that number (although it soon leaked) or their names to the now fully attentive national press. They had argued strenuously with their trustees, maintaining that the failure to coeducate was losing “the best and the brightest” who were women (now 45 percent of the student body), as well as some of the preferred male candidates who felt that they could learn more from a coeducational society; that their group was an object of campus ridicule and as a result deemed both discriminatory and bigoted; and that the self-education which beyond debates had become the core of the society’s program, copied thereafter by virtually all their rivals as a senior society’s main program, could not be fulfilled in an all-male club to nearly the same degree as it might in a coed one.

The graduate collective, these seniors concluded, was too remote from the dramatically changed undergraduate demographics and “clearly not ready to make the decision [for women] itself, because it does not realize how urgent it is that it be made.” Likening their quest to the civil rights movement, they declared: “We have taken what we see to be the only rational course of action in the face of a fundamental change in the society at large, in Yale itself, and, as a result, in the role that Skull and Bones must play in the Yale community if it is to survive and remain true to its ideals.”43

The society board’s reaction was swift, eerily like Manuscript’s in election season some twenty-one years before, then virtually obscured in the chaos of May Day. The Washington Post described the trustees’ choice “to crush the rebellion with a speed unseen since the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.” Over the weekend after elections, the locks on the Bones tomb were changed, closing admission to all except by appointment, and all undergraduate activities were suspended for one year. No further elections were to be offered to the class of 1992, but the board pledged to the larger membership to continue meanwhile to seek a resolution of the controversy through collective best judgment and formal ratification of any settled recommendation.44

The Washington Post contacted but failed to elicit hometown comment on the confrontation from President George W. Bush, Senators John Kerry and John Chaffee, and journalist Bill Buckley. The otherwise conservative Senator David Boren, described by the newspaper as “one of the many Bonesmen in Congress” and a member of the Yale Corporation, did respond: “The decision of this year’s club to accept women members should be respected and accepted. After there has been more time for reflection by all those concerned, I hope that the newly elected class will be allowed to fully use the facilities.” The Post story, which featured a picture of the deserted, locked tomb, also made clear that the 1991 club’s contention that they were losing candidates because of the single-sex policy was indeed true. The piece quoted the senior editor of the New Republic, Jacob Weisberg of the class of 1986, then an intern at that magazine, who told the reporter that Senator Kerry had telephoned him at his intern’s office to relay an offer of election: he replied that he declined to join a club that excluded women.45

The national media response, led by the august New York Times, was immediate and predictable: “High Noon on High Street: A Fight for the Soul of Skull and Bones” was the title of an editorial, which observed: “The alumni are fighting a losing battle. Women have been attending Yale for more than 20 years, and the existence of an all-male institution in this determinedly coeducational society is plainly an uncomfortable anachronism, if not an affront.” The same day Times columnist Anna Quindlen quoted approvingly from the electing club’s letter to the alumni, and concluded: “These are guys I’d share a tomb with happily. Give them back their keys, and let the bonding begin.”46

The seniors were defiant, declaring to the Boston Globe that “the group will definitely continue to exist even if we are not able to get back in the building.” (Their housing problem was soon solved by the Manuscript delegation’s agreement to allow them to use that society’s hall.)47 They said further that “leading civil rights members in the nation” and “key figures in the Yale Law School” had offered to help them in a lawsuit against the board. They were also counting on alumni proponents of their position, like Senator Boren, to eventually win the day.48 On campus, the overwhelming majority of students were supporting the seniors (although maintaining “it’s about time”) and slamming the RTA board. The other all-male society, Wolf’s Head, did not issue a comment, nor did its alumnus President Schmidt.

The current controversy, now generating threats of lawsuits and fracturing both Bones and its vaunted secrecy, revived the perennial arguments, now in their second century, about all senior societies and the privileges of exclusion associated with them. A junior who had declined a Keys tap told the Times that “Basically, it comes down to whether you’d rather be one of the excluded, or one who excludes,” and a member of Manuscript noted that “Secret societies have a base of privilege for members, including a neat building, decent food, and a network of alumni. Why should some people get it and not others?” A senior, and former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News, reflected: “I don’t sense that Bones’ decision to go coed is a great victory for feminists or women. I don’t see what is gained by having a club that discriminates against all Yale students, instead of just Yale men.”49

Within Skull and Bones, the disrupted dialogue resumed between the outcasts of the current club and the beleaguered trustees, and by April 21, a mutual decision was reached that there would be no further discussions by either side with the press or other outsiders. The board pledged to make a decision before the middle of June, and submit that to the membership for ratification, with the poll result to be announced before August 1. Then, a transition committee would be appointed to implement the final decision as ratified by the members.

With both official and clandestine sources stifling themselves, the press continued to celebrate the organizational disaster and query the hidden reasons. A columnist in the Boston Globe, “To get to ‘the crux’ of the matter . . . asked a Yale colleague what the big fuss over women was all about. There must be some secret male bonding rituals,” she wrote, “like peeing in the punch bowl or gatoring on the floor or shooting beers. But his answer was, basically, sex. ‘Obviously, at that age, sex would have to be under discussion, and I suspect that is why Bones is so reluctant to take women,’ said my friend, whose grandfather was a Bonesman.” (This sexual squeamishness was not exclusive to Bones graduate members: women in the first Keys delegation to include them were discomfited to hear in an address from their distinguished alumnus, society historian, and professor of English Maynard Mack, that they were “sovereign states” and, as such, entreated not to “form alliances.”50)

Nor was the concern for “gender privacy” exclusively a male preoccupation. Mrs. June Bingham, whose first husband had been a member of the class of 1936, wrote to the New York Times after the story appeared on the Bones club lockout. After identifying herself as “widow of a member of Skull and Bones, wife of a member of Berzelius, mother of a member of Scroll and Key, stepmother and mother-in-law of two more Bonesmen,” and praising Bones for inventing, “100 years ahead of our encounter groups, a structure that elicits precious intimacy between 15 participants,” she too advocated separation of the sexes, “when the time came for talk about the tender issues that American men so rarely seem able to share with one another.”51

Although the Boston Globe reporter’s story was at least the third published account to describe the RTA board’s proposal to split an enlarged club membership into separate single-sex groups for “the sharing of emotional and life histories,” it was the first to recognize plainly that the preservation of female modesty was animating a board whose eight members were not unanimously for change and had graduated at Yale from three (class of 1988) to fifty-two (class of 1939) years before. Only four of this RTA board’s members had experienced Yale College coeducation as undergraduates. Furthermore, they seemed largely tone-deaf to the fact that their “separate but equal” proposal unwittingly revived a concept discredited decades before in the civil rights era of the 1960s as a subtler form of discrimination. Yet the fundamental difference was patent, as a Bones alumnus maintained to a reporter, “There’s a much greater difference between a man and a woman than between a Wasp and a Jew.”52

It was argued by the opponents of coeducation in the society that this “reform” was not inevitable, despite the sea change in Yale College demographics: there were still five men-only singing groups, and three now for women alone, and in a revival of their fortunes, about a dozen men’s fraternities, and now five sororities. An article in the Yale Alumni Magazine for summer 1987, almost two decades after coeducation’s inception, had reported that there was little current objection on campus to single-sex endeavors. Sixteen athletic teams for men and sixteen for women even exemplified the college administration’s own recognition of the validity and viability of student organizations separation by gender. Yale president Benno Schmidt, despite his no-attendance stance with regard to his own all-male senior society Wolf’s Head, had announced that his administration would take no action to compel any society to change, and the college dean confirmed that there was a place on campus for single-sex groups.

To the current Bones club that had publicly expressed discomfort with the society’s diminished status on campus, in their long, self-justifying letter which reached some newspapers before it had reached all the alumni who were its addressees, the graduate contras responded that if women were to be admitted, by-laws designating “members of the Junior Class” as prospective candidates and not amended since 1961 (well before undergraduate coeducation in New Haven) should be changed in a deliberative manner by all members of the organization. Furthermore, they argued, a fact not appreciated by the current club was that the society’s membership had survived prior periods of scorn, envy, and misunderstanding, and a bout of “political correctness” was not something to which a group with markedly internal goals should succumb, so long as fifteen strong male candidates still existed in the junior class.

Nor, if the 1991 “shadow club” was finally repudiated, was election of a new delegation by a graduate electorate unprecedented. It had happened in Bones itself in 1946, choosing the members of a club when the predecessor club had been effectively extinguished by the accelerated academic year at the end of World War II. It had happened at Manuscript in 1970 during May Day. And it had happened at Elihu just a few years before, in April 1983, when one of their delegations tried to turn their house into a “people’s shelter,” and the seniors were themselves ejected from occupancy with suspension of elections, publicly announced by the Elihu board in the Yale Daily News.53 Opponents wishing to block coeducation in Bones even had preliminary discussions that the “illegal club,” caught up in this maelstrom, might be given advice and financial aid for a few years should they choose to begin a senior society of their own, until their own alumni might assume that burden.

The Russell Trust Association board scrambled to contain the damage. At a meeting in May, following the April lockout, the board recommended 6 to 2 that the society’s all-male tradition be ended, a decision to be reviewed by a national membership ballot, conducted by an independent accounting firm, to ratify or reject that vote, in a tally at the end of July. Proponents of both sides of “the Issue,” with the RTA board represented by former Yale chaplain Sidney Lovett (1950), and the rebellious seniors by Austan Goolsbee (1991), later President Obama’s first chief economic advisor, agreed to stop discussing the coeducation issue in public. More than 86 percent of the membership, identified by the Washington Post as “the Boodle,” cast ballots, and the Reverend Lovett confirmed to the press that the vote was 368 to 320 for women’s admission.54

The board’s Transition Committee moved to mollify those angered by this result, while recommending that the shadow club be confirmed as members. These individuals, six women among them, included the president of the Yale Dramat, the co-moderator of the BSAY, the captain of the football team, the president of the Yale Political Union, the unit commander for her Army ROTC corps and top columnist for the News, and the incoming captain of the Yale women’s lacrosse team.

This report of the general replication of the society’s traditional success in electing campus leaders did not pacify the all-male tradition diehards. William F. Buckley and other society alumni promptly filed a lawsuit against the RTA board, seeking an injunction to nullify the alumni vote, arguing that the by-laws did not clearly permit the admission of women, and to order a convention of Bones members to resolve the issue of coeducation. The board agreed to obey the injunction, and the current seniors of the shadow club were balked of their expected initiation. Buckley from the class of 1950 found an ally in Jay Fetner of the class of 1961, who launched a petition drive to oust the current society board, accompanied by a ten-page memo arguing that confidentiality would not last, and that “date-rape . . . lies in our medium-term future.”55

In due course, the lawsuit was stalled to permit a special meeting of members on October 24, 1991, to vote on three points at issue: the amendment of the corporate by-laws, to either add the words “male” and “female” before the phrase “members of Yale College” in defining eligibility for election, or to merely add the word “male;” to elect those tapped by the club of 1991 as members of 1991–92, or to negate their election; and to continue the current board, or to compel them to resign. The diehards lost on all three counts.56

This left Wolf’s Head, the third to be founded of the old Yale Academic College senior societies in 1883, the last aboveground to be all male, having held four votes on coeducation since 1977. Two months after Bones, on December 12, 1991, that society too voted to admit women, changing their original constitutional characterization as all male, with more than 80 percent of its members approving the change.57

So, over two decades after being admitted to the formerly all-male college in 1969, women became the last caste to enter Yale’s competitive democracy of senior societies, following the public high school graduates, then Jews, African Americans, and gay men. Compared to the previous battles about the merits and fairness of the system, the storming of this last social barrier was the most vociferously contested within and publicly debated without of all the controversies over all the preceding years. The fierce demand for this final diversity made by the male undergraduates in Keys, Bones, and Wolf’s Head, the three senior societies which had epitomized the famous system for its first century, encountered the grim opposition of their respective alumni members for twenty years precisely because these alumni had the most invested in the prestige and age of their respective organizations and had difficulty imagining a different future.

In truth, only the measurable decline of that prestige, and the increasing irrelevance of what they most treasured about their own undergraduate careers, persuaded them to change their minds and hearts. Once again, as it had so often in its tumultuous history over 160 years, the system evolved to save itself.

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