God, Men And Bonding At Yale

It is a welcome sign of the success of the women's movement that most of the remaining bastions of male privilege in America probably aren't worth storming in the first place.

Take, for instance, the secret society of Yale undergraduates known as Skull and Bones, which for most of last week teetered on the brink of coeducation, more than 20 years after virtually the entire rest of the Yale campus. For the first time in the organization's history, the outgoing group of 15 seniors attempted to recruit a number of women to carry its sacred traditions into its 160th year, but were thwarted by the alumni, who sneaked into the sepulchral clubhouse across the street from Yale's Old Campus and changed the locks. Why--if you were already at one of the best colleges in the country--would you care about a club with a name like a heavy-metal band and a ritual of mumbo jumbo straight out of the Raccoon Lodge?

Well, there's the clubhouse (or "tomb") itself, rumored to contain among other treasures the skull of Pancho Villa. There's the tax-free gift of $15,000 that members are widely believed to receive on joining, although like almost everything else about the society, this is known only through rumor and conjecture. Most of all, there's the prestige of belonging to a 159-year-old organization that counts among its alumni the president of the United States, three U.S. senators and luminaries of the American establishment ranging from McGeorge Bundy to William Bundy. Membership in Skull and Bones has often been portrayed as entree to the inner sanctum of the American elite, although no one can specify exactly what benefits it conveys in later life. Much of the attention last week was focused on glamorous Bonesmen such as Sen. John Kerry, Yale '66, who endorsed the admission of women ("Yale has changed. Times have changed. The club should change"). But in its coverage, the Yale Daily News quoted a wider range of Bones alumni, including a "real-estate broker" and "a vice president for Coldwell Banker in California." Clearly, Skull and Bones (like Yale, like life itself) is what one makes of it.

On the other hand, why would anyone want to keep women out of a place like this? Hard to say, because officials of the alumni organization wouldn't discuss their motives with the press. But presumably it involved a perceived threat to the process of male bonding. Before the class of '91 took matters into its own hands by choosing six women and nine men at the traditional "tapping" ceremony last Thursday, alumni had proposed a compromise in which men and women would be admitted to the club as equals but would meet in separate groups for the ritual sharing of "emotional and life histories." Members of Yale's other, less secrecy-obsessed senior societies (all but one of them now coed) confirm that this is partly a euphemism for "How I made out at Vassar last weekend." It is easy to believe that Bonesmen of an earlier generation--say, George Bush's (class of '48-would have found the participation of women a distraction in these sessions, if not an actual indecency. But as one of last year's graduates, Jon Wertheim, observed, "Fundamental changes have taken place in society, especially on campus. Gender differences between friends of different sexes is not a dominant issue, if there's real intimacy. People make more of it, because they don't understand that."

In any case, the current class seemed determined to carry on, inside its tomb or outside. Last week another society, Manuscript, offered to lend its building to the locked-out Bonespeople. The alumni group will meet over the summer and decide what the future holds for Skull and Bones. And for the other 1,300 Yale seniors, and the rest of society at large, life will go on little changed. As Amy Chen, a member of the not-quite-as-prestigious Book and Snake society, put it last week, "One reason people have a problem with the societies is that we basically don't do anything."