Gentlemen Songsters No More

The Whiffenpoofs await their introduction for a performance at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria, June 2016 (US Embassy Vienna/Flickr)
A former member of Yale’s famed all-male a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs, on what will be lost as the group becomes co-ed

Last week, one of Yale University’s oldest institutions decided it was time for a change. The famed Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s 109 year-old, male-only a cappella singing group, announced it had accepted its first female member.

Most of Yale’s recent concessions to fashion, such as the 2015 incident in which university lecturer Erika Christakis and her husband were run out of town for suggesting that students could wear whatever they wished for Halloween, are well documented. One less noticed recent story, recounted by the right-leaning blog, The Naked Dollar, captures the contemporary zeitgeist at Yale. At a recent reunion weekend, the male blogger, Class of ’82, encountered a younger female reunion reveler, Class of ’02, and paused to let her pass through the doorway they were both headed for, gesturing politely, “After you.” Her response was to spit out one word, with anger: “Patriarchy!”

I don’t know whether a patriarchy exists at Yale, or whether the latest decision of the Whiffs was aimed — consciously or otherwise — at its dismantling. But what is clear is that a robust global market exists for single-sex Ivy League vocal ensembles, and Yale has now, for some reason, decided it is best to discontinue what is arguably the most popular and best-recognized such ensemble on the planet.

A bit of history: The Whiffs, open to only 14 seniors, have always maintained a profile outside of New Haven, thanks, initially, to former member Cole Porter, who brought a chic notoriety to the white-tie clad Gentlemen Songsters nearly 100 years ago. Decades of international tours by subsequent generations of the group saw performances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Appearances on iconic shows such as Saturday Night Live, The West Wing, 60 Minutes, and Glee further extended the group’s profile internationally.

Since Yale went co-ed in 1968, there have been, at various times, movements to admit women into the Whiffs. Why, it was correctly reasoned, should women be excluded from the possibility of such prestige and honor? It was a reasonable concern, and it was was addressed with the creation of a female-only senior group called Whim ’n Rhythm in 1981, two years before I graduated as a member of the Whiffs.

Since then, one remarkable class of female singers after another has passed through Whim, improving the group’s reputation and creating high demand for its services. Both groups have maintained an enduring on-campus mystique, made possible by a Greek-like system of a dozen or so “lesser” groups — single-sex and mixed-sex — that are the breeding ground for underclassmen to ply their vocal wares until they might be considered for the Whiffs or Whim.

Until last week, these two mighty groups had coexisted for decades, showcasing Yale’s finest voices with sounds that were equally beautiful but most assuredly different: one decidedly masculine, the other decidedly feminine.

To some folks, of course, the continued existence of single-sex vocal ensembles at the top of Yale’s singing pyramid has long seemed unacceptable. So why the change now?

One ex-Whiff and long-time advocate of allowing women into the group, David Code (Class of ’82), has always argued that it should reward merit regardless of gender. “I cried when I heard,” he was quoted as saying in the aftermath of the news. “Finally meritocracy is here—and it’s long overdue.”

Until last week, these two mighty groups had coexisted for decades, showcasing Yale’s finest voices with sounds that were equally beautiful but most assuredly different: one decidedly masculine, the other decidedly feminine.

But the Whiffs have always been a meritocracy, the same way Yale men’s Hockey and Basketball have always been meritocracies among male competitors. This decision appears less about the primacy of making superior music than about tending to students’ feelings. In a post on Facebook, the Whiffs and Whim, in solidarity, said that they “acknowledge the transgender, gender nonbinary, and non-conforming members in our community, and understand that they feel unseen in the current paradigm of all-male versus all-female senior a cappella.”

That is certainly likely, just as it is likely that a number of conservative students and professors feel “unseen in the current paradigm” of Yale’s aversion to political diversity, and that the young Yale man who aspires to an all-male singing experience feels “unseen” right about now.

I do not mean to suggest that there are no worthy arguments for the change. In particular, the claim that it was required to reduce inequities between the older, more established Whiffs and Whim is a compelling one. Whim brings in about 25 percent of the cash the Whiffs do and hasn’t been able to generate the same level of demand. If the discrepancy related to some institutional gender bias, rather than a reflection of the market’s preferences in a cappella music, proponents of making both groups co-ed would have a point. But that’s a big, big if: Determining cause and effect with any degree of certitude is impossible.

Either way, this much is certain: The Whiffenpoofs, now co-ed, will in future be something much different than what they have always been. In the meantime, while we wait to evaluate the results of the change, perhaps some enterprising young men in Yale’s student body will rise to fill the huge void that has been left.