BY GEORGE HICKS
If you heard a loud, grind-ing sound recently, don’t be alarmed. The Vie Society, Harvard Law’s own Junior League, made its inglorious debut last week, and that noise you heard was the glass ceiling sliding back downward another couple feet.
For those of you unaware of the Vie Society, it could be for any one of several reasons. Perhaps you’ve been foolishly squandering your time at Harvard Law School in the library, researching complex legal topics that will shape society for future generations. Or maybe you’ve been frittering your law school life away by providing legal assistance to the indigent. Or it could just be that you’re a female who wasn’t invited. If you’re one of the women in this last group, here’s the email you missed:
“Dear Friend. This spring, we cordially request your glittering presence in a celebration of beauty, strength and power at Harvard Law School. We toast life, and we toast womanhood, as we launch the Vie Society, the first female social organization at HLS. As 2Ls, we have experienced firsthand the inadequate social nightlife and networking of the HLS community, and now we take the matter into our own hands. The Vie Society commits to enhancing the social opportunities for both its members and the HLS community, and to developing strong relationships between females of all class years. Through friendship and networking, we aim to improve the social, academic and professional options for all HLS women. Unfortunately, in order to best meet our goals, we are only able to accept a limited number of phenomenal females into our organization. We have identified you as one such candidate, and now it’s in your hands to help breathe life into this organization. If interested, please attend our first champagne party on March 23, and please RSVP quickly. A formal invitation with all the details is currently in your Harkbox. We look forward to getting to know you better!”
Invitees then received a frilly pink invitation in their Harkbox that read:
“Your royal presence is requested at A Princess Party, hosted by the Vie Society, featuring pink champagne and Tiaras. . . . Dress Code: Princess Chic.”
The invitation also included the date and time of the first gathering, which was scheduled to take place in a common room of one of the undergraduate houses.
For the benefit of those readers whose jaws just hit the floor, yes, this is the year 2005. And no, I’m not making any of this up.
Campus response to the nascent organization has run the gamut of reactions from ridicule to derision. Deservedly so. The concept of students at Harvard Law School – home to Langdell, Holmes, Frankfurter, and Griswold; engine of nearly two centuries of legal training and thought; incubator of national and world leaders – cavorting about in tiaras rightly elicits the heaps of snickers and guffaws it has already garnered. One weeps at the tragedy of privileged females forced to endure “inadequate social nightlife” – that wasn’t part of the deal, Kagan! – and who, apparently incapable of independently establishing their own lives, must revert to the fine art of joining in order to overcome this affliction. “Vie Society,” by the way, wasn’t the group’s first choice for a name, but “Aspiring Trophy Wives Association” was deemed too hard for future members to pronounce.
The existence of the Vie Society would be all the more laughable if it weren’t so lamentable. For by reinforcing the image of women – and women in law in particular – as dainty, delicate, and ditzy, the organization does a disservice to the very constituency it purports to champion. After fifty years of efforts by females to fight the stereotype of women as powderpuffs unable to endure the harsh demands of the legal profession, and at a time when serious gaps continue to separate men and women in the legal field – whether gauged by partnership numbers, professor hiring, grade distribution at Harvard Law School, or even representation on the Law Review – along comes the Vie Society to blow the credibility of women in law out of the water with its superficial statement of purpose and its astonishingly silly coming-out party (featuring pink Champagne and tiaras).
One could argue that the organization simply seeks to advance women’s opportunities, a laudable goal. Its email includes several references to “networking,” as well as an interest in “developing strong relationships” and improving “academic and professional options” for “all” HLS women. Reality puts the lie to these claims, however. If networking and enhancing future options were truly an objective, one might expect to see female leaders of major campus organizations strongly represented among the Vie Society’s invitees. And yet an informal survey of 2L female leaders of major student organizations reveals that almost none received invites. 2L editors-in-chief of major journals didn’t. The president of Legal Aid didn’t. Thirteen out of the fourteen 2L women on Law Review didn’t. Despite positions that augur future professional success, none of these women is apparently “phenomenal” enough for an organization that claims professional networking as one of its goals. So it’s clear that the Vie Society could care less about professional opportunities for all women; the claim is a canardic appeal to legitimacy that crumbles upon closer examination.
Apologists for the Vie Society might then point to the plethora of similar male organizations that have existed for decades, which the group merely wishes to emulate. Who can argue against wanting to match the men pound-for-pound? Except that there aren’t any similar male organizations – not at this law school, at least. You’d have to go back to college to find them (where similar women’s organizations already operate anyway). Most of us have moved on from college, but I suppose that to those who find themselves treading water at HLS, reliving one’s collegiate glory days does have its appeal. Furthermore, similar men’s organizations at Harvard Law school simply don’t exist. In fact, the history of the law school is littered with their carcasses: the Choate Club, the Pow Wows, Alpha Beta Gamma Delta, the Armadillo Club. All met their demise for the reason that Harvard Law students tend to know phoniness when they see it. The only remnant is Lincoln’s Inn, formerly an exclusive, men-only dining club and now a creaking outfit compelled to kowtow to 1Ls every fall to get enough dues to survive another year.
Might the Vie Society be celebrated as an example of female “empowerment”? After all, the group does toast “womanhood” in its email, and strength, and power, and all the other requisite buzzwords. But empowerment in this case is a tenuous claim at best, a ruse at worst. It reminds me of an old article from The Onion headlined, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does,” and that satirically stated in part, “Whereas early feminists campaigned tirelessly for improved health care and safe, legal access to abortion, often against a backdrop of public indifference or hostility, today’s feminist asserts control over her biological destiny by wearing a baby-doll T-shirt with the word ‘Hoochie’ spelled in glitter.” The analogy is all too fitting. The mantle of fifty years of pioneering women who broke barriers to gain acceptance to elite law schools and ascend the ranks of the male-dominated legal world has now been taken up by the Vie Society, whose enthusiasts illustrate their gratitude to their groundbreaking forebears by adorning tiaras and shopping for princess chic clothing. Empowerment, indeed.
I know what you’re thinking. “Settle down, man. You’re taking this way too seriously.” And in all honesty, I really couldn’t care less about this whole farce and whether it flourishes or dies on the vine. Know why? ‘Cause I’m a guy. There’s no potential glass ceiling looming in my future. I’ll never face the problem of not being taken seriously in the workplace. Nobody will ever question my credibility or commitment. And yet these are very real and troub
lesome issues that continue to confront women in the legal market. So in all candor, I say to the women of the Vie Society: best of luck, ladies! Let your tiaras sparkle. It just means more opportunities for me and my male brethren in the long run. About time, too – these past fifty years have been a real annoyance.
In reality, the group’s existence should most appall females at HLS, including both those invited and uninvited to join. For it is their professional future that the Vie Society undermines. Nobody is suggesting that females have to abandon all aspects of femininity or track males every step of the way on the testosterone meter in order to succeed. The issue is a difficult one, and generations of professional women have grappled with it. But few can argue with a straight face that the existence of an organization like the Vie Society at the law school level helps matters. Rather, it is an embarrassment, an affront to women’s progress both past and future. And it is an abdication of a responsibility that, like it or not, many feel accompanies being a student, particularly a female student, at Harvard Law School.
To the credit of the HLS community, most students are reaching these same conclusions about the group as they hear about it. Of course, popular opinion only goes so far. Regardless of what others say or think about the Vie Society, the organization will last as long as its proponents’ bank accounts – or their parents’ – continue to fund it. Its members will continue to preach networking and empowerment while its practices counteract those very goals. And its gatherings will be frequented chiefly by those females whose most difficult daily decision is not whether their legal services client is best served by strategy A or strategy B, or whether they can afford to go into academia despite facing a staggering debtload, but whether their new jeans go better with the light pink scarf or the dark pink scarf.
The sad thing is that the enthusiasts of the Vie Society don’t even get it. They don’t understand that the campus laughs at them behind their backs. They don’t recognize that their actions undermine the credibility and advancement of women in the legal profession at a time when both are still so sorely needed. They don’t comprehend that as females at Harvard Law School, maybe – just maybe – they carry a greater responsibility to future generations of women than do 99.99% of other females on the planet, a duty that suggests they utilize their opportunities at Harvard Law toward ends more productive than simply searching out the best places to go clubbing.
Or maybe they do get it, and they just don’t care. If so, that – rather than “inadequate social nightlife” – would be the greatest tragedy of all.
George Hicks is a 3L.