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The last bastion of the boys' club

cut the bull

Last Tuesday, as sunlight glittered across the pristinely green lawn of Abele Quad, shouts of gibberish echoed throughout the gothic arches of West Campus. Shrouded in long, black robes and sunglasses, young men powered forward determinedly on a path that made little sense to an outside observer. 

An older woman stopped me as I trounced my way into West Union. “What are they doing?” she asked, almost fearfully. 

She had good reason to sound afraid of the mechanical movements of the men on the Quad. They appeared to be almost cult-ish, and yet, nobody seemed to give them a second look. I explained to her—like the good tour guide that I am—that they were just students here who had been tapped to join a secret society. This was a component of their initiation.

But my explanation left me thinking about this process that I had so quickly taken for granted. After only a few semesters at Duke, it already seemed an entrenched fact of life that secret societies were organizations that came with power and connections. And it seemed an equally interminable fact that only men could join.

Of course, a careful examination of the history of Duke’s secret societies seems only proper before placing judgement. And so, my investigation led me deep into the Rubenstein archives and into the roots of these ancient organizations.

Over the course of Duke’s life, it has been home to five known secret societies. The earliest of these organizations was called “The Tombs,” a selective group birthed in 1903 that required members to wear bells around their ankles for unknown purposes. Obviously, secret societies have always been serious about glamorous costumes.

Ten years after the birth of “The Tombs,” Duke’s best known secret organization honored its first Septemvirate—class of seven. The men chosen for the Order of the Red Friars were meant to be the best and brightest men of their year, holding positions in the Chronicle, IFC, and Student Government; in special cases, even outstanding graduate students were tapped. Red Friar alumni include some of Duke’s most esteemed: Richard Nixon (of Watergate fame), William Wannamaker (of Wannamaker dorm fame). The young men were not only privy to the support of a top group of students, but they were also given access to the Board of Trustees, key administrators, and high-level Duke alums in the professional world. These men sought to shape University policy and influence the general direction of student life at Duke. 

Though it is easy to criticize the patriarchal nature of this organization, it’s worth mentioning that an all female counterpart also sprung up in 1925. This society, the Order of the White Duchy, developed a structure that mirrored that of the Friars, but arose with the specific intent of honoring seven women in each class. These women represented leaders on the women’s campus who would plan events, get together intermittently, and provide a powerful community for each other. Yet, they lacked the access to key university stakeholders signature to the Friars. The Duchy, like Duke’s other secret societies, had a strict and secretive process under which it tapped its new members. Once initiated, these women called each other “ducklings” and met at their secret office, “the pond.”

Both the Red Friars and the White Duchy ultimately voluntarily disbanded in the late 60’s, as increasing public opinion attested to the elitist selection measures of both groups. In the time since, neither organization has had a significant presence on campus, save for the many alumni who continue to donate. Yet, who are the black-robed men marching on the quad? To what society do they belong?

As it turns out, one secret society remains. Little is known about the Old Trinity Club, yet its sustained presence on campus is clear through active annual demonstrations on and before LDOC and during the fall semester. Each spring, its new members are tapped from the rising senior class, and its current members are rumored to include Grayson Allen and other campus celebrities. Historically, the Old Trinity Club has been much more private than its fellow societies, perhaps contributing to its ongoing presence. Consequently, I cannot rely on archival records or reports, but it seems clear by the faces on the quad that the organization recruits only men.

What alumni bases or special receptions is this group privy to, if any? From the outside, it is easy to speculate about grand meeting rooms and private parties, but in reality, the group may be more focused around public displays in sunglasses and black robes than campus leadership. Regardless, it is worth asking: where are the women? Today, unlike in the times of the Duchy’s and Friars, our University is not split into a Women’s College and an all-male University; rather, our student body includes various shades and perspectives of all genders. Why does our most elite, or at least our most secretive organization not reflect that range?

Secret societies may be secret, but they are not above our common standards of morality and respect. The very founders of Duke’s most known societies eventually succumbed to the notion that we had no space for such elitist mechanisms on our campus. And yet, for unknown reasons, those elitist processes are still in place today in 2017. Their operators should question their own purposes, and decide whether or not they are actually contributing meaningfully to Duke’s community.

In the end, I may just be bitter that, as a woman, I will never have a chance to be tapped for the Old Trinity Club throughout my Duke career. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend the last of their four years here wearing bells around their ankles, hanging with their fellow “duckies,” or pacing across the quad enveloped in the cozy privilege of a dark robe?

Leah Abrams is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "cut the bull" runs on alternate Fridays.