A group of formally dressed students talk amongst themselves in a grand room filled with portraits of esteemed UNC-Chapel Hill alumni and antique wooden desks.
Emma Pham walks into the room and the chatter stops. All eyes are on her. She is wearing a black top hat and holding a cane, which she bangs three times on the floor as she calls the meeting to order.
This scene repeats itself every Monday night at 7:30, in the Dialectic Society’s Chamber on the third floor of New West Hall. The group of chattering students is made up of members as well as petitioning members of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, more commonly known as Di-Phi. And Pham, a senior economics major from Charlotte, is their president.
Ever since the Dialectic Society’s inception in 1795, the organization has been known as a ‘boys’ club.’ Women were not admitted into Phi until 1930, and Di until 1935.
But Di-Phi is no longer just a ‘boys’ club,’ and their female president is living proof.
The oldest organization on campus was slow to invite women members but once admitted, they were treated as equals, says John O’Connor, an alumnus from the class of 2011 who is now researching the society.
Female members finally gained representation in the leadership level of the organization in 1937, when Ruth Crowell became the first woman to hold an officer position. In 1940 women were represented at the highest level when Marian Igo became president of the Dialectic Society.
As barriers fell with time, women became more involved in the highest levels of the societies—and the trend has continued into 2011. The group is currently made up of approximately two-thirds men, with only three of the nine officers being females. But, Pham says, women play a more prominent role in the organization now than they did just three years ago when she joined. In fact, in the most recent presidential election, Pham’s only opponent was another female candidate.
“There was definitely more of a ‘boys’ club’ feel then (in 2008), but that fluctuates with who decides to join,” she says. “The dynamic really changes a lot semester to semester depending on who’s here.”
“By virtue of what we are, we tend to attract a certain type of person and very often that’s more men,” Pham says. “That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of strong women in our club, but that’s just the way it is.”
To make up for this, the women in Di-Phi try to stick together. They often plan activities for the female members: “No boys allowed,” Pham says.
Amending the Constitution
Despite the strides of the organization’s female members, it was just two years ago that the society’s constitution was amended to have gender-inclusive language. The constitution now uses “he or she” as a pronoun instead of just “he.”
Pham says former President Hannah Hodson was the biggest advocate for those changes because she felt that the male-oriented language in the constitution excluded women. But not all members agreed. As is customary for a debate society, polarizing opinions were aired, with some members accusing Hodson of pushing a ‘feminist agenda’ on the group.
Pham says the controversy was brought about by only a small number of the members, and that a majority of the members thought the changes were unnecessary.
“We didn’t feel that it implied the president couldn’t be a woman,” Pham says. “But now that (the language is) in there it will probably stay for a while, especially given that our constitution is hard to change.”
Minorities in Di-Phi
Similarly to women, minorities have not always had a strong presence in Di-Phi. The first African-American member, James Walker Jr., was admitted in 1952, over twenty years after the first female member was admitted. However, Di-Phi was quite progressive in comparison not only to other groups in the South, but also to other parts of the University.
O’Connor, who has been conducting research on Walker, says the Di-Phi organization was very accepting and even protective of the new member. A few white members of Di-Phi took Walker to a football game and stood around him so he wouldn’t get kicked out of the student section, which was separate from the black section of the stadium at that time. Walker would later become an important figure in advocating for the desegregation of Kenan Stadium.
Despite this, it wasn’t until 15 years later in 1967 that Di-Phi had another black member, Larry Lynch. Di-Phi members today have trouble naming a current African-American member.
There are minorities in Di-Phi, says O’Connor, but there haven’t been many African-American or Latino members.
“Di-Phi, like many other parts of society, has come a long way and race is not an issue anymore,” he says. “But back then, and still to a certain extent today, groups tend to self-segregate.”
O’Connor explains that it is hard to attract minorities to a group that does not have many minorities to begin with.
“It has a whole ‘boys’ club’ feel, and it hasn’t changed in demographics a lot since it started. There’s certainly a lack of black people and a lack of Hispanics (in Di-Phi).”
The club is now working to change that reputation. Pham says she would like for the society to not have the ‘boys’ club’ feel or reputation. Meanwhile, O’Connor says that the organization has been trying to recruit more minorities.
“We want more diversity. We specifically look to get a diverse group of people, but it’s difficult because we’ll have one black person show up to a meeting and he’ll come to a few more meetings,” O’Connor says. “But in the end, that one black guy doesn’t want to be the ‘one black guy (in Di-Phi).’”
Di-Phi in the ‘60s
Di-Phi’s current faculty advisor, Bland Simpson, is a Di-Phi alumnus. Simpson was in the organization from 1967 to 1969, when there were no female members. In fact, there were only eight full-time members in total, plus two graduate students who came to meetings regularly but were not considered official members.
Women would come to the chambers when the societies were debating a particularly interesting topic or hosting a guest speaker. But, in the two years that Simpson was in Di-Phi, not a single woman petitioned to become a member.
Simpson says that the organization was certainly not opposed to having women, but most students, both male and female, were preoccupied with protesting the Vietnam War.
“The idea of getting people into a 19th century lecture hall and debating something that was not Vietnam was hard,” Simpson says. “They thought what we were doing was arcane.”
He says that the group was noisy, but very friendly, civil and accepting, especially toward women.
“It would’ve been more fun if there’d been women,” Simpson says.
More than 40 years later, it’s safe to assume many men in the organization agree.
“It’s the only place on campus where the proportion isn’t a 60/40 (female-to-male ratio),” says current member Keri Majikes, a senior Asian studies and peace, war and defense major from Apex.
Female members have come a long way to gain respect in one of the University’s most prestigious clubs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to see a flood of new women members anytime soon.
“A lot of our members date,” says Pham. “So, the women do have that sort of advantage.”