Well, you can file this in the “unnecessary commentary few would be interested in” drawer. But it’s on the front page of my Wall Street Journal, so it’s made some news, and I think there are bigger principles that are touched by the “fun” news item it represents.
It looks as though Ms. Samantha Ketcham, a junior at Texas A&M University this year, is campaigning hard to become the first female Yell Leader. For those unfamiliar with the tradition, check out the Wall Street Journal article, available without subscription, here: “There’s Lot’s of Yelling in Campaign to Break This Glass Ceiling” (WSJ, 2/27/2012). The article actually covers the tradition fairly well, while mentioning many other A&M traditions, as well. (Those of you who wonder why I begin most of my sermons or announcements or e-mails with “Howdy” will find your answer there.)
The fact is that Aggies don’t have cheerleaders, we have Yell Leaders: five guys (Rick Perry had been one while at A&M) dressed in white running around at football games who lead all the Aggies in the stands (and, yes, I’ve been one of them) in all of our arcane yells concerning farmers and bus drivers and the sawing off of our opponent’s horns in accordance with Psalm 75:10 (well, the only opponent to which this applies is t.u. — the Longhorns — which will be hard now that they’re in a different conference, but that’s another story).
Texas A&M used to be a school exclusively for the Corps of Cadets, gradually allowing nonregs (students who are not a part of the Corps of Cadets) and girls (students who are not boys), and is co-ed in many ways. While they aren’t a majority by far, there are even girls in the Corps of Cadets.
But the Yell Leaders have always been male. For just over 100 years, it has been the one institution that has remained XY-chromosome-only. Some females have tried to be elected to the spot, but Ms. Ketcham’s campaign seems to be the most aggressive and most popular so far. You can check it out yourself on her website, samketchamforyell.com.
Let me say that I am sympathetic. Ms. Ketcham seems very loyal to Aggieland — a 3rd generation Aggie whose blood probably runs as maroon as anyone’s. She’s clearly no Two Percenter and doesn’t appear to be generally anti-tradition. The same WSJ article points out that though some suggest that the A&M dance team that has performed at basketball games in recent years should also perform at football games, Ms. Ketcham is against the idea, preferring the uniqueness of Texas A&M’s Yell Leader tradition, and good for her for thinking so.
At the same time, making one of the Yell Leaders a female would be a dilution of that tradition — an incremental but nontrivial decrease in the uniqueness she praises.
Yell Leaders are just that: Leaders. Unlike cheerleaders (forgive me, offended cheerleaders), they aren’t just performing to get the crowd excited and pumped, but they are leading and directing the entire student body, tens of thousands strong, like a team of coaches of the 12th Man. Sure, student class presidents have included females, and as our society increasingly demeans the idea of gender differences and demeans the idea of preferring men over women as leaders in such positions, that shouldn’t surprise us. I would say it is to society’s detriment, but that, too, is another post for another time.
And being a Yell Leader is a more overtly masculine role in ways that “student body president” (sadly) is no longer, surrounded by the sort of “release the XY-chromosome hounds!” traditions you might expect in such a role on a college campus that used to be all military corps. Consider the scene below:
Here we see the tradition of chasing down the Yell Leaders (the guys in white) after a winning game and carrying them off to throw then into the fountain. But can you imagine the scene above if one of the “guys in white” was a gal? If you find that too easy to imagine (you shouldn’t) then imagine all of the figures in white being gals, with a mob of men (or vastly a majority of men) running them down to physically tackle them and throw them into a fountain. I notice the article addresses the concern about a girl in white being thrown into a fountain (Ms. Ketcham says she plans to wear a swimsuit under her clothes), but what of the rough and tumble leading up to it? And who wants to be one of a pack of adrenaline-fueled young men, running down a girl to catch her and carry her off like a mob? Who thinks that is a good idea? Anyone?
Yell Leaders have remained a tiny bastion of the regrettably outdated idea of masculine leadership. And, seeing them in action, it comes across as a traditionally masculine role, to which a masculine image is naturally suited, like that of a stereotypical drill sergeant. Could a female do it? I am sure one could. There are, after all, female drill sergeants. But the real question is: should a female do it? (The same could be asked of drill sergeant-ing, by the way.) It isn’t a popular question to ask anymore, but it really is the question at hand.
If having all male leadership means nothing anymore, then the answer is easy: “Sure, if she wants to.” But male leadership does mean something, I believe. And what a statement on our society that defending the notion that male leadership still means something could center on deciding whether or not a group of five guys yelling at football games should be allowed to include a girl. It’s a tradition I love, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like deciding on who should be the leader of the free world, and I don’t recall hearing a lot of real debate about that when Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Palin were vying for such spots. Whether or not a female should be allowed to serve as a Yell Leader is, in the large scope of things, incredibly trivial.
But the larger idea the question represents is not trivial, at all. Those who think that the Texas A&M’s cadre of Yell Leaders should remain a male-only group, like I do, should ask themselves why they think so — why they think such a tradition is worth holding on to. Maybe they will get a glimpse of a larger discussion that needs to be had.
I have nothing against Ms. Ketcham, and I admire her spunk and determination, as well as her passion for Aggieland, a school I, too, love very much. But if she does succeed, I will mourn a bit that traditional masculine leadership’s death by a thousand cuts has proceeded apace with one more nip.
[VERY LATE UPDATE, 9/14/2012: Ms. Ketcham did not succeed in her quest, though she received more votes than any other woman who has run before, coming in at 5th place in a six-candidate race where the top three are picked. Of note, the 6th place candidate was also a female. Here’s an article on the results.]