9 December 2016: Ketelaars’ act of betrayal. This was the caption to a meme that was passed on by all fraternities in the Netherlands. Ewout Ketelaars, 22, the President of the Rotterdams Studenten Corps (Rotterdam Fraternity), was said to have defected to the women’s side. He says with a smile, “It was the day Henriette, the President of RVSV, and I sent a letter whose gist was that a co-educational society was the way of the future.” The merger had been initiated by previous boards and senates, after which the two current presidents of the two societies decided to accelerate the process. “It felt good. Our boards got along really well,” says Henriette Claus, 23. “So we said, you know, we’re just going to make this happen!”
'One more hammer stroke'
It’s a Wednesday morning when Henriette and Ewout tell us about the merger. The current state of affairs: the two societies have had their first annual general meeting, during which the merger proposal was upheld by a large majority (83% on the women’s side, 93% on the men’s side). “We requested permission to start drawing up detailed plans for the merger, and to be able to start collaborating as a co-ed society from the next academic year onwards,” Henriette explains. “Now all we need is one more hammer stroke to finalise the merger from a legal point of view.”
The conversation takes place inside the building in which they can both be found every day: the clubhouse in Kralingen that houses both societies. It is a warren of smaller and larger rooms, whose scent resembles a mixture of beer and detergent. The ground floor is the women’s clubhouse, called Mimosa. It consists of small, dark drinks rooms, each equipped with a bar. The men can be found upstairs, in their clubhouse, known as Hermes. It consists of one large open space, which is not hard to keep clean, thanks to the floor drains. In the corridor, small roll pallets carry casks of beer, ready to be served to club members. The building also has an in-house hole-in-the- wall where late-night snacks and other refreshments can be obtained.
The reception room of the 1970s building, whose exterior looks like a bunker, looks surprisingly grand. “This room is used for official functions,” Ewout explains. The walls of this Viëtor Room, named after RSC’s first president, come with oak panelling. Two marble busts look down on the proceedings. Ketelaars is hanging on to the bottle of dark red fruit juice in his left hand. No, he is not hungover, he assures us. “I’m as fresh as a daisy.” Which is important. The two presidents are not allowed to respond to EM’s statements together. Instead, the idea is that they will ask each other hard-hitting questions on three subjects: the Merger, the Society and the President.
After the cards have been shuffled, Henriette picks a card and reads out the first question: “What is the most ridiculous tradition or quality the new society will get now that the other side is joining?” The two presidents are immediately put on alert. Even so, Ewout does not need long to come up with an answer. “The fun but educational ‘policy weekend’ the women organise. I’m not quite sure what it entails. It’s shrouded in mystery. But we can definitely get rid of that.” Henriette explains: “New boards enjoy some bonding weekends together.” A brief silence ensues. Ewout runs his hand through his blond and semi-longish hair and says drily in conclusion, “We men go about such things differently.”
Ewout pulls out the following question. “What is the most important thing your society will lose now that you are no longer a single-sex society?” Henriette says that a few former members have expressed nostalgic sentiments. “The sense that you don’t need men to arrange anything. We can keep a whole society up and running with just a bunch of women.” She herself does not really suffer from that form of nostalgia. “Together we will be able to do so much more,” she says enthusiastically. “I can see it all around me. People are brimming with ideas. They are thinking outside the box now. For instance, we indicated that we would like some new mixed sub-societies to be founded. Since then, RSC and RVSV members have already established a legal help desk, and a hockey club is about to be established.”
Henriette pulls a question from the pile. “What is the most absurd response you received following the announcement that your societies were going to merge?” “We sent the e-mail on 9 December 2016,” Ewout replies. “To some, the news was like a bolt from the blue. But within half an hour we received fifty e-mails from former members, who said, ‘Good decision, we support you, we are right behind you.’ I received the most bizarre reactions on WhatsApp, from the current generation.” Ewout chuckles. “Of course, they love playing with social media and memes. Before I knew it, a portrait of me – not my most charming one, either – was sent to people all over the country. The caption read, ‘9 December 2016: Ketelaars’ act of betrayal.’ But that’s funny. It’s part and parcel of the experience.”
Ah, yes. Fraternities. Their main occupation is drinking enormous quantities of beer, they make up this huge old boys’ network, and they are misogynistic. Right? Ewout asks his female counterpart a question. “What angers you most about the way in which student societies are portrayed?” He remains quiet for quite a while, then sighs. “I preferred discussing the merger.” Then Henriette answers the question. “The thing that angers me most is the idea that women are not equal to men here. Traditional student societies are places where women are more equal to men than elsewhere in society, particularly here in Rotterdam. Of course Rotterdam is quite a masculine city, so our society will have more male members. Even so, women in leadership positions are completely normal here.”
As for the beer-drinking stereotype, “Of course we are the kind of place where, after studying hard at the UL, you can enjoy a few pints. But we are more than just a pub. You can develop your management skills on a board. We do a lot of volunteering.” Ewout nods in approval. “That’s true,” he says. “The media only report on the excesses, like when someone falls off the bar and sustains a head injury.” He laughs and says, “We don’t drink until we’re three sheets to the wind six days a week. Our society is about much more than that.” He provides a few examples: “We organise the Phillips Innovation Award, the largest student entrepreneur award in the Netherlands, as well as the Kroon Festival on King’s Day and a St Nicholas procession. We fight cancer through our ‘Hermes voor KWF’ initiative. We do a lot of things like that.”
Henriette chuckles with perverse delight after reading the next card. “Suppose your society didn’t exist. Which Rotterdam student society would you have joined?” Ewout shifts on his seat somewhat uneasily and pulls his jacket straight. “Yeah, that’s a painful ques tion, isn’t it?” says Henriette. “Yeah, just you laugh,” Ewout replies. “I’m going to have to weigh my words very carefully here.” He ends up picking Laurentius, somewhat reluctantly. Because it is a large society, he says. But then he remembers the Christian student society, NSR. “I once went there with the other members of my board. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere. They are a religious society, so their approach is completely different. I probably wouldn’t join them because of it. But it was very interesting visiting the place. We had a copious lunch, and afterwards we sang Christian songs, even though I expected beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to sing. But the atmosphere was pleasant, very open and sincere.”
RSC and RVSV in brief
The Rotterdams Studenten Corps (Rotterdam Fraternity, RSC) was established on 11 December 1913. It is the oldest student society in Rotterdam. It has over seven hundred members and is the only fraternity in Rotterdam. The Rotterdamsche Vrouwelijke Studenten Vereeniging (Rotterdam Sorority, RVSV) was founded on 17 July 1915 and has some 550 members.
In order to be recognised as a fraternity or sorority, a society must be recognised by the General Association of Senates (ASV), an umbrella student association. Generally, fraternities and sororities are the oldest societies in student towns. They used to be liberal bulwarks. As a result, Catholic and Protestant societies were established during the time of religious compartmentalisation. Well-known former members include the author Drs. P and the politician Frans Weisglas on the men’s side, and the politicians Neelie Kroes and Marianne Thieme on the women’s side.
Ewout and Henriette are both president of their respective societies. The presidency would seem to be the most prestigious position one can hold in a student society. Henriette picks the following question: “Fraternities and sororities are full of hierarchy, but also full of ambitious people. How did you manage to become the boss?” Both chuckle, after which Ewout provides the answer. “I wouldn’t describe myself as ‘the boss’. I am the president of a group of people who do things together. However, presidents are characterised by certain character traits. Firstly, you have to be highly driven and enthusiastic, and you must really enjoy doing this sort of thing. But you have to be able to do it, too. You need to have the gift of the gab and love your society and have the members’ support. You get the latter by serving on committees. I was on the pub committee last year. In this position, you must keep order at night and serve as the clubhouse’s host.”
Ewout picks a card for Henriette. “What is the main sacrifice you had to make in order to be your society’s president?” The question amazes her. “It was almost a matter of course to me that I would devote a year to this. Yes, you lose a year’s worth of study time, which makes it an expensive decision. But I regard it as a good investment. I’m learning more here than I do in my entire econometrics degree. It’s something completely differ Ewout picks a card for Henriette. “What is the main sacrifice you had to make in order to be your society’s president?” The question amazes her. “It was almost a matter of course to me that I would devote a year to this. Yes, you lose a year’s worth of study time, which makes it an expensive decision. But I regard it as a good investment. I’m learning more here than I do in my entire econometrics degree. It’s something completely different, which is exactly why it appeals to me. For instance, former members are teaching me about the legal aspects of the merger.” For his part, Ewout adds, “Don’t forget it’s an awful lot of fun, too. I’m currently running a company with seven of my best mates, 24/7. It’s the most ridiculous amount of fun. Good times, lots of drinks, visiting other societies a lot, and getting managerial experience, too. It’s the right mix of fun and educational.” According to him, though, it should no longer be considered a stepping stone to the old boys’ network. “That is a stigma that is outdated. You are no longer competing with Dutch society alone, but rather with the entire world. Serving on a board is a valuable experience, but it is not needed to get a foot in the door.”
Henriette picks the final card and quickly reads what it says. “You can only make this merger a success by co-operating with the president you are currently facing. What is this person’s nicest quality, and what makes him or her annoying?” Henriette adds, “Yeah, I’d love to hear your opinion on me, Ewout!” Ewout says that they have compared themselves to each other a great deal in the last few months. “Applying this to Henriette’s good qualities, I’d say she is much better at concretising things. So we will discuss something, and she’ll work out the plan, and the next time you open your inbox, it will be there, waiting for you. It takes me a little more time to do such things.” What about Henriette’s worst qualities? Ewout breathes in and out for a moment. “I’m not seeing those on a daily basis.” He considers the question for a while, but is unable to come up with any negative traits. “We don’t annoy each other. I think our collaboration this year couldn’t possibly have been better.” And even though this sounds almost utopian, Henriette is quick to confirm his conclusion. “Of course a year like this is a matter of give and take. And naturally we do have our clashes, which is completely normal. After all, we are two different societies with two different cultures, which have already grown closer together during our mixed nights. But just like Ewout, I feel the process is coming along a lot more smoothly than I ever could have hoped for. And it just makes me immensely happy.”