Feminism and Sororities Discussion

Query: From Karyn Hollis hollis@ucis.vill.edu 05 March 1996

I am looking for any books/articles which treat sororities as organizations which might promote feminist attitudes among members. This could be from a contemporary or historical perspective. Does anyone know of any work that has been done along these line? Thanks.


>From Lynn Chapman lynnchap@u.washington.edu 07 March 1996

good luck! i refused to let my daughter join one when i found out that she had to promise to keep quiet about any rapes/assaults, etc that she may experience while a member...

>From Barb Howe bhowe@wvnvm.wvnet.edu 07 March 1996

Be sure to look at the organization's magazines and published histories, as I'm sure you already have, to see how ideas have evolved over the years-looking, in magazines, at alumnae who are considered to be role models for collegiate members, programming aimed at issues like AIDS and breast cancer and careers, discussions about new member/pledge programming issues, etc. On most campuses, I would suspect sororities are the last consistently all-female organizations around(even sports teams have men as coaches sometimes) so do they change their "recruiting" materials to market that as other all-female organizations(like honoraries such as Mortar Board and women's student governments) went co-ed?

>From Nancy Marie Robertson nmr1675@is2.nyu.edu 07 March 1996

Of course, how you define feminism will be part of the issue. But checking Paula Gidding's book on Alphas(an African-American sorority--sorry I don't have the title on me, but it is in her book *after* _When and Where I Enter_.

>From Staci Anson sranson@mailbos.syr.edu 07 March 1996

I am an alumnae of Kappa Alpha Theta. When we were pledges we were continually reminded that as the first greek latter fraternity for women we must uphold a strong belief in the power of women. In fact, our chapter materials always promoted the power and strength of women as well as modern day feminist issues(equality in jobs and education, the inner and external strength of women, how to get ahead,etc...) As a member I have received our chapter magazine for five years now and in each issue I have hundreds of articles about women who have made something out of their life(who have become congresswomen, businessowners and creators, corporate heads, television producers,etc...) and there are many other articles addressing opportunities out there for us as women, young and old. My sorority has been a powerful forum for feminist belief and I have much respect for the feminist movement from much of what I've learned from it.

>From Constance J. Ostrowski ostroc@rpi.edu 07 March 1996

As an alum of a sorority(a member in the early 70s), I need to point out that in analyzing the relationship of sororities to feminism, we need to ask "What kind of feminism are we talking about?"

Yes, the magazines I receive from my sorority do spotlight some career women (though, if I remember correctly, not having saved any of them, many women are still referred to as Mrs. John Smith"), and I made some strong friendships which live 20 years later.

However, I do not recall having seen any African-American, Hispanic, or other "non-white" women in the magazine--which for my own sorority would not be surprising: back in the 70s, our chapter(at a central New York private university which had a strong "Greek" character back then) wrestled with the issue of what to do if an African-American woman came through rush. Now, at that time, our house was about 1/3 Jewish and 1/3 Catholic, two groups which had formerly been unofficially unwelcome in our sorority(there were no exclusionary rules, as far as I know, but it had been quite clearly understood who was a desirable pledge.) Since we were in such obvious "disrespect" of this rule (I guess we were the barbarians at the gates), there was no real question for us about how we felt about admitting someone who was still disapproved: we had no desire to exclude anyone on the basis of religious or racial bias. We did, however, have extensive discussions on how we would handle "national" if they punished us for pledging an African-American woman: we'd heard of another chapter which national had disbanded after this chapter had pledged an African-American woman--though, of course, the reason given was financial mismanagement.

So, sororities...or some sororities--might strongly promote a feminism: but to what extent is it a white feminism? And of course, we do have to question how "feminist" we might want to label any organization that is, by definition or tradition, strongly exclusionary(no matter what the basis.) Please remember this comes from someone who had a strongly positive experience as a sorority member(and a pledge): who got to live in a house, as opposed to a cinder-block dorm, and eat home-cooked meals(made by an African-American cook)--all for less that I would have had to pay if I'd lived in a dorm on dining hall fare(and that includes the social fees/dues). I lived in a physically and socially comfortable environment that helped me network on campus, and provided me with long-lasting friends.

But I do have to look at my participation in the sorority system, and even that particular house, with some self-irony(because I call myself a feminist.)

>From Genevieve G McBride gmcbride@csd.uwm.edu 08 March 1996

I find this thread interesting for insight into the sort of sorority-style campus I did NOT attend, having been an undergrad at the urban, commuter campus where I now teach. However, I have worked (administration side) at a traditional small, co-ed campus where sororities were significant and have taught at campuses where they were significant to certain students.

And, from what I've observed, sororities often had a significant impact on students who otherwise would not have held officerships or other opportunities in which these women could discover and develop management skills. I also observed that these experiences on their resumes were helpful in landing management-track career opportunities from sorority-savvy employers(men or women, and many of them not themselves formerly affiliated.)

By contrast, I still despair for women students on my campus--and especially in my other field(public relations, when I'm not teaching history) which is so highly feminized as to be called the "velvet ghetto," where women comprise 80 percent of workers but 20 percent of managers.

The same proportions are seen in our student organizations. Yet the women students typically elect their male classmates as officers..and then, of course, the women students end up doing all the work(and whine about it.)

So I'm not surprised by statistics suggesting that women's colleges and women-only organizations claim such a high share of women managers today. In sum, I suspect there is still a place for sororities--if, of course, they are exclusionary ONLY regarding gender...and thus, REALLY prepare women to be managers for the present and future workplace, not the past. As for whether I want my son to marry a sorority woman..or my daughter to be one...well, we'll wait and see if their mother can overcome her working-class background and biases. Heck, being Greek beats body-piercing.

Editor's Note: In Tennessee sororities are forbidden by state policy to have separate houses. Fraternities are able to have off-campus houses, but not sororities. The sororities have suites in campus dorms. What surprises me is that no sorority has challenged what seems to me a very discriminatory law. The sororities at my campus say that it is less expensive to have dorm suites so that is why they haven't challenged the law. But I find it hard to believe that $ is the only motivation for conforming to this old-fashioned policy. I don't think a "feminist" organization would sit still for this. KL

>From Constance J Ostrowski ostroc@rpi.edu 08 March 1996

I agree a "feminist" organization wouldn't sit still for putting up with second-class status re: housing,etc.

I'm assuming that at least one rationale(if we want to call it that) for the restriction of sororities to dorm suites might be the felt need to protect (in a chivalric manner) the innocence and purity of these sweet, defenseless things. (But then, is there a comparable state policy forbidding women to rent flats with friends off-campus? Are all women students required to live in campus housing unless they live with their parents?)

The sorority I joined originated in the South, and still is the strongest in the South.

The restriction of sororities to dorm suites is definitely a legacy of chivalric paternalism. Female students are not required to stay on campus and most do not.

Kriste Lindenmeyer

>From Ann K. Wentworth awentwor@sescva.esc.edu 08 March 1996

in regard to the thread on sororities, I am surprised that no one has mentioned that the earliest of these organizations (called "women's fraternities")were founded as a statement of solidarity by the very few women on predominately male midwestern campuses that had recently become co-ed. The founders felt a need for "sisterhood" and bonding with each other. Whether these organizations represented the "feminism" of the time is open to question, but it is interesting that Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the National League of Women's Voters was an early member of Pi Beta Phi. It would be interesting to know if there were others who were active in women's movements who were involved in sororities early on--regardless of how the character of the groups changed by the 20th century.(The first women's fraternities were founded in the 1860s.)

>From Elizabeth M. Cox emcox@delphi.com 08 March 1996

For an interesting debate about state supported sororities, politics, and racial/ethnicity, see: "Spanish Heritage and Ethnic Protest in New Mexico: The Anti-Fraternity Bill of 1933" by Phillip B. Gonzales in _New Mexico Review_, v61, no 4, October 1986 pp.281-300. Mela Sedillo along with several Anglo women chartered the Chi Omega Sorority in 1925 at the University of New Mexico. She was the first Greek of Spanish heritage at the university, but left the group before she graduated. By 1933 her brother, Juan, who graduated before her and was denied a fraternity while at the university, was in the state senate and introduced the unsuccessful bill that would have abolished all fraternities and sororities at public universities.

>From Oona Schmid <oscmid@er6.rutgers.edu> 08 March 1996

the book to which nancy marie robertson alluded is _In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority_. i would recommend it strongly. but as some responses indicate, your topic probably has to consider the ways in which sororities are conservative structures, even if some women have used them in very profeminist ways. good luck.

>From Susan L. Smith susan.l.smith@UAlberta.Ca 08 March 1996

Regarding the topic of feminism and sororities, I think it is important to consider how the meanings of sororities has varied across racial/ethnic groups. At least among African-American women, historically sororities have been much more than social groups and have engaged in autonomous female activism, even when not explicitly identified as "feminist." In my own research I have found the health activism of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority during the 1930s to be quite compelling.

See: "Sharecroppers and Sorority Women: The Alpha Kappa Alpha Mississippi Health Project" in my book _Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women's Health Activism in America, 1890-1950_. For the history of another black sorority see: _In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement_ by Paula Giddings.

>From Cheryl McLaughlin <mclaughl@oberon.pps.pgh.pa.us> 11 March 1996

At the risk of sounding close-minded, I feel the need to vent my frustration about sororities.

As a college graduate, resident of a community with 6 colleges(the Oakland section of Pgh--CMU, Pitt, Carlow, Chatham, Duquesne, Point Park), the mother of a college student, a field supervisor for master's level counseling students...I feel that I have had more than the average person's exposure to Greek life. Nothing that I have seen, heard, read about or personally observed has led me to see sororities as anything but elitist and divisive factions on college campuses.

While I know that fraternities and sororities do some public service projects and fund-raising, and while I know that the individuals who make up the groups, I still see the irresponsible drinking, hazing, "group think" attitudes, elitist attitudes toward the "have nots" who aren't accepted into the ranks, as not healthy for young people.

Among my and my husband's circles of friends, I can only think of one person who was a "Greek." We do have friends who did at one time join, but quit after short periods of time. These circles consist of all sorts of people--prefessionals, successful educators, writers, and successful parents. A coincidence that none were "Greeks"? Or are we all "Geeks?" I don't know. I know that when our daughter asked as one of her first questions while touring colleges "is this a strongly Greek school?--we sensed we'd done a good job of raising her to be an independent thinker, and a person who can join groups without having to "audition", a person who can develop her own circle of valuable friends, and one whose social life can revolve around things other than wild parties and drinking.

I sense there nay be some protesting voices and I am open-minded to hearing about exceptions to my "prejudices" against "Greeks." But I do have to say that I would LOVE to hear about a sorority that does actually teach, foster and model feminist principles.

>From Staci R. Anson <sranson@mailbox.syr.edu 11 March 1995

I have a response to any inquiries about multiculturalism, equality, acceptance, and feminism in sororities today. I attended Washington University and Joined Kappa Alpha Theta. We were the first sorority on campus to welcome lesbian and bisexual women into the chapter. There were never any problems within the chapter nor were there any problems outside of it from other groups or people. We were an extremely open chapter, always accepting a person for whom they were inside. Women were never castigated for bringing their girlfriend to a function nor were they looked down upon. We even had an open forum/question and answer session with the gay and lesbian student organization on campus. After our initial step sorority and fraternity members in other chapters also became more open with their members own preferences. I can remember women, both straight and lesbian, actively involved in NOW, NARAL, the women's resource center on campus, rape hotline centers, and quite a few leadership conferences. At the same time, our chapter, as well as many others on campus, never denied people of different ethnic backgrounds opportunities to pledge our chapter. There have been great strides in opening up the great system to different cultures, races and sexual preferences and I don't think they can be denied. People label greeks as people who spend their time drinking and partying, when in reality we spend many more hours offering our services to philanthropic, and as with sororities, feminist causes. I know that I don't speak for all schools, because close-mindedness and exclusionary practices do exist, but I truly believe that the greek system can be seen as a major forum for stressing feminist education, action, awareness, and aid to young women on campus. Thank you.

>From Joan Gunderson <jrgunder@coyote.csusm.edu> 11 March 1996

I tried to something along these lines nearly 20 years ago, but was stopped by lack of response from the national organizations to whom I wrote. I have not seen anything(except in anniversary issues of a group's own magazine) appear since then, in part, I believe because so many women historians themselves were not members and attended college when sororities and fraternities were being seriously challenged for racial exclusivity and seemed to comply with the worst stereotypes of the organizations. What interested me was that it was through the pledge training materials in the group I joined in Jan. 1964 that I first saw the word "feminist" and that appeared to be something to be proud of, in connection with the founders(1893) of the organization(several of whom became Universalist ministers, and one who kept her birth name after marriage.) A serious study of these early groups is a topic that needs to be done.

>From Molly Ann Wilkinson <mwilknsn@students.uiuc.edu > 11 March 1996

I'd like to jump into the sororities as feminist organizations debate. I attended a small liberal arts school where about 50% of the women were in soroities--including me--for a year. After a year of membership, I decided to quit, or "de-activate."

In many ways, sororities can provide positive leadership opportunities for women. Many women who never became leaders in other campus organizations became high-level sorority officers and gained much valuable leadership experience. Despite these leadership opportunities, I think that sororities--at least at my school--remain very much antithetical to feminism. Just as a few examples: a common ceremony within the Greek system is a "candlelight ceremony." Before a sorority meeting, a member will announce to the coordinator that she has either been lavaliered or pinned by a fraternity member, pearled by a non-fraternity member(who has no lavaliere pin to give), or else has become engaged. At the end of the meeting, all the women will gather in a circle with the lights out and sing a song about men, while a candle is passed from person to person. The first time a candle goes around, the woman who has been pinned or lavaliered blows out the candle, and if the woman has become engaged, she will wait until the second time the candle goes around the circle. Once the "lucky" woman is revealed, the entire room erupts into screams and excitement. These ceremonies were central to the sorority that I was in. Even if few women actually had the opportunity to participate in them, they were the "goal" of many and defined much of the character of what the sorority saw as important. In fact, whenever a woman had a candlelight ceremony, the sorority would publish her name in the campus newspaper.

I don't recall any such ceremonies that honored women in such a way for receiving graduate school fellowships or gaining memberships into Phi Beta Kappa. Sororities do encourage strong academics, but, at least to my view, this was more of a goal in rhetoric than in practice.

I also have problems with a campus party scene that objectifies women. Of course, I am well aware that this goes far beyond the Greek system, but at my university, most of the activities centered around the organized Greek system, which led to organized objectification. For example, one fraternity printed a newspaper, listing by name the women that the fraternity members had "hooked up" with. The newspaper also contained explicit, detailed information about some of the sexual encounters with these women. Much of this information was false, but even if it was not false, it was still inexcusable for such a newspaper to have been even conceived, much less actually put down on paper.

When this newsletter somehow got out of the fraternity house, several of the women on the list filed a sexual harassment suit(internal to the university) against the fraternity. This led to a campus-wide controversy, and it was shocking to me how many sorority women stood up and defended this newsletter as harmless fun. In fact, I know of several women who were proud to be on the list. Along similar lines, another fraternity is rumored to have a computer database set up on various women on campus--fraternity members will update the files when they go out with a particular woman. Some women have discussed this database excitedly, wondering if they might be in the base!! (Incidentally, both fraternities I have mentioned are considered "prestigious"--the fraternities whose attention many of the sororities seek.) After the newsletter became public, more women publicly began to speak out against the fraternity practices, but privately, I know of many who believed that it was not that big of a deal.

While recognizing that campus drinking is a problem far beyond the Greek system, I'd still like to emphasize some of the harmful, and antifeminist, dimensions of the emphasis on alcohol consumption within the sorority system. My sorority, while it never directly forced anyone to drink, nonetheless celebrated drinking. I can remember many situations when sorority members would get together and drink before fraternity parties, and I remember women verbally expressing that intoxication would make it easier for them to flirt with fraternity men and therefore "luck" into a "hook-up." These "hook-ups" were always celebrated in meetings the following week. And, with this combination of alcohol, women seeking men to hook-up with, and men who kept databases on "easy" women, I don't need to point out the opportunities for rape and other unwanted sexual encounters. Again, I know that drinking is not exclusive to the Greek system, but the peer-pressure involved in these sorority sanctioned activities(especially strong for new pledges) can have a powerful effect on young women.

One final point: the sororities at my school did not discriminate against women of a different race during rush, though economic discrimination does happen due to the approximately $500 for dues for the first semester of membership alone. But, another form of discrimination bothers me even more--the procedure of "voting" during rush. Women are ranked as numbers and a list of adjectives is used to describe them--adjectives ranging from "great", "pretty", and "funny" to "bland." Inevitably, the "bland" women are those considered "unattractive" or less well-dressed. At my campus, on average ten women a year are considered too "bland"(of course, many other adjectives are also available) for membership in any sororities, and are left out in the cold altogether(though arguably to their own advantage, though I doubt that is how they feel when all their friends are off to the sorority on pledge night.) A system that does this to people infuriates me.

I guess my contribution to this discussion has bounced around a lot. I also realize that many of my comments relate to the current campus party scene in general and characterize many schools that don't have Greek systems. I also readily acknowledge that there are many positives to the sorority system--women do get leadership opportunities, and especially at larger schools, a sorority can give a woman a "community." I also don't mean to sound self-righteous as I criticize the Greek system at my school. It took me a year to quit, and I have had to deal with my participation in the negative aspects of the system, such as voting. And, I'd like to point out that many good friends of mine remained very happy members of the Greek system and think that the good opportunities and the life-long friendships outweigh the negative aspects.

But, I still have to wonder about the utility of a system that celebrates engagements but not fellowships, that excludes "bland" women, and that eagerly participates in an organized campus party culture that objectifies women. Even if, as an earlier contributor pointed out, men hold 80% of other campus leadership positions, I am not sure that sanctioning a sorority system is the best way to address that problem. Perhaps, instead of a "separate but equal" approach that does more harm than good, changes need to be made in the structure of the other campus organizations to allow women to lead, not just do all the grunt work. (To the person who contributed that message, I don't mean to set you up as a supporter of the system as the best alternative, and I realized your ambivalence--but I share your concern with the ratio of female to male leadership in campus activities and chose to use your statement as an example.)

I apologize for the length of this message, but I have thought about this issue a lot and was eager for the opportunity to share my concerns with other concerned individuals.

[Editor's Note: The intent of H-Women is to serve as a scholarly discussion forum for subscribers involved in teaching and researching women's history. The feminism and sororities thread needs to stay focused on the history of...-CM]

>From Diana Turk <dbt@wam.umd.edu> 12 March 1996

in response to the posting concerning Pi Beta Phi's founders' women-centered approach, I would like to add that I am currently working on a study of Kappa Alpha Theta Women's Fraternity and have found that the women who started that organization were also fundamentally interested in ensuring women's solidarity on largely all-male campuses.

They spoke and wrote of their fraternity, both at the time of its founding, and later, as an organization for women, by women, and about women.

>From Jennifer Hillman hillman@cgs.edu 12 March 1996

I think the issue of whether or not sorority women view themselves as feminists and how the rest of the campus community views them is important in what it reveals about the status of the women's movement on college campuses today.

I for one believe that sororities can and often are the means through which individual women find and express their feminist consciousness. I am a recent graduate of UCLA and was a member of a sorority there for four years. I always said it was difficult to live with fifty women and not have an increased awareness of women's issues. Sororities are an excellent support

system academically, emotionally, socially, and often financially(living in a house at least while I was at UCLA was considerably cheaper than the dorms.) My sorority and our Panhellenic Council was also addressing major women's issues such as low self-confidence and images of women, distorted body-image and health disorders, rape, and alcoholism through workshops and speakers. My sorority was also on the forefront of doing away with pledge programs and the hazing that accompanies them. (Many sororities are moving in this direction.)

Yet, I do fear the motivation behind many of these proactive policies are not as "feminist" as we might hope. I'm afraid that many are simply reactions to a host of other complications and criticisms. My take is that the move to do away with hazing and increase rape awareness has its basis in the national organizations' fear of lawsuits which have been multiplying in the last several decades and threaten sorority solvency. This is coupled with the decrease in greek membership which I believe is a result of the fact that sororities do not appeal to increasingly diverse campus populations. Sororities have to tailor their rhetoric and their acceptance of more groups so that they can maintain numbers. (Without numbers, nationals pull charters.)

I must also face up to an incident at UCLA in 1992(?). A fraternity song book surfaced with lyrics that were pornographic, derogatory, offensive in regards to a Mexican woman. MeCha spoke out vehemently against the entire greek system which put Panhellenic on its guard. But the worst moment came at a student government meeting when the fraternities facing almost certain dismissal from the Undergraduate Student Activities Council, walked out of the meeting and Panhellenic followed. We stood in solidarity with these men, taking their word(or pretending to take it) that this song was an outdated anomaly instead of standing as a separate organization with feminist possibilities. This proved to many on the UCLA campus that sorority women would rather stand by their men than to force a "divorce" in the Greek community.

Let me state again that I do believe there are positive forces working within the organizations. Many individual members, myself included, felt that they could work with the sorority to improve the organization-to make it the organization they hoped to find when they joined. I still hope and believe that sororities being possibly the earliest campus women's organizations and based on lofty ideals can and should be revamped to answer the needs of women today. This can not happen at the campus level, but women in the national organization have to accept the challenge(a problem which my own organization found troubling, although they do respond to collegiate pressure.) As for collegiate pressure, I believe that each university is different. However, from my own experience I found public and West coast institutions to be much more supportive of reform.

Let me finish by saying that I think the best way to find information about feminism and sororities in not through their magazines which tend to be celebratory about individual achievements and philanthropy, but through university newspapers and especially the letters to the editors. I also know that UCLA's feminist magazine often had articles critiquing sorority inactivity.

>From Nicole Fournier < nfournie@lynx.dca.neu.edu> 12 March 1996

As a sorority woman, I feel the need to respond to the suggestion that sororities are elitist organizations...As a founding member of a national sorority at my undergraduate institution, I disagree. First of all, there are twenty-nine members of the National Panhellenic Council which comprise a delegate from each national sorority. As an umbrella group, it has forbidden any hazing of national sororities and has changed many rules regarding how "pledging" is handled. Women who pledge a national sorority can be assured that if they are hazed, that chapter will face the consequences. Women who pledge a sorority are not referred to as "pledges" anymore, but new members, a term designed to lessen the negative connotation that comes with being a member of a national. As for my chapter, we are very diverse and each sister is her own person. One of our most beloved characteristics is that we are individuals. We do encourage feminism. I was a women's studies minor in college and continue to study women's history, as do many of my sisters. My sorority has actively participated in the organization of our Women's History Month celebration since we have been on campus, and encourages other Greeks to do so as well. In fact, both national fraternities on my campus participate yearly as well.

Our diversity is what attracts new women to our organization. We accept everyone, and women who are not given a "bid" are denied usually on basis of grades, NEVER on her physical appearance, race or sexuality. These organizations have provided women with skills needed to become a leader and to better herself and her community. My sorority participates in many community service projects such as the Walk for Hunger, the Walk for Women, the Walk for Aids, etc. We also support nationally a foundation that helps build play therapy wings for hospitalized children. My organization gives out scholarships to both undergraduate women and graduate school women who display outstanding leadership qualities and who have excellent academic standings.

For me, the sorority to which I belong provides a strong sense of family. Any of my sisters can come to me with problems, or I can go to them. One sister was sexually assaulted and came to the chapter. We supported her 100% and are starting to sponsor self-defense classes.

This discussion was intended for research purposes, not so that everyone could argue for or against sororities.

>From Anne Mitchell <annevm@email.unc.edu> 13 March 1996

I have a comment about the Editor's post, sent today with three more replies on feminism and sororities. Yes, our discussion _has_ strayed a bit into some personal, first-hand observations about present-day(or at least recent) sororities, but I do not agree that this is an inappropriate topic for a group of scholars of women's history to discuss in a forum such as this. I think the editor's post is unnecessarily limiting, for one thing, about what counts as "history." These accounts people have posted are indeed history---albeit dealing with experiences more recent in many cases than those asked about by the original post--and would certainly count as our own oral history of an institution in which many of us have participated. Furthermore, the comments people have made _are_ germane to the subject or sororities and feminism since many of the people writing were participating in sororities during an ostensibly feminist era(esp. the 1970s) and since many of the posters have addressed the interaction of these two phenomena in their own lives. Useful insights may come from these discussions that would help in understanding the relationship of sororities and feminism in other eras. In addition, as scholars who in most cases _work with_ and hope to influence women students NOW, it seems to me that this issue of what kinds of messages sororities give young women is a very important one for us to consider as we ponder our often intertwined roles as scholars AND feminists.

Just my two cent of meta-comment on this thread.

Continuing second post from Anne Mitchell, same day

I just sent a post giving my view that comments on current or recent-era sororities are relevant to the spirit of our list, so here are my thoughts on my own experience, particularly picking up on Molly's and Cheryl's posts:

I, too, attended a small liberal arts
college(Birmingham-Southern in Birmingham, Alabama) which was dominated by the Greek system. After resisting the urge to go through the rush, I joined Pi Beta Phi (yes, Carrie Chapman Catt's group, as someone pointed out earlier) during "open rush" later in my freshman year, basically because I felt totally left out of the college social scene as an independent. Although, I, too, made some long-lasting friendships within my sorority, I eventually came to see the institution itself as completely frivolous, concerned mightily with irrelevant issues, wasteful of my time and money, and divisive to the campus community. I deactivated a year and a half later.

There must be better ways for college women to get together and form a social unit around common interests and concerns, develop those ever-important "leadership skills," engage in community service, and have parties, or whatever. I can't see where sororities as I knew them do any of these things very well, and it seems to me that the costs of sorority life for women outweigh any benefits the sorority system may be delivering. Consider a few points:

--I totally agree with Molly about the example of the candlelightings. Ours, similarly, were the most exciting celebratory events ever held by the sorority, outside of initiation day. While we did try to recognize our sorority's scholars, there was not the sense of thrill about that that there was about candlelightings.

--The activities that sorority women spend most of their time on are a WASTE of women's time and energies which could accomplish so much more of importance in terms of feminism or any other social activism or even the women's own personal or academic development if turned to other pursuits. The sorority in my experience distracts women from engaging in more meaningful, challenging and socially significant activities. A majority of my time spent with my sorority, for example, was occupied with picking out matching clothes for rush, memorizing and participating in rituals and "secrets" that were of absolutely no value or interest outside that particular sorority's context, planning for the next fall "rush", planning or attending "mixers" with fraternities, being "big buddies" to "little sisters", planning activities(not hazing, Thank God) for the pledges, and engaging in fake expressions of sentimentality about all the "sisterhood" we were developing while we spent time on this stuff(the "pass the gavel" ritual). If I'd devoted the year and a half I spent in a sorority to my studies, to working in a homeless shelter, to attending a feminist reading group, whatever--I would have been much more challenged as a woman, a scholar, and as a feminist that I ever was in the sorority. The ONLY benefit of a sorority in terms of my feminist consciousness was the consciousness I developed in OPPOSITION to the things the sorority was emphasizing.

--In addition, I think that as Molly pointed out, sororities essentially divide women and discourage the kin of broader-based "sisterhood"(whatever that might or can mean) that feminists hope to achieve. Sorority women in my experience spend an awful lot of time competing with other women of different sororities over meaningless issues, and--even more destructively, I think--judging other women(especially during rush) based on superficial characteristics, and brief, formalized, stiff encounters. None of this encourages a mindset that will help further a feminism which accepts and includes and tries to speak to the needs of many different types of women.

That's only part of what I could say about all this, because, like Molly, I've spent a long time thinking about it. But maybe that's enough for the time being. Thanks for your patience.

>From Jennifer Gilmore <gilmorej@ucs.orst.edu> 13 March 1996

I was so excited when I heard that a discussion of sororities and feminism was taking place, I just had to join. I too joined a sorority as an undergraduate and found the experience extremely empowering. However, I agree with those who have criticized the Greek system for being elitist and exclusionary--classist and racist.

To reconcile my own conflict, I decided to write my master's thesis on this very subject. I am interested in determining the role of sororities(as in all-female, predominately white, and predominately upper-class peer group) in the social transmission of gender. I would like to answer the following questions: Is being in a sorority an empowering or disempowering experience for women? Are sororities, as single-sex organizations, sexist by their very definition? Does solidarity necessitate conformity and deplete autonomy? What are the implications of sororities as "families"(members of Greek organizations commonly refer to their sorority or fraternity as their "home away from home" and use the terms "sister", "brother", "pledge mom", and "pledge dad", when referring to fellow members.)

Most of the literature I have read compares Greeks to independents and/or discusses the impact of Greek membership on its members. The following are the only books/articles I have found that "sort of" treat sororities as potential feminist organizations:

Eddy,J.P.(1990) Greek and Non-Greek Affiliation: Relationship to Levels of Autonomy NASPA Journal, 28:1, 54-59.

Kamm, B. & Rentz, A.L.(sorry, n.d.) Sorority Officers' and Members" Attitudes Toward Women College Student Journal, 307-313.

Leonard, M & Sigall, B.A. (1989) Empowering Women Student Leaders: A Leadership Development Model. In C.S. Peterson, D.L. Shavlik & J.G. Touchton (Eds), Educating The Majority: Women Challenge Tradition in Higher Education. NY, American Council on Education & MacMillan Publishing Co.

Packwood, William T, et al.(1972) Greek Individualism and Activism: A New Identity? Journal of College Student Personnel, 13:3, 224-228.

Spitzberg, Irving J. Jr, & Thorndike, Virginia V. (1992) Creating Community on College Campuses. Albany, State Univ. of NY Press.

I hope these help you Karyn. Please respond, I'd love to hear about your work.

>From Jan Davidson <jfd@UDel.edu> 15 March 1996

I would like to comment on the Editor's Comment on the Feminism/Sorority discussion and Anne Mitchell's response to it.

I tend to agree with the editor that we should stick more closely to the list's brief. I do so for a set of "political" concerns.

I don't know enough about the higher education systems of continental Europe or the rest of the world to comment on them, but I do know that British universities like the one I went to don't have sororities and fraternities. The parts of the discussion on the subject that I have read seem to assume that all the members of this list are from the United States and we all have had experience of what sororities and fraternities do. Clearly, on a list like this we are going to have different levels of expertise on issues. No one will understand all the discussion threads. Yet I have found this particular discussion particularly problematic.

My point is simple, if we're going to talk about U.S. sororities, then Cheryl Malone is right: we have to historicize those discussions. And, in part, that(to me at least) means people who make posts based on their experiences have to stop assuming that we all have common educational experiences. For example, when I moved to the States, I had no idea what a rush was and know I'm not the only one: other people who I know did their graduate work in the US and their undergraduate work at the University of East Anglia were in the same boat. We have had some hysterical conversations about what in the world US universities are doing with this bizarre institutionalized twisted familial bonding system in place.

I'm not saying we should never discuss our own experiences(which would be a bit much since I just did it), but I do think we need to try and contextualize them. And one way of doing that is to stay aware that our experiences are situated in our cultures, races, classes and nationalities and that women and men on this list do not share the same backgrounds. We are not all from the United States. Even those of who are from the U.S. did not all go to schools that had sororities. I for one certainly hope that not everyone on this list is a university level teacher or prospective teacher. Actually, I would hope that we area broad enough "church" to have people without formal education in our ranks. Can we stop making assumptions that we have a common schooling? It's as bad as assuming there is an archetypal "woman."

>From Larry Ingle <lengle@utcvm.ytc.edu> 15 March 1996

Re: Single Sex Organizations (was Feminism and Sororities)

I found this thread on Sororities and Feminism extremely enlightening, particularly the comments of Anne Mitchell. While I certainly agree that it is appropriate to discuss this matter on a list dealing with women's history, I want to try and give it a bit more legitimacy by retitling the thread and therefore trying to reassure our anxious moderator.

Jennifer Gilmore's contribution, in which she raises the pertinent question as to whether single sex organizations are feminist(or sexist) by definition, is a theoretical one that bedevils feminism and those who seek to understand women's approach to things in the past. I'm not saying anything that most of the readers here probably don't already know.

About five years ago, in research for my biography of George Fox, founder of the Quakers(published, I unabashedly report, as First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation Quakerism by Oxford U. Press in 1994), I found a letter written by Mary Pennington, one of the most influential early Friends. She defended the creation of separate women's meetings for business and discipline in the early 1670s and affirmed that they should restrict their activities to certain designated areas most appropriate for women--overseeing education and women apprentices, and the like. Her letter sided with the male authorities who probably wanted the support of women in their struggle with dissidents within the movement. The letter was published in Signs("A Quaker Woman on Women's Roles: Mary Pennington to Friends, 1678," Signs 16:1(1991), 587-96.

One question I struggle with(and still struggle with) is the one raised by Jennifer Gilmore, i.e., were such single-sex groups inherently empowering? Defenders of women's meetings, particularly those in the 19th and 20th centuries tend to say that Quaker women found these meetings places of "safety" where they could master the ability to decide matters of importance, feel secure in debate, and experience the liberation that comes from controlling their own lives. I tend not to favor that position, although I think a strong case can be made for it. In this situation, the outer limits of the range of women's activities were being defined by men--indeed, by the end of the 17th century the separate women's meetings were disbanded by the dominant men--and the matters assigned to them were of less importance, as defined by the controlling men, than the ones they reserved to themselves.

The point is that I think Jennifer Gilmore's question about empowerment of women in sororities is of crucial importance. As Anne Mitchell pointed out, she joined a sorority because it offered some things that she wanted but she soon came to realize that it was a diversion from other, more important matters--that is, it was not empowering but debilitating. It will be interesting to hear some other observations on this problem.

Having been neither a sorority(that would have been rather difficult, I suspect) nor fraternity member, I can not speak to whether the Greek system, per se, embodies a culture that would be antagonist to individual empowerment, particularly if one should define those words in ways that subvert the culture. Others will have to speak to that reality.

>From Lisa Krissoff Boehm <lboehm@indiana.edu> 15 March 1996

I too have been very interested in the thread on feminism and sororities. Having been the president of the chapter of Alpha Gamma Delta on the Northwestern University campus, I have been thinking for years about how being a member of the Greek system, and an active member, fits in with my feminism. I wanted to make two brief points regarding our discussion: 1) I think it is important to note how the national sorority headquarters views differ from that of the individual chapters. Researchers on the history of sororities should be no means take the official publications as indicative of the sentiments of the real women of the sororities.(As an undergraduate, I was appalled by the conservative strain of the sorority magazines and manuals, and quite impressed by the feminist activism of the people I lived with. 2) And, I think we have overlooked something in our discussion and that is the power of rituals. I can think of no other situation in the modern world where large groups of women get together to ritually solemnize their friendships and committments--every woman supporting every other woman. Yes, as someone said, the details of rituals have no meaning to the outside world--but the power produced does.

>From Cheryl McLaughlin <mclaughl@oberon.pps.pgh.pa.us> 15 March 1996

The current issue of Iris(alas, it's not on the web), the journal of the Women's Center at the Univ. of Virginia, has a wonderful article about male influence and control over sorority life. It was an aspect I don't think was covered here before, and one I'd not thought of. It pointed out that the fraternities decide which sororities have the most attractive women--for dating purposes. The article cites a specific situation where a sorority was actually disbanded(there probably is a special word for that) when it was ostracized by the fraternities for choosing unattractive pledges one year. The women were mocked, heckled, and rejected in the dating scene. Things got so bad that the national "sisters" came in and made special arrangements to disband that chapter then to reinstitute it with new pledges.

The article also talks about the special rituals that certain sororities have when their members get pinned, lavaliered, or engaged. Much dancing around, saluting, honoring, singing,etc. No similar ceremonies existed for occasions such as being accepted in grad school, or achieving other academic honors.

An enlightening article--


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