By Andréa Rojas
After experiencing U of C sorority life first-hand, I am comfortable asserting that although the institution of the sorority is theoretically predicated on the principles of eternal friendship and unconditional love, it is implicitly rooted in the three tenets of sexual identity construction, image and power. It’s not fair to extrapolate my experience to apply to every single chapter of every single sorority at every single institution of post-secondary learning in North America. Nevertheless, refraining from specifying to which sorority I belonged, as my words are not intended to be an attack targeted at one specific organization, I present a critique of an institution that claims to empower women, but oftentimes accomplishes precisely the opposite.
A sorority is a collegiate society originally conceived of in the 19th century United States, intended to be a milieu within which female students could gather at a time when women had just recently been permitted to attend universities alongside men. The University of Calgary is home to two of them, Alpha Gamma Delta and Alpha Omicron Pi– the former established in 1983, and the latter colonized in 1985.
The reality is, sororities– especially those in Alberta– aren’t what Legally Blonde or certain urban legends would lead you to believe. No, dearest readers, I did not have to drink goat’s blood or swallow a goldfish. No, curious friends, I didn’t have to wear pink on Wednesdays or dye my hair blonde. No, pervy guys in my first-year statistics class, there were no half-naked pillow fights involved. After 8 months as an initiated sister, however, I realized that sorority life is still more superficial than transcendent, more “strategic acquaintance” than “sister,” more, well . . . high school than university.
Do you remember being 17? I was a wide-eyed Haskayne freshman in September of 2008. There are few things more appealing to the new undergraduate woman than the promise of an unconditionally supportive network of fellow females who seem to have university dialed in. This is precisely why, by that November, I would find myself in the basement of a girl I hardly knew committing my life-long allegiance to an organization whose name was in a language I didn’t even understand. In my first year, I was allowed to peek into a little box full of very interesting things, and here I try to make sense and describe what I saw.
Despite the fact that men are excluded from membership, sororities are not wholly female-centred. Many events are based almost exclusively on the participation of men, and furthermore, a “sorority- approved” type of man– the fraternity brother. In October of my first year, my sorority’s mini-golf mixer with the Phi Gamma Delta (fiji) fraternity was nicely timed to precede the fraternity’s formal a few weeks later, the formal being an event that brothers were expected to bring dates to. When a fiji pledge expressed an interest in me that night and in the days after, I was dropped some not-so-subtle hints by my sisters to accept a formal invitation from him, if such an invitation were to arrive.
There were implicit rules of romantic and sexual association– it was okay to go to a date function with this brother, but not that one. It was okay to be romantically or sexually involved with a brother in a fraternity that your sorority favoured, but not with too many of them in too close a time frame, because it would reflect badly on the sorority.
As sorority sisters, we were not overtly pressured, but definitely subtly encouraged to favour romantic and even sexual relationships with fraternity men over non-fraternity men. This is a tactic that keeps romance and sex within the “family” of U of C Greeks, thus rendering it safe, manageable and ultimately able to be monitored.
Although it is unfair to generalize that every sorority member engages in this type of behaviour, the affirmation of gender roles and construction of a certain female identity is perpetuated by the institution of the sorority. Sexuality is regulated through a virgin-whore dichotomy that simultaneously endeavours to uphold the sorority’s image of ladylike propriety while remaining desirable to its male counterparts. This was evident in my former sorority’s annual February bash, called “Crush Party,” an event wherein sisters were expected to bring one or two people (read: males) to an alcohol-fuelled club event on whom they had a romantic or sexual “crush.”
In the Greek community, belonging is homogeneity, at least along socioeconomic and sexual lines. If you are not single, affluent and heterosexual, you are an outsider. I know that some of my former sorority sisters who were in relationships felt somewhat uncomfortable with the “matchmaker” undertones of fraternity mixers, and I cannot fathom how this would potentially make a queer sister feel.
One of my former sisters, who ended up cutting ties with the organization a few months after I did, explains the sorority’s fixation on female identity in this way: “They’re selling you this false sense of womanhood [that is] manicured, polished, accomplished.” She describes the sorority “as a product– selling identity, womanhood, social acceptance and social security” to undergraduate women in exchange for financial compensation.
Image in the sorority is much more than pearls and business formal attire, but not entirely divorced from it. One of a sorority chapter’s main goals is legitimization through keeping up appearances. Accusations of a sorority’s lack of involvement in the larger community are quickly refuted with claims of its emphasis on philanthropy, a term that essentially refers to raising money for causes like the Arthritis Foundation a few times a year. Community service, though, takes a backseat to money-raising in sorority life. Almost all of my sorority’s “do-good” efforts were centred on collecting donations, instead of more hands-on acts of volunteerism that required involvement beyond making a few posters. As the year wore on, I realized that philanthropy was a way of masking what my sorority really was at its core– a business and social organization that ultimately cared more about recruiting new members to pay dues than improving the community at large. Philanthropy, though not a bad thing to do by any means, allowed the members of my sorority to do “just enough” to keep up appearances within the community and thus justify its own existence.
Sorority image also has a physical component. My former sister notes the ridiculous emails she received from the sorority’s vice-president of membership recruitment that put stipulations on how sisters were to groom themselves during rush, down to how their upper lips should be waxed. Rules like this were presumably put in place with the ultimate goal of attracting new members. My former sister is open about how sisters were taught to carefully construct their conversations with potential new members to glean certain bits of information from them– things like their high school average (would they maintain the necessary gpa of 2.0 to remain in the sorority?), what their parents do for a living (would they be able to pay dues?) and what their activities were in high school (would they be likely to take on an executive position within the sorority?). It is important to note here that if a sorority chapter does not initiate a certain amount of members each recruitment period, they are in danger of having their charter revoked and being ordered to shut down by their international administration. Potential new members, then, are primarily investments applicable toward the sorority’s internally-focused goal of perpetuating itself in some sort of infinite loop that bears little fruit for the greater U of C campus community. Image, then, is a way to procure these investments, and sexual identity construction under the guise of sisterhood is a way to keep them yours. Another way that sororities do this is through constructing notions of power.
At the U of C, where the Greek community’s approximately 80 members make up about 0.003 per cent of the entire university population of 31,509 (as of Fall 2011), a small group’s quest for influence must be predicated on creating social distance between itself and the campus “proletariat.” The means? Exclusivity. The end? Power, expressed through social capital and the pursuit of on- campus influence.
Exclusivity is what makes sorority membership so appealing to a 17-year-old freshman, or even a 20-year-old junior. Reducing a campus of 30,000 to an intimate group of 80 “instant friends” that can be accessed for a yearly fee of about $800 in my case is, sadly, extremely tempting. On a more personal level, having 20 older girls who seem polished and put-together both aesthetically, academically and professionally choose you to join their ranks feels better than scoring a seat in the tfdl after only 30 seconds of wandering around. Even the name by which sororities call their selection process– “preference parties”– carries with it undertones of being socially desired, something that every undergraduate yearns for in the impersonal environment of university. It’s why we join clubs, opt to study in the tfdl with 200 other people milling about and go to ThursDen. Socially, it’s a basic need.
In her book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, journalist Alexandra Robbins explains this allure of sororities as “an automatic sense of belonging, no talent or niche required.” How absurd is it that 20 girls who have known you for all of six weeks are ready to pledge their eternal sisterly devotion to you?
The ultimate tragedy of the women’s fraternity is that its founding principles serve not as roots, but as foils to what a sorority is today– that what a sorority is at its core fails to resonate with the gospel of goodwill and friendship that it outwardly preaches. Sororities are a wonderful idea in theory– women aiming to band together to effect positive societal change can have tremendously positive implications. This possible greatness, however, is inevitably crippled by the same elitism, exclusivity and institutional bureaucracy that requires the sorority to put all its effort into simply sustaining and legitimizing itself. Because of this, “lifelong sisterhood” grew old for me well before its supposed nonexistent expiry date.
Partly because I was not told the truth about the amount of dues I would have to pay over four years and partly because I was sick of being told how to judge a potential new “sister” by her Facebook profile and her high school average, I committed the sorority equivalent of apostasy and asked that my name be struck from the chapter roster in April of 2009. Today, only one of the 14 girls that I initiated with in the fall of 2008 remains an active member of my former sorority. Most of what is called my “pledge class” similarly defected.
At the end of 8 months, I didn’t wish for my identity as a woman to be groomed and regulated, but celebrated. I didn’t want to see fellow women as sources of sorority income, but as friends. I didn’t want to be in an exclusive clique, but smack-dab in the middle of university life.
That fall, I searched for another organization on campus that dedicated itself to women’s empowerment, and soon found myself leading workshops at the Women’s Resource Centre and becoming involved with the Women in Leadership club. I made the brave trek to the third floor of MacHall, wrote my first piece for the Gauntlet, and eventually landed a job on its editorial board. I scored a marketing internship, switched faculties, raised my gpa to a 3.8 and started to use my hard-earned money to put gas in my car instead of writing cheques to an office in Tennessee. Not that it would have been impossible for me to do these things while being a sorority member, but deciding to change my community involvement outlook from exclusive to inclusive led me to seek out opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise– and let’s be honest, three-hour meetings every week in binding business attire was something I don’t miss.
What did I give up? Well, I lost about 20 acquaintances, but kept three good friends. I was no longer invited to sit at the “Greek” tables in MacHall during my breaks. (Yes, there are “Greek” tables, like in a high school cafeteria.) I had to return all my sorority paraphernalia, down to a plastic cup with my sorority’s letters stamped on it that I used to brush my teeth with. (That was sad. I really liked that cup.)
Despite all its institutional flaws and obsession with personalized kitchenware, spending a year in a U of C sorority may have been the best decision that I have made in my university career. Ultimately, it connected me with a diverse wealth of people– good people, in fact. An older sister offered to pay my sorority dues when I was unable to, and another coached me through a study plan when I struggled academically. Sorority involvement also alerted me to the importance of extracurricular leadership as a way to enhance the university experience, an invaluable lesson as a commuter student.
But even Elle Woods in Legally Blonde eventually had to leave the Delta Nu house and move on to law school. As for me, well, I’m $2,400 richer and infinitely happier. To the women who will initiate at the beginning of December, you don’t need three Greek letters to experience real “sisterhood.” Think before you join a U of C sorority.