Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does this sorority make me look bad? Why Greek life shouldn’t discredit your feminism

“Oh, you were in a sorority? (long pause) That makes sense.”

What is it? My bright blonde hair? The way I talk? Do I just seem like a sorority girl (whatever that means)? But the better question is, why does my Greek association always seem to discredit me in some way?

I’ll admit it: I was (and technically will always be) an Alpha Phi. I rushed and became a member of the sorority when I was 18, the week before I became a freshman at UC Davis. My college experience knew nothing else. I was Vice President of Marketing, where I helped raise over $8,000 dollars for charities related to women’s heart health. I eventually became President, where I did more than I can even recall. Sadly, post-college, these confessions typically embarrass me and I just pretend Alpha Phi didn’t exist in my life. But why?

The recent publication of a sorority’s pre-rush “beauty standards” reminds me exactly why. This story spread like wildfire to media outlets, on Facebook, and throughout Twitter. The “standards” put in place by this chapter not only create unhealthy images for the young women in the chapter but produce a dramatically repulsive image of sororities. Because of publications like this, Greek life naysayers have effortlessly concocted a one-dimensional view of sorority sisters – one of rigid beauty standards, promiscuous costumes, and guzzling alcohol with their favorite fraternities. And who can blame them? I’m the first to agree that there are some extremely crucial problems plaguing fraternities and sororities at both a university and national level. But should those issues define who I am just because I was involved in a similar organization?

Sororities were initially founded when women were considered unqualified for higher education and men dominated college campuses. Sororities became a way for women to connect intellectually and socially -- they would meet to pray, sing, and write poetry together. While this is a stark contrast to the stereotypical vision of the modern day sorority girl, the foundational principle of connecting on a deeper level with other women still exists. I’ve experienced firsthand that sorority involvement can actually enhance feminism (as it did mine) in certain ways:

1. Sororities can give you the opportunity to surround yourself with strong and diverse women who share many of the same goals and values as you (and other feminists). The young ladies I surrounded myself with were of all different shapes, sizes, ages, races, religions, sexualities, etc. The diversity of women contributed to the richness of the environment and taught us how to respect and appreciate each other’s differences as women and as adults. Further, the majority was also intelligent and driven, constantly pushing me to be the best I could be.

2. Sororities also give women a support structure during and after college. They can provide connections as well as academic, professional, and social support. Not only did I make lifelong friends as an Alpha Phi, I was also encouraged by fellow sisters to attain academic excellence and received assistance navigating my professional life from both peers and alumnae.

3. These organizations allow you to experience all aspects of “femininity." Because my sorority had over 120 members, I quickly learned that every woman was truly unique in her own way. It encouraged me to accept all aspects of femininity – those considered  both “traditional” and “untraditional"- and the relative lack of it.

Although Greek Life may perpetuate gender roles in certain ways, it can actually encourage feminism in young women as well. At the end of the day, it’s true: “Stereotypes of sororities are more dangerous to womanhood than sororities themselves.” Feminism is not only women’s equality but also the right for women to make their own choices. Just because some women choose to join a sorority does not mean they should be considered inferior feminists.

As I have readily admitted, some of the habits traditionally enforced by sororities may preserve some antiquated gender roles. However, it also needs to be understood that an organization dedicated solely to women can have feminist advantages, too. Becoming a member of a sorority was a choice I made and something that shouldn’t embarrass me or discredit my belief in gender equality. Rather, the women I created relationships with and the organization I was a part of only fueled my desire to become a powerful, independent female who defies gender stereotypes. So, contrary to popular belief, being in a sorority didn’t make me an inferior feminist; it made me a better one than I used to be. And, that's not something to be embarrassed about.


Ahva said...

I agree with you that these sorts of stereotypes about sororities are damaging to feminism. As you say, while there may be certain events or practices within certain sorority chapters or among a few sisters that give Greek life a bad name, it sounds like it can also be an atmosphere within which women can bond and feminism can thrive. Relatedly, I firmly believe that women in general need to stop tearing each other down. We see so much of this in the media -- slut-shaming, pitting celebrities against each other ("Which celebrity has the better butt?"). Girls and women also commonly disparage other females that they feel threatened by. I think it is these practices, and not belonging to a certain group (such as a sorority), that discredits feminism.

Jessica S. said...

Sororities and fraternities have been implicated in campus rape by a few administrators using the old "alcohol=asking for it" excuse. Also, the media seems to be highlighting hazing and preoccupation with physical appearance, and not mentioning examples of chapters dedicated to improving the local social climate (I know of a frat fighting gang membership and sexual violence). Along the lines of what you both said, I think more people need to reevaluate their views on the purpose of a sorority. Perhaps it would help foster healthy chapters, and allow problem ones to be spotted before damaging stereotypes are perpetuated by their actions.

Hart Ku said...

Before matriculating at our current university, I had never attended a school with a vibrant Greek system. I'm largely ignorant of how fraternities and sororities shape campus culture, for better or for worse. So I have to qualify my comments by admitting that I can really only speak to stereotypes.

To some extent I'm not surprised that sororities have become an easy target. Men (particularly of college age) are unaccustomed to facing organized and coordinated groups of women. Men are unused to seeing women -- many of whom may be just finding their voice for the first time -- speak and act in a safe environment, supported in numbers by their "sisters" or "family."

As to why some women dislike sororities, I imagine its for similar reasons that some men can dislike fraternities. A sorority can be perceived as too conservative/traditional, or too concerned with empowering its own members over empowering women overall. Sororities can be perceived as imposing and perpetuating social status hierarchies within the female student body, or at least among different sororities. At least this is the message that popular culture seems to convey.

But, ultimately, I agree that sororities don't get the credit they deserve, and they don't get taken seriously enough for helping countless women gain more confidence and support for their endeavors, whatever they may be. Just like one doesn't need to love organized religion to recognize the good they can do in poverty-alleviation and health care, I think sororities can represent an extremely valuable mechanism for the feminist movement. One that the movement probably can't afford to dismiss.

Rebecca F. said...

Generally, I agree that the stereotypes surrounding sororities (and women's organizations in general) are more damaging to feminism than the organizations themselves. I have personally experienced this harm - people have taken my education less seriously because I graduated from a women's college, assuming that my courses were easier or that I did not have to work as hard as someone at a co-ed institution. And I agree that women who choose to participate in women's organizations that sometimes encourage traditional gender roles should not be discredited or deemed "inferior feminists" (great phrase by the way).

But on a micro level, I have a hard time accepting that sororities like the one that published that beauty standard are actually achieving a net positive for feminism. I appreciate the concern that women should not tear down or belittle other women, but I think it is appropriate to criticize particular approaches that are harming young women and reinforcing the same kinds of stereotypes that we are trying to fight at the macro level. Calling attention to harmful behavior and striving to be better does not have to discredit the positive benefits that women can achieve in those same organizations.

Sara said...

As a fellow graduate of a women's college, I agree with Rebecca's comment that people discredit single sex education as less challenging, and similarly discredit the value of sororities.

All four years of college, I lived on campus, in a single sex dormitory. Though not a sorority per se, I was similarly surrounded by strong and diverse women, and my dorm experience had many of the qualities that Sophie described in her post. Ultimately, I think it's the few incidents (or sorority chapters) that give a bad name to sororities in general.