Greek life on college campuses is generally recognized as a social hotspot, known for its rampant drinking and party culture. Less widely known is the fact that only fraternities are hosting parties and serving alcohol because, according to the National Panhellenic Conference, none of the 26 national sororities are allowed to. The rationale? According to the director of harm reduction for Zeta Tau Alpha, a national sorority, such parties would interfere with the “intimately decorated” interior of sorority houses.
A story recently published in The New York Times highlighted a unique situation at Dartmouth College, in which a local sorority, Sigma Delta, is rejecting tradition and throwing its own parties.
Because Sigma Delta is not affiliated with a national Panhellenic sorority, it isn’t subject to the rules and procedures of the conference. Sigma Delta member Anna Sherman-Weiss, a Dartmouth junior, says she was given the impression that Sigma Delta became local in the late ’80s in part because the young women were frustrated with the patriarchal, puritanical and heteronormative conventions ingrained in sororities affiliated with national chapters. She fondly (and feministly!) describes Sigma Delta as “a group of women who have come together because they believe in equality, justice and in creating an inclusive and diverse community.”
Sherman-Weiss, who proudly employs the term “freshwoman” rather than “freshman,” explains that the group’s decision to host parties and serve alcohol was primarily based on its desire to develop a female-dominated social space—an attribute that has become integral to its identity as a sorority house. While hosting parties was not the members’ only reason for “going local,” providing a safe space for all students, especially women, was certainly a crucial factor. She says of her sorority,
It’s a place for women on a historically male campus to have a space to feel empowered and to learn from each other. It’s a place where women can go if they do not want to be a part of the mainstream fraternity social scene. It’s a place where strong women can create an inclusive community.
The Times article failed to include many of the notable qualities of Sigma Delta’s sisterhood, instead focusing on women hosting their own parties as a means of protection. The article, entitled “Sorority Anti-Rape Idea: Drinking on Own Turf,” frames the story as if the women in Sigma Delta began throwing parties solely to avoid potentially dangerous situations at fraternity houses. The piece questioned the girls’ motives in relation to rape culture on college campuses: Are these women bending under societal pressure to alter their own behavior instead of placing blame on the young men who make them feel unsafe? Is this just another version of the “watch what you wear” cliche?
Admittedly, there have been numerous instances linking fraternities to violence against women. Frats at schools across the country, including Duke and the University of Virginia, have recently made news because of alleged rapes. Dartmouth’s fraternity culture in particular has received harsh public backlash during the last decade because of incidents involving sexual assault and severe hazing rituals. Multiple studies have also shown that a higher incidence of sexual assault on college campuses occurs at fraternity parties, or at the hands of men in fraternities. In light of this, it seems reasonable that young women in sororities might want to host parties on their own terms for safety’s sake.
But that is not to say that sorority-run parties arose as an “anti-rape” strategy. The Times seemed to overlook the possibility that this group of women simply wants the option to host parties that they can control, in the same way as fraternities do.
The Panhellenic rules against sororities hosting parties implies that women either cannot or should not assume responsibility for social gatherings. Instead, they must only be guests in a space literally owned by a brotherhood. This dynamic has certainly contributed to the flagrant gender hierarchy present within Greek communities. Says Dartmouth sophomore Liz Klein,
The actual system itself creates a control and power imbalance between genders. There is something intrinsically uncomfortable about having to be let in to somebody’s house if it’s always a man granting admission.
Sherman-Weiss vividly remembered these feelings as a freshwoman attending Dartmouth fraternity parties (she wasn’t allowed to join a sorority yet). In comparison, hosting and attending Sigma Delta parties is quite different:
It was very important for me to have a social space where I could feel less of a passive or vulnerable visitor in a place where I had no control, and more of an active agent and host able to address a situation that made me or anyone else uncomfortable.
The automatic reaction to Greek women cultivating their own self-governing space should not be to assume that they only did so as protection against men’s actions. Instead, the women of Sigma Delta are fostering a social setting where they can feel not just safe but empowered.