People often ask me, as if I’m somehow lying to them, How can you love your sorority and be a feminist? To me, that question misses the point entirely: I feel no conflict, because to me, sororities are feminist.
I watched the University of Alabama Alpha Phi recruitment video, released last week, with horror and frustration, but very little surprise. I was mainly shocked that this particular video happened to go viral. Most sorority recruitment videos are exactly the same. Spoiler: They all feature frolicking, flouncy-haired girls—who are usually white—dressed like carbon copies of each other, while bland pop music plays over their soundless laughter. In these videos, being brunette counts as transgressive.
Yet no matter how many recruitment videos I see, I never fail to feel disappointment. What are these videos’ intended messages? What type of sisterhood and values do these sororities think they’re selling? Because they don’t look interested in ideals. All they seem to want to say is, Look at us having fun!
What these videos actually tell prospective members is much more insidious. Recruitment videos like Alpha Phi’s say, Be thin. Be straight. Be white. Have long hair. They say, Your greatest aspiration in life should be to be conventionally pretty. They say, We do not celebrate difference. If you are not like us thin, straight, longhaired white girls, you are not welcome.
This is beyond infuriating to me. I know sororities can do better, because my membership in one has been better. Furthermore, I know that this image will not help fight the popular and inaccurate opinion that sororities are the antithesis of feminism.
Disclaimer #1: I am one of those thin, straight, longhaired white girls. (Though I am brunette.) Disclaimer #2: My experience of sororities is not everyone’s experience, or even the experience of people who look like me. But just like everyone else’s, it is valid.
Unlike many sorority women I know, I came to college knowing I wanted to join Greek life. I can’t exactly explain why—I knew very few people who’d gone Greek. My dad had belonged to a fraternity, but he’s not the type to flash his chapter ring. Maybe it was the fact that many of my childhood babysitters had belonged to sororities at a nearby university and they were women I wanted to emulate. Maybe I just really liked The House Bunny.
Or maybe, as an Ani DiFranco-loving baby feminist, I saw sororities as feminist acts and spaces. In an era where women in academia were barely tolerated, sororities were founded as places where women who wanted to learn, to contribute to their communities and to improve themselves could support one another. “We had no chance to blossom forth in a free atmosphere of encouragement and approval,” wrote Alpha Phi co-founder Martha Emily Foote Crow of her fellow women students at Syracuse University. Helen Mary Dodge, a co-founder of Gamma Phi Beta and another Syracuse student, wrote that the women “needed a social center, a place of conference, a tie which should unite us in the midst of a more or less hostile atmosphere, a circle of friends who could sympathize with each other in the perplexities of our situation.”
Were these sororities exclusive and marginalizing? Undoubtedly. They were imperfect, as all feminist spaces continue to be. But I believed then, as I believe now, in the power of friendship amongst women—and in the potential of modern-day sororities to do what their founders couldn’t: create an intersectional space to discuss social issues and improve the quality of life for women in college.
I joined a sorority where I felt most myself, even in the crazed emotional marathon that is recruitment. And I found a clan of women willing to love me for who I am, as long as I repaid the favor.
When I underwent a difficult breakup, a sister left a chocolate bar, a bouquet of white flowers and a handwritten card on my desk. When my mom had to cut a visit short, my roommate took me to dinner with her family. Sororities are often considered a breeding ground of Regina Georges, but my experience has been anything but. The Greek women I know—in my sorority and others—are strong, smart and complex. They have perspectives on everything from the racial politics of the prison industrial complex to the tastiest kind of Luna Bar. They connected me to excellent jobs and future friends. And they are far from being a homogenous group of thin, straight, longhaired white girls.
I don’t want to pretend that my sorority involvement has been perfect. Many of the rules and practices in Greek life are far from empowering; every centuries-old system is flawed. Yet many of my sorority sisters—many of whom identify as feminists and activists—work to challenge these and other injustices. They’re involved in a variety of campus causes, like improving students’ understanding of consent and fighting mental health stigmas.
Whenever I think of how inspired I am by these women, two conversations always come to mind. First, my sorority, like many others, outlaws men from entering the house past a certain time—a rule I once forgot and broke, for which I was gently rebuked. (The shadow of Ted Bundy’s gruesome murders at a Florida sorority looms large.) At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Yet I found out later that my sisters remembered the incident and brought up the rule at a chapter-wide discussion, igniting a conversation about its subtle sexism and heteronormativity. They stood up both for me, when I didn’t even know I needed to be defended, and for their own feminist principles and independence.
Second, at another chapter-wide discussion, one member brought up the language we use around dessert, and how we may inadvertently cause insecurity in each other by debating whether or not we “deserve” to eat a cookie. We talked about how we can be more considerate of one another, even in seemingly inconsequential conversation, and stop contributing to the patriarchal matrix that links beauty, weight and worth. As someone who has always struggled with my body image, hearing my sisters openly discuss a topic I found taboo was revelatory and liberating. Because of my sorority sisters, many of whom are younger than me but infinitely more perceptive and self-possessed, I have learned to be kinder to other women and to myself.
My sorority is not unique in this. Greek women across the country are not oblivious to the tangled relationship between sexism and the Greek system, of some sororities’ shift from promoting feminism to femininity. They fight for change, such as speaking up and organizing against sexual assault. Even Total Sorority Move, a sorority women-run website that functions as a religious text for many in Greek life, frequently stands up for feminism and gender equality. Sororities’ efforts to better themselves and to enact social change need to recognized, even as these efforts must be pushed infinitely further.
In fact, at a time when awareness of issues of rape and race on campus is at an all-time high, sororities may be needed more than ever. Since these problems are especially prevalent in the Greek system, Greek women need to take more responsibility and action. We need to quit making tone-deaf videos that fail to highlight leadership, service and diversity, and to begin reclaiming sororities as inclusive and thought-provoking feminist spaces.
But everyone else needs to take more responsibility and action, too. Don’t like the Greek system? No one is required to go Greek. But stop the knee-jerk, blanket attack on sororities as incompatible with feminism. Don’t say anyone who enjoys her sorority involvement must be a “bimbo,” as the original article criticizing the Alpha Phi video implied. Sniping at other women’s choices does not a legitimate critique make.
Yes, the sorority system and image need a lot of rehabilitation. Yet Greek life provides women with valuable and unique opportunities to expand their horizons, feminist and otherwise. Let’s stop writing sororities off, and start asking for more.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.