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The Sisterhood: Are sororities feminist organizations?

April 24th, 2010     by Allison Martell     Issue 14: Issue 14: Beyond the Birds and the Bees     Comments

It’s a September evening, and a small classroom at the University of Toronto holds about 30 young women. They might be more conventionally attractive, a bit better dressed than average, but mostly they look like any group of undergrads. A lone guy settles in to wait for the lecture to start. After an awkward minute, someone tells him that he is in the wrong room. After all, this is an information meeting about sororities.

Many students don’t even know that sororities exist in Canada. With this meeting, and dozens like it across the country every fall, sorority sisters set out to change that. They are after more than visibility.

The theme for this fall’s recruitment at the University of Toronto is “break the stereotype.” No one at the meeting needs that stereotype spelled out. Some classmates think these women are dumb, sexually promiscuous and only interested in partying. Others will say that sorority girls are spoiled brats who have to buy their friends.

“Break the stereotype” is well in line with the National Panhellenic Conference’s public relations strategy. This umbrella group for 26 sororities and women’s fraternities — the terms are used interchangeably — is based in Indianapolis, but sets policy for chapters in Canada. The formal recruitment process at U of T is run by NPC rules, and the Conference is in the midst of an energetic, if not entirely successful, public relations offensive, designed to convince students, parents and university administrators that sororities can be a positive force on campus, not just a magnet for underage drinking.

To distance itself from past scandals, the NPC has changed its vocabulary. The process by which you join a sorority is no longer called “rush,” but the more professional-sounding “recruitment.” Girls who accept bids are no longer pledges, but “potential new members.” Hazing is strictly forbidden and broadly defined. Sororities are using language about female empowerment that wouldn’t be out of place in most feminist organizations. U of T sororities promise “classroom to boardroom life skills,” networking and leadership opportunities, and mentorship from alumnae.

Back at the meeting, two sorority leaders assure us that the parties that make up recruitment are not about being accepted or rejected — it’s a process of “mutual selection.” On bid day, it’s implied — if not quite promised — that everyone will be invited to join a sorority. Partway through, one of the recruitment leaders goes to some lengths to note that same-sex couples are welcome at sorority events that require a date, like a formal dance (“You can invite a guy, girl, whatever, someone who’s more than a friend”). As the meeting wraps up, two girls discover that they are in the same computer programming class. A third mentions that she plans to major in women’s studies.

At first glance, those stereotypes are looking pretty fragile. It’s certainly hard to square them with the enthusiasm that these young women have for their sororities. So are sororities empowering, feminist organizations, or destructive, conformist cults? The answer probably lies somewhere between these extremes. It might be different in Canada and the US. And it seems to vary between sororities, chapters and even individuals.

Fraternities have been a part of university campuses since the 18th century. At first, they were secret societies for America’s elite young men. As women began to attend university late in the 19th century, they were shut out, and began to form their own fraternities. Fraternities, women’s fraternities and sororities, no longer secret societies, are all called “Greek letter organizations.” Today a dizzying constellation of organizations, customs and hierarchies is referred to as “the Greek system.”

Anyone can form an organization and call it a sorority. Some have only one chapter, while others have almost 200. Some chapters own actual houses, others do not. The largest sororities are run by a central office that collects dues, sets rules and employs staff, and are governed by elected members.

Some sororities belong to umbrella groups like the NPC, and others are independent. Quite separate from these international umbrella groups, some or all of the Greek chapters on any given campus might form local umbrella groups in the form of “pan-hellenic” committees that organize the process of rush and big social events together. Sorority members are privy to “secret” passwords, mottos or handshakes and participate in closed rituals to induct new members and mark sisters’ achievements.

Many sororities run parallel organizations for their graduates and graduates play a role in advising collegiate sorority chapters. Some US universities officially recognize sororities as part of the campus and employ Greek advisors, campus staff that support the Greek system, but in Canada sororities are primarily an unofficial part of student life.


When sororities hit the news, it’s generally when they’re at their worst. One woman alleges that two of her sorority sisters, enraged by her strong religious convictions about premarital sex, drugged her and arranged for her to be raped. Two pledges drowned after apparently being led into the ocean for an initiation ritual, blindfolded and bound. Staff from a sorority’s national office expelled most of a DePauw University chapter of their sorority, leaving only the skinny, conventionally attractive sisters — half of whom then quit in disgust.

These are exceptional cases, all from the US, but they all took place after 2000. Research into sorority life isn’t encouraging. Studies from the US show that while sorority alumnae are more likely to donate to their university, they are also more likely to drink while they are students — and drink more often — than non-members. They are much more likely to be raped, even compared to other women who frequent fraternity parties. They are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders.

But statistics aside, it’s hard to be critical of sororities while chatting with Teresa Ferreira. Home from Carleton University for the weekend, Ferreira is working at her parents’ takeout restaurant in Toronto’s Little Portugal.

Perched on a stool in the middle of the kitchen, as pots and pans crash around her, Ferreira talks about how she found her place in Carleton’s Greek system. When she talks about joining Delta Psi Delta, a small independent sorority with chapters in Toronto and Ottawa, she is confident and enthusiastic. But in her first year at Carleton, she struggled.

“I was having the hardest time ever trying to make friends, and that’s really weird, because usually I make friends so easily,” says Ferreira. “But I got to university, and it was like, 300 kids in my class, kind of overwhelming.”

Sorority women across Canada tell similar stories, especially those from big, urban universities.

“What joining a sorority does for U of T and other bigger campuses is it takes a big campus and makes it small,” says Sabrina Zuniga, president of the Toronto Area Alumnae Panhellenic, which in part advises student leaders in Ontario’s NPC sororities.

“I’ve heard from a lot of girls, a lot at U of T, that joining the sorority is what kept them at U of T,” says Zuniga.

After seeing some classmates at Carleton wearing Greek lettered clothing, Ferreira hit Google and decided to attend rush in the second semester of her first year.

“At first I was like, I’m not sure I’m going to like this. But I actually fell in love with it,” she says. Now in her second year, Ferreira is in charge of social activities and rituals, and she serves on Carleton’s Greek Council. She is heading for a career in criminal law, and hopes that the relationships she has built in her sorority will help.

As sorority boosters tell it, the professional benefits of Greek membership come from both the skills developed while organizing chapter events, and from networking with fellow members and alumnae. Zuniga argues that the day-to-day business of belonging to a sorority — from staging rituals to planning parties — builds skills.

“It can be very serious things, and it can be very frivolous things. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but the organizational and the leadership skills are the same,” she says.

This seems to be a central tenet of sorority life. But in an age when university students found web start-ups and do medical research, there are plenty of other ways to gain skills.

Many sorority members assume their leadership in the Greek system will qualify them for jobs in the outside world. But when they’re not talking about the benefits of membership, they also argue that the world can be ignorant, even hostile, towards sorority members. If it’s true that sororities have a bad reputation, deserved or not, affiliation seems as likely to hurt as help the average job applicant.

As much as sororities claim to empower women in the workplace and beyond, plenty of committed critics remain skeptical. Alexandra Robbins, an American journalist and author, spent a year living at an NPC sorority and then wrote Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, about a group of anonymous sisters who helped her go under cover. Robbins argues that sororities are destructive, conformist institutions that hurt members’ self-esteem and cut them off from their non-sorority peers.

Many Canadian sororities are chapters of predominantly American organizations, but they can escape some of the disadvantages of their southern neighbours. Recruitment is much less competitive here, which takes the pressure off. And plenty of Canadian sororities are, like Ferreira’s, small and independent, without an expensive American head office.

Dues for small or single-chapter sororities are substantially lower than for NPC chapters because there is no international bureaucracy to support. Dues for new members at U of T’s NPC sororities are mostly well over $500, and Delta Delta Delta initiates pay $1,121.

At Delta Psi Delta, annual dues are only $100. (Sorority life does have financial benefits, though — members get a great deal on rent, $200–$300/month in Toronto, where most students would pay closer to $600.)

Not all fundraising is for the sorority itself. According to the NPC, philanthropy is a pillar of sorority life. Robbins argues that in most cases, philanthropy is an afterthought, inspiring only a couple of fundraisers each year and very little actual service, but this varies. Ferreira’s sorority volunteers at the food bank and runs monthly fundraisers, and new members run a fundraiser as part of their initiation.

For young women interested in community service and international sisterhood but turned off by the NPC, there is an alternative: sororities that belong to the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), an umbrella group for nine historically black fraternities and sororities.

In the US, early sororities were formally segregated. Officially, all sororities now welcome all students. But in practice, many campuses, especially in the South, remain almost entirely segregated between historically white NPC sororities, and historically black NPHC sororities (there are also smaller parallel systems for Latino, Asian and Native students). In Canada, while there are no NPHC organizations to join, sororities are more integrated.

But Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest historically black sorority, is looking to expand in Canada. NPHC sororities continue to accept new members after university, and the Ontario graduate chapter now has 23 active members. They want to launch a collegiate chapter, likely at the University of Windsor.

Terri Coleman, president of the Ontario graduate chapter, makes a convincing case for the organization. Listening to her, it’s hard to imagine why the rest of the Greek system isn’t using the NPHC as a model for reform. “We’re a service organization, and that’s our main thrust,” says Coleman, who joined her sorority when she was attending college in Indiana in the 1970s. She says Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest NPHC sorority, was vital to her success in a hostile environment.

The international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha sets ambitious four-year service agendas. Graduating sorors — as the members of historically black sororities are called — are encouraged to stay involved. “It’s a lifelong commitment, and it really gets more intense after you leave college, because you are obligated to give back to various communities because of the education that you obtained,” says Coleman. While the majority of members are women of colour, all women are welcome.


When we debate the merits of sororities, we are really talking about whether they are feminist, whether they use the word or not. In this debate both sides, to varying degrees, claim feminism is on their side.

“It depends how you define feminist,” says Zuniga, “To be a feminist means that you support women, and so in that regard, yeah, [sororities are] very much feminist organizations…. Sororities do tons to empower women, just tons.”

But Robbins accuses sororities of practicing “fake feminism.”

“Sororities claim to be for, by, and about women, and committed to the bonds of sisterhood,” she says. “But then they hold fast to antiquated rules, some of which are sexist and/or regressive, and strip from sisters their sense of self-empowerment. How do groupthink, conformity and quotas further feminism? Why can’t you have a true sisterhood even if you don’t bring in enough dues or members to continue to maintain a house?”

Plenty of sorority members do not identify as feminists. But there is a diversity of views.

“The main reason sororities started was to break through from the oppression that men had put women under. If that’s what you mean by a feminist organization, then yes, sororities are feminist organizations,” says Vivian Zhang, a member of Gamma Phi Beta at U of T. “Being a part of a sorority allowed me to believe in myself and tell the rest of the world that whatever it has coming to me, I can face it. Other people can think what they think.”


Allison Martell was a member of Shameless’s first teen editorial board, in 2004. Now she is a journalist living and working in Toronto.

Greek pop culture

Sororities have long made fine fodder for film and television, and, more recently, Facebook games, with mixed results. Here’s a sample.

Amp up b4 u score

This iPhone app, released in October 2009, was supposed to market Pepsi but instead it managed to offend women everywhere. The program, which offers seduction tips for 24 types of women, relies heavily on Wikipedia and a lot of awful one-liners, and doesn’t even succeed as a witty parody of itself. In the “sorority girl” section, we’re assured that “this shouldn’t be a problem.”

Greek

This ABC comedy/drama probably exaggerates the drunken mayhem of Greek life and does not shy away from dim sorority girl stereotypes. Save for one stock geeky character, nobody ever seems to go to class. But there’s a reason sororities all over North America host parties to watch the show — it finds some comedy, and some meaning, in Greek life, and refuses to come down entirely for or against the institutions it portrays.

Sorority Row

This predictable slasher flick was released in September 2009, but it should never have been offered a bid. Five sorority girls accidentally kill one of their sisters and cover up her death, but they can’t save themselves from grisly retribution. The movie was panned by critics, and even the director Stewart Handler was quoted in Newsweek worrying about the studio’s obsession with removing his stars’ shirts, saying that the studio “wanted as much skin as possible, ‘cause it’s an R-rated movie, and you want to deliver to the audience that signs up for that.”

Sorority Life

This Facebook game has more than seven million monthly users who join and create virtual sorority houses, duelling to level up social status, finances and wardrobes. The game is a barely disguised trap for your personal information — you can complete surveys about your brand preferences to earn “brownie points” in the game, or buy more brownie points with real money. Probably best not to get sucked in to this world, which resembles actual sorority life in name only.

So you want to join a sorority?

You’ve looked past the stereotypes to a life of sisterhood you think may be for you. Here are some issues to consider and questions to ask before you go pulling that lettered sweater over your head, and some tips for after you do.

  • Avoid pledging in your first fall at university. At the beginning of school, it can be difficult to know what you want, so it’s not the best time to be making more decisions than you have to. If you join a sorority later, like in your second year, you will have a better idea of what you’re looking for. You’ll also give yourself a chance to develop a life outside the sorority, which is a good idea no matter how enthusiastic you are.
  • When considering houses, be on the lookout for warning signs: Do all of the girls look similar? Are they uniformly skinny? All white? If so, you might be walking into a high-pressure, conformist environment.
  • Make sure you understand what all of your commitments would be to the sorority. What are the dues? What happens if you cannot afford to pay your dues? Can you deactivate temporarily, or will you be kicked out forever? Are there fines for minor infractions like missing meetings?
  • During recruitment, be yourself. If you want to find a good match, you need to find a place where the real you will fit in.
  • Thankfully, sorority hazing has become passé on most campuses, but if you should find yourself in a situation that looks like a cruel initiation ritual from days of yore, hightail it out of there and file a report. In just about all cases, hazing will be against the policies of your university, your chapter, your international sorority and even the law.
  • Remember your brain. Drunk driving, climbing on roofs and swimming in the dark are dangerous even if you’re with your new sisters. It’s easier to talk yourself into risky behaviour when everyone is doing it, but that still doesn’t mean it’s smart.
  • Enjoy yourself. Above all, sorority life should be a pleasure, not a job. So whatever you do, make sure you’re having fun!

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