A Fourth Sorority?

Sororities can’t help but perpetuate a social club scene that discriminates against women

Since the first sorority was established at Harvard in 1992, this year marks the largest rush class of female freshmen in the University’s history.

Typically, sorority rush classes number around 150; this year, however, the total was 268—a number so large that each of the three sororities on campus—Kappa Alpha Theta, Delta Gamma, and Kappa Kappa Gamma—have extended more bids to more women. Eight years ago, for instance, sororities accepted about 20 women each; now, the three organizations are accepting almost 60 women apiece, illustrating a rising demand for sorority life on campus. In response to that demand, Harvard’s Panhellenic Council—the governing body of the three campus sororities—is considering the possibility of establishing yet another sorority on campus, perhaps as early as next year.

Although sororities ideally foster sisterhood and empower women, sororities at our college are not unequivocally successful at doing this, and we are thus ambivalent about another sorority colonizing at Harvard.

As historian Diana B. Turk has written, since the creation of the first sorority in the mid-19th century, these organizations have enabled college women to “navigate collectively the perils of coeducational life.” As Turk points out, when women have confronted academic and social environments hostile to their presence throughout American history, sororities have often been the only organizations that have enabled them to carve out a place for themselves on University campuses. We have no doubt that, for some, sororities can still serve that function today.

However, Harvard’s sororities will never achieve this ideal; they will never become as deeply entrenched or as successful as sororities on other college campuses. At other schools, the rush and pledge process is much more intensive, and aspiring members often spend an entire term getting to know their sororities’ upperclassmen as well as their fellow pledges. To say the least, this is hardly the case at Harvard, where rush is only one week, pledging is similarly dialed down, and the sororities do not provide residential space for members. Even though two of Harvard’s three current sororities are in the process of purchasing real estate in and around Harvard Square, that space will never be used to provide the tight-knit sense of community that naturally comes from shared living arrangements. In short, the sorts of bonds Harvard’s sororities attempt to cultivate among members need more than weekly chapter meetings to develop, and given the unusually large size of this year’s rush classes, the close sisterhood experience seems even more difficult to achieve.

Finally, the University continues to respect Title IX and, because of gender exclusion, will never grant these organizations the legitimacy they need to become as effective as they often are elsewhere. The Harvard sorority experience, therefore, will always be significantly less meaningful than it would be at a peer institution.

This fundamental fact calls into question the notion that more women are interested in joining sororities merely because these organizations provide them with an outlet for community on campus. Instead, we suspect that more women are interested in Greek life because it helps them find a foothold in a social environment that, to this day, shamefully permeates gender discrimination at America’s oldest University and affords them no other option. In 2003, when the Panhellenic Council established Kappa Kappa Gamma, its third-ever sorority, one woman told The Crimson that, as a freshman girl, “you get caught up in the final club scene, and you think to yourself how great it would be if you could have an equivalent.” This week, another went so far as to say that she was compelled to rush merely because so many others were: “I definitely think that having so many people interested made me more interested,” she said. In the sense that sororities are organizations that encourage women to accept the gender divisions that exist on Harvard’s campus rather than to challenge them, sororities often seem to perpetuate Harvard’s anachronistic and male-dominated social scene.

Although sororities have select social events throughout the year—Delta Gamma’s Anchor Bowl and its campus-wide party Eden come to mind—many sorority social events seem to be held in conjunction with or at male social clubs, the latter applying also to rush events. Consequently, even though different women obviously have different motives for joining sororities, among incoming freshmen there seems to be the perception that one function of a sorority is to serve as a gateway into the elite world of the male final clubs, a world none of these women have any hope of entering when they become sophomores.

With this in mind, it is discouraging to see that Harvard women are turning to Greek life to circumvent the structural gender inequity in the College’s social life. Although the mission of all sororities is not to engage in the sort of exclusion that journalist Alexandra Robbins chronicled in “Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities,” the effect of Greek life on a place like Harvard is not to be taken lightly. Thus, we are not convinced that the addition of a fourth sorority comes anywhere close to addressing what we believe to be the larger and more important problem: the problem of gender division in Harvard’s social space. Indeed, another sorority might even add to that problem by further enforcing those regrettable divisions.

The surge in this year’s rush class should serve as a warning call to the College to facilitate adequate social options within its recognized organizations. The University must address its failure in providing adequate social spaces that would conceivably obviate this rising demand for social organizations that discriminate along gender lines. Given the obvious effect of exclusive, male-only organizations like final clubs, the time has come for the University to go beyond renouncing its ties to such institutions and to provide alternatives that would welcome all Harvard students, regardless of gender.

CLARIFICATION: The Feb. 10 staff ed "The Fourth Sorority" incorrectly suggested that the University does not recognize fraternities and sororities due to Title IX. Title IX, in fact, makes and exception for fraternities and sororities. The Crimson Staff should have specified that the University respects "the spirit of Title IX."

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