My freshman year, I cried on the walk home from the activities fair. There were so many organizations on campus, each with a complicated-sounding process for joining and all of which seemed to demand talents and skills that I wasn’t sure I had. I’d come to the activities fair looking for a community where I could find the lifelong friends I was supposed to be making in college, and left feeling more alone and inadequate than ever.
Sorority recruitment that February was a turning point for me. Here was a group of women offering the community I’d been seeking. I was amazed by the time that my new sisters devoted to actually being there for each other in a way that I hadn’t yet experienced at Harvard. I felt welcomed, heard, supported, understood, and authentically known. Judging from the outpouring of support for sororities from women on Facebook after the College announced it would sanction sororities, I am not alone in feeling this way.
To clarify a few misconceptions about sororities on Harvard’s campus: the recruitment process is open to any woman on campus who chooses to go through the process, and women must rush all four sororities. Recruitment is a mutual-selection process, meaning that the preferences of the potential new members are weighed as equally as the preferences of members. There are no date events included in the process, and each event is intentionally structured to allow each woman to meet just as many members as everyone else participating. Women who go through recruitment overwhelmingly receive a bid to one of the four sororities (notably, at a significantly higher rate than is reported by The Crimson, as that number includes the nearly 60 women who elected to drop out of the process this year.)
That said, no woman in a sorority could claim that our organizations are perfect, or that we somehow speak for all women of Harvard College. Just because recruitment is formally open does not by any means invalidate the feelings of discomfort and isolation experienced by those who don’t feel they fit the stereotypical sorority “mold,” nor does it lessen our very real burden to continually make ourselves more inclusive, accessible, and diverse. This is a dialogue being had throughout the sorority community: Since before the College’s policy announcement, efforts have been underway to guarantee that any woman who goes through formal recruitment in 2017 will be guaranteed a bid from one of the sororities. As it stands now, approximately 600 women on campus, or 20 percent of the women at Harvard College, are active members of sororities and there is infinite potential for expansion to meet demand.
Sorority women at Harvard represent a wide range of socioeconomic, geographic, ideological, academic, and racial backgrounds. Many members take a campus job, work in a lab, or as PAFs to offset their dues, and a limited amount of financial aid is available. Unfortunately, without the financial support from the College that many on-campus organizations receive, it is not economically viable to reduce these dues by much. It is also our responsibility to acknowledge the impossible financial burden these dues create for many women who opt not to go through recruitment. In not recognizing sororities, Harvard College has actively contributed to the monetary cost of being in a sorority, which is undeniably prohibitive to some women on campus. Many of the expenses associated with sorority membership could be reduced dramatically if Harvard allowed us certain privileges afforded to recognized organizations, like the ability to use campus space for hosting meetings and formals.
This is not to say that sororities are perfect institutions (we aren’t), but that we are an example of what a single-gender organization working towards inclusivity on this campus might look like. Yes, we must work to be less cost-prohibitive. Yes, we must work to make recruitment feel more welcoming and inclusive, and to fight the stereotype of privilege that accompanies “Greek life” across the country. Yes, we have areas to improve upon. And yes, we must be willing to have these conversations. Fortunately, if you listen closely, these discussions really are happening within women’s organizations across campus.
The administration, in handing down a blanket decision that failed to account for the critical differences between the missions, values, and recruitment processes of sororities and final clubs, missed an opportunity to work with sororities to make this campus and our social organizations a more welcoming place for all. There are so many things that sororities do on campus that the institutions recognized by Harvard do not. Sororities offer friendship that is not contingent upon success in an extracurricular activity, provide a purely social space that is accessible to students, and create support groups for women in a large-scale way that is otherwise lacking on campus. Given the current scope of communities on campus, these are not things we can afford to lose.
Harvard is a hard place. It can be a lonely place. It is a place where true community is hard to come by, and where all too often community is a talking point rather than a way of life. Sorority women should not have to choose between the community that we have worked hard to create and leadership positions on campus.
My contention is not that sororities are perfect organizations. We certainly have room for improvement and are willing to actively work to foster a more inclusive, affordable, and open community at Harvard. The sanctions, as currently imposed, offer us no room to do these things. Because of our national affiliations, we are unable to go co-ed without losing access to female alumnae networks and resources from our national organizations.
We can and will work with the administration to tackle issues of exclusivity, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll actually work with us or will continue to stifle opportunities for many of the fortunate women who have managed to build communities with other women at Harvard.
Emma S. Wheeler '17 serves on the Panhellenic Council, which governs Harvard's four sororities, and will lead sorority recruitment efforts for the spring of 2017. She lives in Eliot House.
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