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Sorority Women Make Friends in Clubs

Despite University Disapproval, Membership of Female Social Clubs Increases

By Leondra R. Kruger

When Deanna E. Ford '97 came to Harvard from her native Indiana, she quickly found a large circle of friends. The one problem, Ford says, was that not many of those friends were women.

"It's hard to meet girl friends at Harvard. It's just the atmosphere," she says.

But now that Ford has become a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, she says she not only has female friends--she has found 43 "sisters" with whom she shares everything from community service projects to "girls' night out."

Much to the dismay of Harvard administrators, Ford's solution to her social dilemma is becoming increasingly popular among her female classmates. Over the past two years, growing numbers of undergraduate women have been turning to sororities to fill what they perceive as a gaping hole in Harvard's social atmosphere--the opportunity for a network of female friends.

Technically speaking, of course, sororities don't exist at Harvard. When the University cut its ties to the nine all-male final clubs in 1984, it also denied recognition to any kind of single-sex organization--including chapters of national sororities and fraternities.

In an interview with the Boston Globe last month, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III emphasized that sororities are not part of Harvard. "They have no connection with Harvard College whatsoever," he said.

But since Kappa Alpha Theta's Harvard-Radcliffe chapter was established in January, 1993, its membership has risen ten-fold. And this November, a second sorority, Delta Gamma, established a chapter at Harvard.

This spring the two sororities will join together to create Harvard's first "Panhellenic Council," a governing body for the Greek system. Many sorority officers predict that the chapters will continue to grow over the next few years--even though the University refuses to recognize them.

Sororities are not like other campus organizations, members are careful to point out. One main difference, Ford says, is that they lack the political agenda that characterizes many women's groups.

According to former Theta president Jennifer M. Brosnahan '95, the purpose of the sorority is simply to provide "a close network of girl friends"--and not to provide a forum for political discussion.

But more importantly, members emphasize, they lack the elitism of the final clubs.

Delta Gamma President Brooke E. Winkle '95 says the major difference between the single-sex final clubs and the sororities is that the clubs "punch," or select, prospective members to participate in the tryout process. Sororities, on the other hand, have "open" rushes, meaning that any woman can try out without an invitation from senior members.

Belonging to a sorority "has all the positive aspects of a final club without any of the negative aspects," Winkle says. Harvard's sororities are affiliated with national organizations whose resources include scholarship programs, job networking services and advising systems.

But lacking official recognition, Harvard's sororities find themselves in the difficult position of trying to remain open to all prospective members while not being able to advertise. They cannot, for example, put posters on Harvard kiosks or send out invitations for their Open Houses, like many other campus organizations.

Theta members used to stand on Quincy street during Orientation Week, handing out information cards to first-years walking from the Yard to the Union, but have since been barred from the practice by University administrators.

Because sororities cannot advertise on campus, virtually all of the 44 members of Theta and the 17 women who belong to Delta Gamma say they found out about their sororities by word of mouth. Many members were friends before they joined. Sorority sisters tend to live in the same houses--predominantly river houses such as Eliot, Lowell and Mather--and tend to be upper-class students.

About 25 of the 44 Thetas are seniors, according to president Teresa Y. Ou '95, and the sorority loses about one-third of its members each year to graduation.

In fact, because spreading the word to new students is often haphazard, there were only two first-year Thetas last semester. Jennifer S. Joel '98, one of the incoming rush chairs, says she found out about Theta simply because she was chatting with a woman during Common Casting who turned out to be a member.

Of course, the inability to advertise is not the only problem Harvard's unofficial sororities face.

Unlike University-recognized groups, sororities are also prohibited from using University property outside of their members' private dorm rooms. As a consequence, members of Theta have been shuffled through four different locales for their weekly chapter meetings.

The Thetas began this year meeting at University Lutheran Church, but now meet in the living room of a sister's off-campus apartment.

Sorority members say the costs of living as Harvard outlaws are made up for by the benefits of being in an all-female organization.

"It's a place where you don't have to be a great athlete or a great singer or have any special talent," says Janie A. Ho '95, citing the need for organizations that promote a sense of community among women. "There are so many male-oriented organizations, and it's hard for women to meet people in that same context."

Membership Has Its Privileges

There are other perks to sorority membership, of course, ranging from Delta Gamma's private file of past Ec 10 exams to the $3500 Jennifer Brosnahan just won in scholarship money from the national Kappa Alpha Theta.

But there are member requirements. For instance, members must maintain a certain grade-point average--a 10.0 for Thetas, and a number Delta Gamma President Brooke Winkle will only describe as "not a problem for anyone at Harvard."

Sorority members also must participate in a certain number of community service projects per semester, either as part of a sorority program or on their own.

This spring, Theta and Delta Gamma will join together for the first time to sponsor a joint rush Open House at the Charles Hotel. From there, the undergraduate women must decide if they wish to go through the try-out process to become a sorority member.

Under the rules of the Panhellenic system, prospective members must attend the rush activities for both sororities to give them a basis for choosing which they want to join.

Due to the relatively small numbers of women now in the sororities, rush tends to be "fairly inclusive," according to Brosnahan and almost all prospective members are given the option of joining. "As often as not, the girl will decide she doesn't have time [for the sorority]," she says.

However, Theta officers say they might limit their numbers this spring in order to encourage the growth of Delta Gamma and the eventual stabilization of both their memberships. Once Gamma's numbers stabilize, officers say they hope for another sorority to join them on the Harvard campus.

But that doesn't mean that Harvard will turn into "Animal House" anytime soon, say sorority officers. "We wouldn't become this rampaging Greek campus. That's just not in the cards for us," says Brosnahan.

Of course, if University administrators have their way, sororities won't exist for much longer, period. "It is ironic that some of our students are interested in these groups when most colleges are trying to get rid of them," Epps told the Globe.

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