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Sisterhood Can Be Powerful

Are you thinking of joining a sorority? Come here, I’ll try to answer your questions.

Illustration by Monica.

Illustration by Monica.

People who know me usually do a double-take when I tell them that I’m in a sorority. (It’s been years since I graduated from college, but with many sororities and fraternities, once you’re in, you’re a member for life—hence the present tense.) Most of my friends in New York are people I’ve met through activist and creative circles, and I think that when they hear “sorority,” the image in their minds is that stereotype that probably exists only in movies and fear-mongering articles in newspapers and magazines: a narrow-minded, materialistic, binge-drinking Mean Girl cult.They can’t imagine that someone like me—a sober, independent feminist—could ever have participated in Greek life. But my sorority, and many others I admire, have been on the frontline of important fights for racial and gender justice. I often wonder if sororities are judged as shallow and without principle or power because they’re for women, and exist in a world that loves to blame women for cyberbullying, rape culture, and every other ill in society.

Most sororities (roughly equivalent to “corporations” in Europe) share a few guiding principles: a commitment to the idea of camaraderie by affiliation, and a goal of creating a collective college experience for women who pledge to uphold specific values. But each sorority has its own mission, traditions, and culture, and every chapter of a single sorority is its own ecosystem, as individual as the people within it. There are sororities working on social justice, civil rights, and volunteerism; sororities devoted to specific religions; pre-med and pre-law sororities; and sororities organized around specific cultures. Mine, a historically African-American sorority, belonged to this last type. it was one of the so-called Divine Nine, a group of letter organizations with long, rich histories. I joined because its legacy of community service appealed to me. Three of my biggest feminist role models—my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt—are members, and I wanted to strengthen my connections to them. My 93-year-old grandmother’s stories about Alpha Kappa Alpha involved meaningful public service and deep, lifelong friendships with other women. I wanted to experience that stuff for myself.

Just because I’ll take any excuse to watch this again, here are some of my sorority sisters from the Howard University AKA chapter stepping and repping like queens:

Are some of you college-bound Rookies considering joining a sorority? If so, you probably have a lot of questions. It turns out I’m the only staff member here who ever joined a letter organization, so I told the others to post their questions about Greek life in our staff Facebook group, and I’d answer them the best I could. Sorority life isn’t right for everyone, but it can provide a real sense of family. I’m just saying don’t totally count it out if you havent’ really thought about it yet. I figure you probably have some of the same questions and assumptions our staffers did, so hopefully you’ll find it useful to go through a few of them together. This was, as you’ll see, an informal conversation and it certainly doesn’t answer everything—if you still have questions, ask ’em in the comments!

JAMIA: So, ladies, tell me what you think of sororities. Full disclosure: I’m a triple-legacy Alpha Kappa Alpha. My mom, my grandma, and my aunt are in the same sorority. But even though I love AKA, I had a lot of mixed feelings about joining a formal sisterhood.

TAVI: As a college-bound Rook, sororities have not crossed my mind once—mostly because I’m actively pursuing schools with ZERO community. TBH, I don’t think I could even handle DORM life. I have no interest in brownie nights with your RA or whatever.

JAMIA: Have you seen Spike Lee’s movie School Daze? It’s a musical drama focused on the African-American Greek system. You should check it out. There’s a caricature of the black Greek pajama-party trope, but it’s very different from the Legally Blonde/Scream/House Bunny PJ-party stereotype.

Like any organization or family, we’re not perfect–but my sorority is focused on service and community advancement. You have to have really good grades to get in and be committed to stewardship. We also have a legacy of political engagement and dedication to women’s rights. My fave famous AKAs include Maya Angelou, Jada Pinkett, Michelle Obama, Mae Jamison (the first black woman to travel in space), and Eleanor Roosevelt.

What do you think contributed to your mindset about sororities in general? Media? Friends? Exposure to older sisters and their friends?

SUZY: I was one of the first in my family to go to university, and I never really considered joining a sorority. But I have a lot of friends who did, and whose college choices rested on the sororities they joined. It seems that sororities come with huge networking and career advantages, especially the ones with bigger financial endowments. And there’s obviously the sisterly-bond aspect, and the nice community service stuff they do. I have even heard of a feminist sorority that organized Take Back the Night in my hometown. But then there’s also the unbearable straightness of it all–I’ve heard stories of compulsory dating between sororities and fraternities. Are there queer/bi/lesbian sororities?

JAMIA: Yes, there are LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly sororities; here’s a list of some of them. It’s true that there are major benefits that come from having an international network.I have met and developed relationships with mentors in different professional environments because of a shared sorority connection. I list my sorority affiliation on my résumé because we are service-oriented and known for our commitment to achievement. I’ve also heard of sororities organizing Take Back the Night events, and I think it is so important, especially considering the drinking culture that is associated with Greek life at some schools. Lots of people assume that all sororities are conservative, but I’ve found them to be great resources for volunteers, because their members need to fulfill community-service hours and are eager to host events that align with their values. During the last election, the Divine Nine came together to create a political action committee to raise money for their chosen elected officials and to support voter education. I’ve always viewed my involvement as being a part of a loving sisterhood, but also a smart, strategic network of influencers who are coming together to make sure people of color have political, social, and cultural recognition.

DANIELLE: That is SO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from what I thought sororities were about. I never thought about joining, because sororities always seemed to be infused with a class status that I could never attain. I always thought of sororities as rich-people groups. Plus, OMG the RULES. Don’t some of them have rules for how you can wear your hair and what nylons you can wear on your legs?

JAMIA: Yes, I think some of them do, and I agree with you about the rules. I agree about the rules. I never got any flak for wearing my hair natural, but I did have to wear specific colors and fancy clothing for ceremonies and special gatherings.

Financial privilege piece does play a part in this. My grandma helped me with my dues when I joined my sorority, and she helped me pay for proper garments for my initiation. That’s the kind of thing that alienates people and makes people view sororities as elitist, and it needs to change. Do you think you would have found any value in joining if those roadblocks didn’t exist, or if the groups seemed more inclusive?

DANIELLE: I would totally be interested if not for those roadblocks, because I love the idea of sisterhood, and of women supporting each other. And there is nothing wrong with the networking aspect of sororities and frats, either—I just wish it weren’t so divided by obvious things like class, race, geography, and historical connections. It just doesn’t seem very inviting, you know?

JULIANNE: I never joined a sorority because I did not go to college, nor did anyone in my immediate family. Sororities were really valued in my high school, though, for their social benefits, and everyone seemed to aspire to join one in college—but I none of that ever meant much to me. School Daze definitely helped deepen my knowledge, though, of sororities/fraternities at historically black universities, as did Stomp the Yard, aka the BEST MOVIE EVER. One thing I will say I still somewhat regret about not having cone to college is that it took me so much longer [than most people] to meet people and build a network of friends. (The internet is my sorority now? Ha!)
 IF I JOIN ALPHA KAPPA ALPHA, CAN I START STEPPING? I WILL DO IT!

GABBY: I am skeeved out by the sororities at my school, because when I hear people describe them they just sound like highly organized cliques. People will say things like “Oh, she’s in the one for rich, hot girls,” or “That’s the sorority for the girls who couldn’t get into the other sororities,” and I’m just like, EW, WHAT? ARE WE ACTUALLY CHARACTERIZING PEOPLE LIKE WE’RE ON AN ABC FAMILY DRAMA?

JAMIA: I’m guilty of generalizing based on the reputations of different Greek groups. I remember calling the Sigma Delta Taus at my college “Spending Daddy’s Trillions” because they were known for having money and being party girls. My sorority colors are pink and green, and some of the haters used to call us “pink skin, green eyes” because the stereotypical AKA is light-skinned with light eyes and a privileged background.

GABRIELLE: Also, I go to a women’s college, and that’s already all SISTERHOOD on its own, so the idea of joining a sorority has never really occurred to me.

JENNY: I always had really really, really negative ideas about sororities, and I judged peeps who were active in Greek life at Stanford harshly. I feel bad about that now, because I know there are some cool-ass sisters who did sororities (e.g., Jamia) and I know there were some cool service-oriented frats and sororities. Also, at Stanford there was this one sorority that was notorious for only having HOT Asian girls, and I felt some kind of weird shadow anxiety about that…

JAMIA: Do you think the anxiety came from feeling alienated or creeped out by it? Did it make you feel like you had to either join or else really make an effort to distance yourself?

JENNY: I think I felt both alienated from Greek life and superior to it, because there was an Asian sorority at Stanford of Christian girls who wore high heels and worked out and went on vacations with their boyfriends. Because I’m Asian, I felt like strangers expected me to be like those girls, on the inside we couldn’t have been less alike. They were, like, bio majors who thought art and music were weird and pointless. And If I’m being honest, I felt like somehow the fact that the sorority was all Asian made it seem like their sisterhood had something to do with YELLOW PRIDE, which was something I was struggling with and trying to understand in a vastly different, way more politicized way at the time. But when I look back on all this now, I think, who the fuck cares if these girls just wanted to hang out with other Christian Asian girls? Why does having pride in your heritage mean you gotta be political? Why should sorority silliness only be available to white girls?

JAMIA: I’ve felt similar feelings of alienation and judgment about formalized groups of black women with different interests from mine for the same reasons—god forbid anyone think I’m ONE OF THEM. (As though there’s ever really a “them.”)

GABRIELLE: I am very intrigued and jealous of a the concept I’ve heard some sororities do, of “bigs and littles”—big sisters and little sisters.

JAMIA: I love bigs and littles too. When I was in all-girls high school—which at times felt like a sorority, what with its traditions, songs, and rituals—I looked up to my “old girl” and spoiled and nurtured my “new girls.” I still take my new girl Jenny out to lunch whenever she is in New York City.

GABBY: I want a mentor figure to surprise me with a Costco-size bag of candy and a customized sweatshirt!


JAMIA: Gabby, I’ll be your Rookie big and send you care packages. We need to design a Rookie crest or coat-of-arms. What are our official colors and signature gemstone? #importantlogistics

DANIELLE: The Rookie colors are GLITTER, and the coat of arms should be the head of a wolf screaming arrows out of its mouth. ♦

12 Comments

  • navyblueguava November 29th, 2013 11:04 AM

    Especially after this, I wish I had a sister…

    http://theneonguava.wordpress.com

  • indramaria November 29th, 2013 12:26 PM

    I have thought about pledging a sorority when I leave off for college but I’ve always been told that would be very “unfeminist” of me. Like the idea of being a feminist AND a sorority girl do not mix. Thank you for posting :)

  • Harley November 29th, 2013 1:53 PM

    This is super informative, thank you!
    I’m with Tavi on dorm life. I am a freshman at a university that is only an hour from my house, which isn’t really a bad commute from my perspective. My mother wanted me to live in the dorms for my whole first year, and I decided to give it a shot even though I am not a social person.
    Being surrounded by people is not my thing. I talk to five girls on my floor out of the thirty who live there, and that is more than enough for me. I have two more weeks until the end of my first semester, then I am moving back home and commuting like I had originally planned.
    Basically, don’t feel forced to live in a dorm if you don’t want to. If you can find a school that is close and you like living with your family, then stay at home and commute. If you want to leave your town, rent an apartment, house, boardinghouse, etc. Pretty much ANYTHING is more private than a dorm, and probably more enjoyable too.

  • GlitterKitty November 29th, 2013 8:18 PM

    I know this isn’t really what the article was about but I fully support “The Rookie colors are GLITTER”. That sounds awesome.

  • Ting November 29th, 2013 9:01 PM

    I SECOND THE GLITTER SUPPORT!
    http://www.meadowinferno.blogspot.com

  • kat200 November 29th, 2013 11:44 PM

    This was so helpful! I am college bound senior and have been trying to decide whether or not to join a sorority. My older sister never joined a sorority but my brother is in a frat, so I’d have some family support either way. I’m just worried about the financial burden of dues and of keeping up with the lifestyle. It also worries that pride in one’s greek organization can often result in disrespect for other Greek organizations.

  • honorarygilmoregal November 30th, 2013 9:47 AM

    I’m not in a sorority, but I have a few friends who are, and they definitely don’t fit the sorority stereotype. They’re sweet girls, and sometimes they work to hold fundraisers to raise money for the charity of their sorority. It does seem like a great network of sisters :)

  • Rowena November 30th, 2013 5:52 PM

    This has just inspired me to re-watch Channel 4′s “Sorority Girls” (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/sorority-girls – I’m not sure if you American folks can watch this online but if you can YOU SHOULD I enjoyed it ALOT)

    Also, I have a question: WHY HAS NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT THIS STEPPING BEFORE? IT’S INCREDIBLE

    • Rowena November 30th, 2013 5:54 PM

      Just re-read the first episode description and remembered my problem with the sorority they created here was that it’s rules and values were quite slut-shamey.

  • pagingdoctork December 1st, 2013 2:41 PM

    I’m in a service sorority, Gamma Sigma Sigma, and we’re not only incredibly diverse, but focused on serving our communities, and forming tight bonds of STRONG women– what could be more feminist than that?!

  • Maddy December 2nd, 2013 10:40 PM

    What schools tout having ZERO community? I’m curious and also curious as to why this is something you’d want.

  • Hedwig January 2nd, 2014 11:12 AM

    Tavi check out Bryn Mawr outside of Philly! Still have 13 days to apply!