By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
I found myself walking down Langdon Street, or “Greek Row” in Madison, Wisconsin, home to a row of sorority and fraternity houses, with two alumni. Both were successful, professional women. One was proud to have been – and still be – a sorority girl. (Once a sorority girl, always a sorority girl…) The other was appalled by the concept. While a student, she had taken a cleaning job at a sorority house, but would never have dreamt of belonging to one and turned down a party invitation from a well-meaning sorority girl.
Admittedly, the film ‘Sorority Row’, to be released in September this year, is not a ringing endorsement of the network. A remake of the cult horror film, ‘The House on Sorority Row’ (1983), Internet trailers flag it as the story of six sorority sisters who live fun-filled college lives until one of them, Megan, discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her. They play a prank to avenge Megan and after it goes horribly wrong, find themselves victims of a series of murders.
The website ‘The Sorority Life’ (www.thesororitylife.com), which describes itself as “powered by” sorority national umbrella group, the National Panhellenic Conference, seeks to explode the myths it says are perpetuated by films and television.
Under a section entitled “The Real Deal” it lists what a sorority is and what it is not.
It is, it maintains, a life-long support system that provides career and networking opportunities. It is an organisation that values philanthropy and community service. It is a place where women learn to be leaders, make amazing friends and enjoy social events. What it is not, The Sorority Life tells us, is a place that puts looks and clothes ahead of values and personality. It is not full of “ditzy girls” only out for a good time or a place that will make you do things against your will. Neither is it full of “rich, spoiled and snobby girls” or someone only interested in your money who will forget about you once you graduate.
The website quotes prominently a junior from Illinois’ Wesleyan University. “Being in a sorority is like coming home to 50 women who I know and love, feeling completely respected, safe and loved by each one of them.” If such universal love stretches credulity, the popular preconceptions of elitism, racism, hazing, eating disorders and drug and alcohol abuse are also extreme.
To an extent, the racism issue has been offset as minorities, such as Asian-Americans once excluded from joining some Greek societies, have set up their own sororities and fraternities. Universities have also worked hard to counter criticism.
Illustrious “panhellenic women” include the singer Sheryl Crow and former first lady Laura Bush, as well as CEOs, a Pulitzer prize winner and an astronaut, according to a long list on the National Panhellenic Conference website (www.npcwomen.org).
Significant as their achievements are, they don’t necessarily answer the question of why US university students still feel the need for single-sex societies – which allow them to live in single-sex chapter houses – that date back to times when men and women were educated separately and women were usually not educated at all.
By way of answer, Barb Kautz, coordinator of Greek Life and Student Involvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, referred to all the other single gender organisations, such as boy scouts and girl scouts and cited as a common strain, their public-spiritedness. “All of these organisations are non-profit, values-based organisations,” she said. “One value they all share is serving the community.”
Apparently, they prefer to do that in segregation.
Single-sex colleges in Oxford and Cambridge in Britain have one by one gone mixed, but “attempts to make fraternities and sororities co-educational have not been successful,” to quote online Education Encyclopedia (education.stateuniversity.com).
The encyclopedia estimated more than 10 per cent of all college students in the United States and Canada were members of a Greek-letter society. It considered women’s sororities were “healthy”, with membership in the 26 national sororities exceeding 300,000. That compares with fraternity membership of 370,000 in 2000, just off the record of more than 400,000 in 1990.
Originally derived from literary societies that thrived at the end of the 18th century, the fraternities provided a forum for academic debate but, above all, were sociable and their chapter houses provided the creature comforts often lacking in college life.
The first women’s fraternity – which helped to make the vastly out-numbered women students feel at home – was Alpha Delta Pi, founded as the Adelphean Society in 1851. It was known as a women’s fraternity for the want of a better word, but in 1882 Gamma Phi Beta became the first to be named a sorority.
The rest is history or should we say, her story?
((c) Women’s Feature Service)