Sororities are sisterhoods, comprised of strong, leading women supporting each other in a still largely male-controlled world.
Sororities are made up of the most catty, shallow girls on campus, who measure their own worth and others’ in number of hook-ups, thinness and the brand of their jeans, and whose most fundamental aim in college is to date and eventually marry a future investment banker or doctor.
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Sororities are fun social organizations whose members are the most outgoing and accomplished women on any campus (but especially Yale’s). As a member of one Yale sorority wrote in an editorial in the News in 2002, “[o]ur sorority could run the freshman bazaar: we sing, play instruments, dance, paint, write, act, debate, volunteer, tutor, counsel, fight, head political groups, cheerlead, and play intramurals.”
Sororities are vestiges of southern debutante culture, whose mostly white, wealthy members represent a relatively small but disproportionately powerful echelon of society, and whose outlook thus tends to be parochial and homogeneous.
“Until the CEOs and leadership positions in our country are 50-50, you’re at a disadvantage,” as one founder of Yale’s Kappa Alpha Theta chapter, Patricia Lizarraga ’88, said. “You should cherish all the woman-centric things that happen in your life because over the years they’ll become so important to you.”
Sororities are inherently feminist, providing a structure where women can hone their leadership skills and helping to pave the way for more strong female role models.
But Yale’s sororities “degrade women,” at least according to “Slim,” a commenter on the gossip blog Gawker, which recently posted recruitment videos from two Yale sororities. “[A]ll the women look/dress the same, act the same, and seem to be pushed to be some overachieving, June Cleaver-y ‘I’m a woman, but my little brain can still do it all and still be pretty!’ type.”
When you talk to the women who fill the ranks of Yale’s sororities, a few remarks keep popping up. More often, it seems, than any commonplace “sorority girl” stereotype, you hear a more complicated narrative, a love story of sorts.
For one, most of the dozen or so women contacted for this article said they had not planned to join a sorority when they first arrived on campus. To these freshmen, sororities were like wallflowers at a dance, unnoticed among the throngs of myriad extracurriculars — at least at first sight.
They spoke of hoping to get to know accomplished upperclass(wo)men in a social environment that otherwise does not make this easy to do. The idea of joining a no-assembly-required social group full of high-achieving women started to seem more attractive, and the appeal of sororities grew for these women.
Sorority sisters interviewed over the course of several weeks this semester happily noted the smaller role sororities play at Yale than at southern universities or large state schools. They view sororities — with their mixers, crush parties and pre-games — as a complement to their social lives rather than their central defining feature.
But stereotypes persist, even at Yale, with its relatively low-key Greek life. Recruitment videos inadvertently broadcast on YouTube early in the spring semester, from the Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Alpha Theta rush process, didn’t help. Gawker skewered the Pi Phi video, and commenters — including the above-mentioned “Slim” — generally followed suit.
This year’s was the largest number of women to register to rush at Yale in recent memory — possibly ever. Last year, approximately 120 women registered for sorority recruitment (the term sororities prefer for the process of incorporating new members) — demonstrating a 50 percent increase between last year and this year. And although not all 180-plus women completed the rush process and joined chapters this spring, all three sororities had to accept larger pledge classes than ever before to accommodate the new crop.
Now that sororities appear to be on the rise at Yale, of all the stereotypes surrounding them, affirming and demeaning, which actually apply to Yale’s Hellenic culture? What does it mean that more Yale women are joining sororities this year than ever before? And, are sororities even the truest source of sisterhood on Yale’s campus?
This past January, more than 180 freshmen and sophomores packed into Linsly-Chittenden Hall, room 101, one of Yale’s largest lecture halls, all, in greater or lesser degrees, interested in joining one of the three established, national sororities with chapters on campus: Pi Beta Phi, known as “Pi Phi”; Kappa Kappa Gamma, or “Kappa”; and Kappa Alpha Theta, referred to as “Theta.”
“I just remember the first day coming into LC, and it took like a good 15 minutes past the time you were supposed to be there just for everyone to come in,” said Juliana Biondo ’13, who eventually joined Kappa (and who has written for the News).
Sorority members attribute the higher demand largely to the moving of the “formal” rush process from the fall to the spring semester in spring 2008. The later start date, they said, gives women just entering Yale the chance to get to know the sororities and their members before deciding whether to rush. This ends up being to the advantage of sororities, members said, because they can disprove stereotypes that incoming Yale women might have.
“Girls don’t come to Yale expecting to join sororities,” said Nikila Sri-Kumar ’11, the current president of Pi Phi. “If you throw rush at them September of freshman year, no one’s going to join.”
Aisha Matthews ’13, who pledged Pi Phi, said that when she entered Yale she had a particular idea of sororities that was erased when she encountered Yale’s chapters.
“The typical image you get from movies and other things would be like the girls tend to be catty, like there’s a focus on materialistic things,” Matthews said. But after attending Pi Phi events with the captain of her cheerleading team, she said she found that “a lot of the girls were just down to earth and nice. They were completely different from what I thought.”
Accommodating the larger numbers was a logistical challenge, especially because, according to inter-sorority regulations governing the rush process, women must rush all three of the Yale sororities during formal recruitment, even if their hearts are set on a particular one.
After the initial meeting, interested women socialized at two “interest” nights with the members of the three sororities in neutral locations — not at their houses, but rather in Yale classrooms and residential college basements. The women were divided into four groups of about 30 to 40 each, and each group was allotted half an hour for a meet-and-greet with the members of each sorority at each interest night, explained Sissi Nie ’11, the Pi Phi representative on Yale’s Panhellenic Council, which oversees each year’s rush and sets many of its guidelines. Each sorority elects two members to the Panhellenic Council, also called “Panhell.”
“We worked hard to create an environment in which they have one-on-one time with the sisters, have the chance to meet them and find which one they’re the best match for,” Nie said.
In practice, however, some of the women who went through that first step said the rush structure encourages largely superficial connections. Charlotte Parker ’13 said the first meet-and-greet she attended made her re-think the whole idea of rushing.
“It’s kinda like speed dating,” Parker said. “I talked with some of the older girls in the sororities about that. They were complaining about the process themselves. They don’t really get to know any of the girls. Fraternities do a lot of rush meals, and they get to know the pledges.”
And, Parker added, because women were expected to dress up for the events, it was more difficult to “be yourself” when meeting the sisters.
Parker was part of a group of friends who started the rush process together and compared notes throughout. The group included Diana Saverin ’13, who also did not complete the rush process but left the possibility open for next year.
“Most of us were pretty overwhelmed just with the format of the night,” Saverin said. “It’s a lot of talking and chatting and smiling. I don’t know what the solution would be, but I think the current system of ‘talk to a girl for five minutes and pass her off’ makes it hard to get to know anyone.”
Biondo described the pace of the first night of rush parties as “hectic.”
“It was so loud at the parties, you literally had to shout,” she said. “I just remember the general sense was that it was hard to get a good reading. The second night, people felt a little better.”
Matthews said she got the sense that some women in her rush class were intimidated by the sheer number of those interested, and that she personally was surprised by how difficult the first meetings were.
Unlike fraternities, sororities at Yale are not allowed to have rush meals or carry the rush process out over an extended period. The initial meeting, two meet-and-greets, invite-only “preference” parties and final bids all generally take place in less than two weeks. While each individual university’s Panhellenic Council, comprised of representatives from all affiliated sororities on campus, determines the rush structure, there tends to be certain more or less universal traditions, passed down from previous generations, which guide the process.
“Historically, the style of recruitment has been a formal recruitment period with rounds and events during a concentrated time,” Julie Leshay, the national Kappa vice-president, said in an e-mail.
Yale Theta chapter founder Lizarraga said her impression is that a quick rush process avoids stress and encourages equal treatment of all potential pledges and transparency. “This might not make as much sense at a school like Yale, but at schools with larger systems it might be more applicable,” she said.
Other regulations forbid so-called “dirty rushing,” which includes attempts to be overly friendly with “potential new members” or PNMs to entice them to join a particular sorority. For example, before recruitment starts, there is to be no contact with a potential new member unless all three sororities are represented. Excessive Facebook-friending of rushes is also frowned upon.
Theta president Lauren Ritz ’11 said she thinks the quicker rush season has its advantages, and maintained that over the course of the four main rush events, rushes get to meet most members of a chapter. Ritz said having as brief a time as possible between recruitment and actual membership is conducive for new members to fit in quickly into the chapter.
“We want girls involved in what we’re doing, whereas in fraternities when they’re pledges they can’t be involved in everything right away,” she said.
The secrecy built into the process adds to the general anxiety of recruitment for some women. While the broad guidelines of rush are determined by NPC and Yale’s Panhell, each sorority has its own idiosyncratic methods to determine which women are right for its chapter.
Sorority leaders on campus generally avoided giving specifics about their mechanisms for choosing new members. When asked what process Theta uses, Ritz and fellow Theta Kendall Wilson ’11, the Yale chapter’s vice-president for public relations, both laughed a bit nervously.
“We can’t talk about how we choose girls, really,” Ritz said. “I don’t really know how to answer that without getting in trouble.”
But Wilson added: “It’s very anonymous and fair. All of the girls are equal and we choose from that.”
Haskins also said she could not elaborate on the specifics of the selection process, but said each recruitment season at Kappa starts with broad discussions within the chapter about what they are looking for in new members.
The relative lack of openness surrounding the process, of course, is partly necessary to retain a sorority’s somewhat exclusive aura — one of its charms, some would say. At the same time, it leads to vague standards for admission that can make the rush process less clear to new members than it might otherwise be.
Sorority members referred repeatedly to a specific “feeling” from individual rushees that helps both sororities and potential pledges choose each other and end up with a good match.
“Each sorority has its own vibe,” Pi Phi member Matthews said. “Going through the rush process you kind of find where you fit in.”
Biondo said she got a friendly feeling from Kappa members that contributed to her eventually joining, but said throughout the whole process the sororities “never really said straight up” what standards the potential recruits were being judged on. Instead, Biondo opined, “There was an unspoken vibe that I thought was maybe the basis [for selection].”
In absence of an immediate connection, it helps to have friends in the particular sorority of interest, especially as ever-increasing numbers of potential members make it more difficult to remember names, faces and personalities.
“Most girls who really wanted it found a way to make the connections to at least get [invited to a preference party,]” Matthews said. “A lot of them used the connections they already had. If you really wanted it and you know someone in the sorority, you have a better chance of at least getting remembered.”
And Wilson said existing friendships help Theta members get to know the recruits.
“So many of the girls rushing already know someone who’s in Theta, or are mutual friends, so you kind of get a feel,” she said.
As sororities at Yale attract increasing numbers of women to their ranks, their role is bound to change.
Practically speaking, more members will lend the sororities a more visible presence on campus.
“When we have a bigger membership, we have a bigger budget,” Haskins said. “There are more opportunities for campus involvement and in that way, it does become a bigger institutional thing.”
But there are drawbacks to growth as well.
Erin Lin ’07, who was a member of Theta while at Yale and is now a graduate student at Princeton, said she observed Yale’s sororities taking themselves a bit more seriously from the time she was a freshman to when she graduated, a change she attributed directly to their growth.
“[By my senior year] there were more girls going through the process, and it was more competitive in some ways,” Lin said. “Some people didn’t naturally fit into their place in one of the three [sororities].”
The steady uptick in the number of Yale women interested in rushing sororities has sparked talk of a fourth sorority — that is, a fourth chapter of a nationally affiliated sorority under the NPC. Yale does have a chapter of Alpha Epsilon Phi, a sorority with a focus on Jewish culture, but it is not affiliated with the NPC and thus does not have to follow the same rules for rush. There is also a local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha with Yale members, but it is a New Haven city chapter with members at other schools in the area. As of one year ago, Fence Club, formerly the Psi U fraternity, also admits women.
But it remains unclear whether a fourth chapter is viable in the near future and if so, when it could be established. Kappa vice-president Julie Leshaysaid that before a fourth official sorority could come to Yale, a step-by-step process to evaluate campus conditions would need to be carried out. This would include analyzing recent recruitment statistics to determine if there is actually enough interest to sustain a sorority, consulting with current sorority chapters and, finally, a vote by Yale’s Panhell.
“It’s a long process,” Haskins said. “It’s not something that could be done even before next recruitment.”
The delay in getting a new chapter makes this a period of awkward transition for Yale’s sororities and those who hope to join them. Out of the 186 women who registered for rush, 107 ended up in sororities this year. Of course, not all 186 went through the entire process necessary to join. But as noted by Lizarraga, who helped to conduct several of the first rounds of rush ever to be held at Yale, one basic goal of Panhellenic organizations is that everyone who wants to participate gets the chance to do so — an ideal that obviously was not met this year.
“It follows the concept of supply and demand,” she said. “If there is more demand, it usually leads to more sororities on campus. If there is no demand, the sororities aren’t supposed to go to that campus. [O]ver the student’s college career it should balance out … the idea being that everyone who wants to be in a sorority should be able to be in one.”
Flipping through the Yale Banners of the late 1980s, past large photos of students protesting South African apartheid, other students contesting or supporting Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court and a young Jesse Jackson speaking at a podium, it can be easy to miss the small grainy black-and-whites of smiling women arranged in neat rows, with feathered hair and large geometrically patterned sweaters. Nationally affiliated sororities made their debut on campus in January 1986 with the establishment of the Epsilon Tau chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta.
Although by that time, women undergraduates had been attending Yale for almost 20 years, and the Women’s Studies major had been around since 1980, the University was still a more male-oriented institution, Lizarraga said. Lizarraga and her cohort can be considered the women who brought sororities to Yale’s campus.
Lizarraga now runs Hypatia Capital, a private equity firm focusing on the country’s top women executives. When Lizarraga entered Yale in 1984, women were still not tapped for most secret societies, and fraternities abounded. Some of the women’s bathrooms in Payne-Whitney Gymnasium, Lizarraga said, were still equipped with urinals. It was a time of transition at Yale, and Lizarraga’s generation was caught in the middle.
So, at the end of her freshman year in 1985, Lizarraga decided to start a chapter of Theta at Yale. Her sister, attending the University of California at Berkeley at the time, had joined Theta and seemed to be having a blast.
“I took it as an opportunity to build female traditions at a school that wasn’t necessarily helping you out in doing so,” she said.
But, to be sure, there were other considerations as well.
“I thought if we start a sorority, we’ll get invited everywhere, every time,” Lizarraga said. “For me it gave a place for a social environment for people who wanted that.”
Lizarraga contacted the Theta national organization in May of that year, and they responded enthusiastically, sending a staff member to live in New Haven full-time to guide the fledgling chapter through the process of setting roots. The students met with Theta alumna in the area, women from Greenwich and Darien and other towns in Connecticut, who formed the chapter’s advisory board and held teas for the new members.
“I don’t think in 1985 anyone used the word ‘networking,’ ” Lizarraga said. “We were trying to create networks of women so that our time at Yale would be easier in this time of transition.”
Other women at Yale in the early days of co-education embraced the existing structure rather than joining female-only institutions. Parker said when she told her mother, who graduated from Yale in 1978, that she was thinking of rushing a sorority this year, her mother was surprised.
“She said it was funny because when she was here no one thought about that, at least among her friends,” Parker said. “She said she would rather have hung out in the co-ed group.”
After officially launching the Theta chapter in January 1986, in her sophomore year, Lizarraga and the initial core of about 10 other charter members — or “colony,” in sorority parlance — launched multiple rush processes to attract women of all classes to the chapter. Advisors helped the chapter to determine what the roles of the president and other officers would be.
The trend was established, despite what Lizarraga recalls as initial pushback from some parts of the student body — including cartoons in the pages of this newspaper accusing Theta founders of being anti-feminist. In January of 1987 Kappa was founded, and Pi Phi followed in 1989. Sororities haven’t looked back since, and Lizarraga was in disbelief when she heard the large number of women interested in rushing this year.
“That’s amazing. I can’t believe it,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to foresee a need that apparently exists.”
Later in the conversation she added: “It was the most feminist thing I did at Yale.”
But the start of the first official sororities on campus was not the first time women at Yale had organized. In October 1970, about 20 women, calling themselves the “Sisterhood,” met to discuss their lives at Yale. In April of 1973, the Sisterhood stormed University President Kingman Brewster’s office and demanded an apology after he called himself a “60-40 man,” referring to the ratio of men to women he wanted to see in the undergraduate population.
Fastforward to the present day. For the current undergraduate woman, who enjoys a Yale wholly different from the Yale of Lizarraga’s day, do sororities play the same role? Many of the women interviewed said that indeed, part of the appeal of joining sororities is the idea of sisterhood, that instant network of accomplished women who provide career advice, networking opportunities, friendship and emotional support, and with whom they now share an insignia, a set of traditions and those three Greek symbols.
As a sophomore, Haskins said she experienced the pros of joining a sorority in a very tangible way, when the chapter sent her to a leadership academy hosted by Kappa’s national structure.
“There was this sort of overarching connection,” Haskins said. “I think that’s what’s inherently different. You can meet a Kappa anywhere, and instantly we have that in common — this national level of support.”
But to the extent that sororities are also social organizations, there can be a conflict between the way they interact with other groups on campus and the strong supportive environment for women they strive to engender. One feature of sorority social life is the mixers, or exclusive parties, they hold with fraternities and sports teams on campus several times per semester. One senior member of Sigma Phi Epsilon (or “Sig Ep”), who did not want to be named because he is friends with many women in sororities on campus, said he thinks the way mixers are held — usually at fraternities and with the understanding that hook ups are likely to follow — encourages an unfair power dynamic between men and women.
“The girls are coming to your house, for your fraternity,” the Sig Ep senior said. “They’re at your house to see you. On top of that the girls clearly want to be there.”
“None of this would ever exist if it weren’t a suggestion of the girls,” he said. “Guys are not smooth enough to pull something off like this. They’re not smooth enough to figure out how to convince the girls that this is what they should be doing. The girls have ownership over their own bodies, and they’re their own people, and they’re an entire institution.”
By most accounts, mixers are not heavily emphasized during the rush process, and Saverin said the sororities actively discouraged women from joining just for access to these exclusive parties.
“I heard it presented in a way that it’s nice to have a smaller party and get to meet people,” Saverin said. “The girls were trying to say ‘We’re more than just mixers. Don’t just use us to get to mix with fraternities, because we are valuable in our own right.’ ”
Others said they doubt a formal organization necessarily provides the bonds of sisterhood — or even whether those bonds are still necessary in the same way.
“I don’t think you can say a sorority automatically creates a sense of sisterhood,” Parker said. “It happens when there’s sort of an opposing force. I feel that women at Yale have a very good place. I guess I haven’t been here long, but … I don’t think there’s a lot of discrimination.”
Parker and her friends occasionally hold an “anti-chapter chapter” on Wednesday nights, the name of which, they emphasized, is a joke and not a protest against all things Greek. They hold the very casual meetings when many of their friends who are in sororities are at chapter meetings.
“It’s really a joke,” she said, laughing. “We might hang out and bro out. Last week we watched the Olympics, and talked about how we were going to buy beer.”
Sisterhood at Yale, it turns out, is sometimes nothing more than just “bro-ing out.”
At one point in Yale’s history, sororities were evidently a radical statement about what women needed to be full members of this community. But with women now just as sought after for the most prestigious secret societies, urinals fully de-installed from all women’s bathrooms and a much larger pool of professional women ready and willing to network with female college students, that radical edge may be gone, and have been replaced by something more, well, “bro-y.”