After I chose Yale, my older cousins called to congratulate me. They had one piece of advice about starting college: Don’t rush a sorority.
I took their advice and didn’t question it much. By the time rush rolled around when I was a frosh, I didn’t know enough people involved in Greek life to feel any interest or pressure to participate. Compared to other universities, Yale’s sorority scene is pretty tame, and I knew that I could find cozy spaces that didn’t involve flashy lettering above the doorway to an off-campus home.
I have friends at Yale who insist that joining a sorority was the best decision they made in college, or at least that’s what they state on Facebook each January. For most of my time at college, I’ve doubted these claims. I’ve also felt strange about single-sex groups. As a feminist, how do I navigate my feelings about single-sex spaces when I’ve consumed so much literature that suggests the fluidity of gender?
Identifying as a woman at Yale isn’t a monolithic experience, primarily due to the spectrum of identities such as sexual orientation, class, geographic origins, race, ethnicity, etc. I’m extremely critical of sororities because it’s no secret that their membership often favors the white and wealthy.
Over time, I’ve gotten to know girls (some white, some wealthy, some non-white, some non-wealthy) in sororities who convinced me that there is more to the experience than social clout. Though there isn’t any guarantee that the entire chapter will get along, members often use that community as a catalyst to approach older Yale women whom they admire, or they discover that they have more in common with others than they previously thought. Joining a sorority can be an opportunity to foster relationships with people in a space meant for fostering relationships. In that sense, it’s a sweet deal.
My brother just started his freshman year at Florida State University, a much larger school than our Ivy. To him, rushing a fraternity seemed like the natural choice. He wanted friends, and Greek life is seen as essential at many state schools, especially in the South. I was skeptical, but I’m really glad that he doesn’t feel lonely during such a confusing, transformative time. His frat gives him a place to go, even though he now wears Vineyard Vines and Sperrys, much to my amusement.
The case for joining a Greek organization is a complicated one, but I’m trying to be less judgmental. After joining an all-female senior society, I’ve spent a lot of time this year considering the implications of joining a space that is predicated upon exclusivity. Yale’s society rush process is a bizarre monstrosity — the pile of wax-sealed letters were cool, but why did I need that kind of validation? When I didn’t get into a coed society that included one of my dearest friends, I kept wondering what I did wrong. Why did these people (many of whom I didn’t know) get to ask me invasive questions? Why did I answer them?
The answer is complicated. They were trying to create a social group, and I wanted to feel a sense of belonging. Eventually I was granted admission to a group that made me feel cool because cool people wanted me to be there. For the most part, it’s proven to be a really positive experience. I feel icky about Yale’s history of exclusivity, but sometimes I think I need to give myself a break from cultural criticism and have some fun.
Though gender is not necessarily a binary, it has real-world implications, and for me, joining an all-female space can be uniquely empowering. When I was a frosh, being surrounded by creative and eloquent women in my former spoken word group, WORD, was inspiring. Now as a senior, I’ve come to realize that — while I love my non-lady friends tremendously — sometimes I just want to be with other women belting Shania Twain.
As rush season kicks into full swing, I don’t want to give any blanket statements about what frosh and sophomores should do. Yale exists in a flawed world, and it’s an institution that privileges kids with connections. Prep school tap lines are no myth, and there are plenty of nasty implications regarding class and race to consider. But I don’t think that Greek life is all bad news, or that members of Greek organizations remain unaware of these structural flaws.
My biggest concern remains fraternities, the majority of which propagate a patriarchal culture that excuses sexual violence. When several frats at this school have been found guilty of sexual misconduct, I do think that reflects a major cultural issue that must be taken more seriously by administrators and students alike. Marginalized groups, especially women of color, feel unsafe when such spaces appear invulnerable to real ramifications for their inappropriate behavior. Sororities retain a different culture because they serve a historically marginalized community.
Single-sex spaces are a mixed bag, but they shouldn’t be dismissed.
Tread carefully as we head into the rush.
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .