So you want to rush a sorority. I get it. In my sophomore year, I did, too. When my friends joined sororities in our first year, I suddenly felt left out. I wanted to pose in fancy pictures posted with the filter of that year’s favorite campus photographer. I liked the idea of being quantifiably cool.
So, the next year, I decided to rush. And when I didn’t get into the sororities where my friends held membership, I stopped rushing. Although I barely recognize the Amelia who wanted to be in a sorority — and the Amelia who was sad to be denied a place — I understand why sororities are attractive. There’s something alluring about ready-made fun, yours for the price of membership dues and strategic girl-flirt giggles.
But what I realize now — what I refused to realize then — is that joining a sorority is an expressly political act. There is nothing neutral about the fun accessible to sororities and nothing benign about the power structures reinforced by their continued existence, and expansion, on our campus. In rushing, women choose to strengthen and uphold the gendered and exclusive social infrastructure of our campus.
Although I will also be writing about fraternities, I am starting this two-part query of Greek life at Yale with sororities simply because sorority rush is happening this weekend. Further, I am aware that this is a time when campus is talking about sexual politics endemic to Greek life, specifically with regards to DKE. I know full well the frustration of loving men who are in organizations you despise. And I also know what it’s like to love women who feel unsafe in some, or all, fraternities. This is a difficult time to talk about the nexus of Greek life and sexual assault.
That reality makes this conversation all the more important. Many women in Yale sororities claim to be reforming fraternity culture at Yale. The logic is that fraternities will not bend to University pressure because they’re not affiliated with the University anyway. Instead, the only tactic that superficially changes fraternity culture is the threat of sororities refusing to mix with them. For example, when sororities stopped mixing with Leo, they effectively acted as, well, lion-tamers. Now, Leo has bouncers and monitors, some female bartenders and more lights. I’ve heard from several women that they now feel safer there. That’s a strong intervention made by sororities, one that should be commended.
Despite this example, Yale’s sororities still use patriarchal metrics to assess women for membership, expecting women to perform a specific breed of womanhood. Rush demands women fit into a conventional wealthy culture, sort of an accelerated debutante training course. You must to dress appropriately for wealth-specific functions. You’re “classy,” in the most fiduciary sense of the term. You have to be a certain type of pretty and, for the vast majority, you have to afford dues. It’s a grandiose performance of gendered wealth from the moment you enter the rush process. And it continues throughout your tenure in the organization.
By orienting around male approval from day one, sororities reinforce a projection of self as a performance for men. There are, of course, women in sororities who are not heterosexual or who joined purely for the sake of female friendship. But that’s far from the nothing-but-the-truth answer to why so many women rush. By basing rush on sexist metrics, sororities reinforce the disappointing ways women compete with each other for male acceptance. This is a disappointment at best. A more internally-focused sorority culture could neutralize the deleterious effects of a women’s organization that essentially exists, in its current form, as a foil for men.
Therefore, the “sisterhood” created by these organizations is a sisterhood that exists beside the “brotherhood” of fraternities, a counterweight in a system rather than a barricade against it. By their very existence, sororities propagate the patriarchal systems some women in sororities claim to want to dismantle. And as a result, dialogue about changing Greek life from within is a poor case of Stockholm Syndrome. It focuses on fraternity validation — and thus, the tacit acceptance of the dangerous sexual dynamics that ripple out from fraternities and affect all of campus. Sororities are still about men, perhaps more than they are about women.
To fix this code would require an entire re-imagining of the rush process and the system itself, a rethinking of the type of femininity championed by these organizations. It would require sororities consciously uncoupling from men almost altogether, decentralizing mixers, prioritizing a less-performative culture and encouraging more globality in their particular potion of “sisterhood.” By focusing more on friendships among the women in the group than on mixers and branding, sororities would be less internally toxic. And, as a result, fraternities would have less explicitly-sexual power on our campus. Fraternities and sororities would exist separate from each other, rather than because of each other. That, I think, would be good.
But that’s far away. So if you started rush yesterday and you choose to continue this weekend, do so with awareness of the ramifications of your choice. Sure, you’ll have fun, make a few friends and get into a few parties. But your inclusion will always mean someone else’s exclusion — and this iteration of your identity as a woman will be, to some extent, oriented around men.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .