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Has Feminism Changed Campus Greek Life?

Are sororities truly feminist in the 21st century?

Key points

  • Women who join historically white sororities today often believe they must "be it all" — as in both highly educated and conventionally beautiful.
  • The campus Greek system is still frozen in patriarchal norms, allowing men to control campus social life.
  • Amid protests about fraternity members’ sexism and mistreatment of women, some colleges have restricted or banned fraternities altogether.

By Barbara J. Risman and special guest co-author Simone Ispa-Landa

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Greeks on Campus
Source: Unknown author licensed by CCBYi

Has feminism made any difference in young women's lives? Today's headlines are full of "shecession" articles about how the pandemic has pushed mothers out of the labor force. Women's participation in male-dominated occupations has stalled. So what does it feel like to be a young woman in college today? Have women's experiences changed? What about their expectations for the future?

In our forthcoming article (now online and open access) in Contexts, we have tried to answer this question for college women who join historically white sororities. One of us (Risman) studied sororities in the 1970s and 1980s, and the other (Ispa-Landa) has been gathering data on historically white Greek life at a highly selective university since 2017 and published a recent article with Mariana Oliver in Gender & Society. This column is a preview of our Context article which is open-access for the next few weeks.

We compare the data from the 1970s to now, a difference of half a century. How has life changed for women in historically white sororities?

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College woman
Source: Unknown author. licensed by CCBY

First: Sorority members used to be happy to be called girls. But no more; now they are women. So what else has changed? And what has not?

Let's start with what has remained remarkably stable after decades of feminist activism.

Women still join sororities because they believe it offers access to a terrific social life. In large universities, recruits say they are looking for like-minded friends and great parties. That has remained constant, although, in the 20th century, women talked openly about wanting Mrs. Degrees, and having social ties to fraternity men was a much-discussed benefit. Today's women may admit to being interested in those social ties once they join a sorority. Still, it has become taboo to say that one wants to join a sorority for the parties or the boys. Girl power and female friendships are now the coins of the realm.

Still, some things never change. In both periods, fraternities judged sororities by how "hot" and "fun" their members were, and conventional physical beauty and interest in heterosexual partying remains critical for successfully "rushing" a top house. That was true then, and now.

At the same time, other changes are afoot. Women in historically white sororities in the 21st-century study say they have to "be it all." That means they must be beautiful, thin, and social — but also ambitious and career-committed. As one young woman explained"

One thing we look for is passionate girls. You have to be passionate about something, whether it's, I don't know— I started as [being] passionate about marketing and I had a bunch of marketing clubs. I think that's one of the reasons why I would've gotten in. I think every other member I've met, whether it be politics or engineering or doing whatever, you know—they have that sort of passion. (21st-century study)

Being it all, however, isn't just being career-committed. Other conversations made that clear. As another woman explained"

I think a lot of the houses that are considered top-tier have a reputation on campus of all the women having blond hair. Which is actually kind of accurate. A lot of them do! ... They seemed to only want a certain type of woman. Like, everyone looked very put-together but kind of in a similar way. Like, it's more than just like make-up or clothes, 'cause I wear make-up and clothes too. I guess … I mean, maybe expensive's a good word for it, cause they are predominantly higher-income. (21st century study)

Women may have to be all they were in the 20th century, plus they have to look like they come from money and aim to have successful careers and financial independence going forward. However, that doesn't mean the rules of the Greek game have changed. The Interfraternity Council and the National Panhellenic Council create and enforce the policies and rules for the individual fraternities and sororities on each campus. The two councils set different rules and policies, meaning that historically white fraternities and sororities operate by different playbooks, with historically white sororities operating under far more restrictive rules than their fraternal counterparts. Indeed, the separate rules of the organizations have remained frozen in patriarchal norms of the 19th and 20th centuries.

An unequal playing field for men and women

Men in fraternities are allowed to host parties with alcohol, and there are no prohibitions on them having overnight opposite-sex guests. But women are not allowed to serve alcohol at parties; nor are they officially allowed to have opposite-sex guests outside of common areas. Thus, parties occur at fraternities — on men’s turf, and according to men’s preferred lighting, music, and alcohol.

It is truly remarkable that even today, a social system that creates an uneven playing field for men and women continues to operate on many college campuses. The differential restrictions for men and women matter in very concrete ways because women are more at risk for sexual assault when the social occasions that involve drinking are entirely controlled by fraternity men on their own turf. But the rules also matter because they define the hidden curriculum: The acceptance of male dominance in heterosexual relationships. Men invite, men host, men pay (for the alcohol), men control. What a lesson for young women to learn in the 21st century.

What has changed is women's views of these inequalities. In the 20th-century data, the women did not contest these rules. They were taken for granted. But not anymore. Women today see these rules as sexist and wrong; in Ispa-Landa’s latest wave of data collection (2020-21) many women who supported the “Abolish Greek Life” movement believed that historically white Greek life would never be able to overcome its racist, sexist, and elitist roots. They wanted out.

So what do we learn from looking at these mostly white privileged women's organizations and how they have evolved over the last 50 years? Has feminism changed them?

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Sorority sisters
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Not really. The women themselves are different: They are now more career-oriented, and sorority rush reflects that change, as women are expected to talk about their intellectual, academic, or artistic “passions” during rush. Yet, the old norms remain. Historically white sororities prefer to recruit conventionally attractive women who like to party and will therefore appeal to the fraternity men who host the parties. The difference is that now, these women have to "be it all" — as in previous eras, they must showcase their heterosexual feminine appeal. Now, they have to combine this appeal with the historically masculine trappings of career ambition.

So, has feminism changed the worlds of women in historically white sororities? In a way, yes. These women are no longer aiming for Mrs. Degrees. They want graduate degrees and successful careers, and many appear poised to get them.

But feminism has yet to change the organizations themselves. The Greek world is still formally patriarchal, with a different set of rules for men and for women. Men still control the social settings, including alcohol. Women now realize how dangerous this is, and discuss the consequences of male control for the increased risks of sexual assault. But they do not see an easy or obvious way to change the system; for some, opting out altogether appears to be the only way forward.

Striving toward gender equality

It is now time for universities to take gender equality seriously. To be sure, some colleges and universities have taken bold steps when it comes to historically white Greek-letter organizations. Amid protests about fraternity members’ sexism and mistreatment of women, Wesleyan University recently announced that fraternities would have to go coeducational. And, starting in the 1980s, a trickle of small liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, including Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Swarthmore, and Williams, have banned them altogether. But other universities persist in allowing single-sex organizations to impose gender-specific rules and regulations on their members, creating an uneven playing field for men and women. It's time for all of us to say, enough is enough. Women students deserve the same rights and responsibilities as men students..

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