My problem with fraternities and sororities is that they are organized around the principle of exclusion. College campuses are home to many "communities" of like minded people who share an interest (in theater, politics, lacrosse, etc) or a lifestyle (of studying hard, of not drinking, of speaking French, etc.). For young people who have just been uprooted from their parents' home and sent off to make it in the big wide world, these groups can be a comfort and a joy. Those groups are open to new people. There are few prerequisites; one needs only the interest and commitment.
Fraternities and sororities, though, are closed groups of people who define themselves not by a shared passion but by an us/them set of assumptions. These groups are exclusive in both senses of the word: they perceive themselves to be high-status, and they maintain that status by excluding people. This insularity leads to a culture of impunity, which in turn explains why fraternities and sororities are so often the locus of racism, sexism, abuse, and vandalism.
The women in this photo are former members of the Delta Zeta sorority at DePauw University. They had the misfortune to be overweight, black, Korean, Vietnamese and/or geeky, and thus did not conform to the in-group image the sorority wanted to project. When the sorority's membership dipped, these women were summarily expelled from the group. So much for the ideal that sororities promote sisterhood.
As reported in the New York Times:
Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house.
The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.
“Virtually everyone who didn’t fit a certain sorority member archetype was told to leave,” said Kate Holloway, a senior who withdrew from the chapter during its reorganization.
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[T]he chapter appears to have been home to a diverse community over the years, partly because it has attracted brainy women, including many science and math majors, as well as talented disabled women, without focusing as exclusively as some sororities on potential recruits’ sex appeal, former sorority members said.
But over the years DePauw students had attached a negative stereotype to the chapter, as evidenced by the survey that Pam Propsom, a psychology professor, conducts each year in her class. That image had hurt recruitment, and the national officers had repeatedly warned the chapter that unless its membership increased, the chapter could close.
At the start of the fall term the national office was especially determined to raise recruitment because 2009 is the 100th anniversary of the DePauw chapter’s founding. In September, Ms. Menges and Kathi Heatherly, a national vice president of the sorority, visited the chapter to announce a reorganization plan they said would include an interview with each woman about her commitment. The women were urged to look their best for the interviews.
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A few days after the interviews, national representatives took over the house to hold a recruiting event. They asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms. To welcome freshmen downstairs, they assembled a team that included several of the women eventually asked to stay in the sorority, along with some slender women invited from the sorority’s chapter at Indiana University, Ms. Holloway said.
The actions of the national sorority are obviously appalling. It's interesting and sad, though, that the psychology professor (who conducted an academically dubious "survey" of attitudes toward different sororities) and the authorities from the national Delta Zeta organization (who purged the ethnic, fat and geeky in favor of the whitebread, slender and mainstream) are all women. In this story, the enforcers of retrograde 1950's ideals of beauty and femininity are female chauvinist pigs--not the male variety. This reinforces my casual observation that guys care far less about conventional female beauty than women do.
Some may argue that it is the background threat of male disapproval that prompts these self-hating women to enforce a conservative code of female appearance; in other words, patriarchy need not be corporeal to be controlling. They will point to the assertion that the women who were asked to remain in the sorority chapter were "popular with fraternity men." But apart from its offensive stereotyping of men's attitudes and its reduction of women to the role of saintly and powerless victims, this line of reasoning overlooks the philosophy of exclusivity that is the basis for the existence of groups like Delta Zeta.
By welcoming nontraditional women into their fold, the DePauw chapter of Delta Zeta undermined the sorority's raison d'etre. It threatened to blur the lines between in-group and out-group. This must have made some women there--and the men in DePauw fraternities--very anxious. If both the willowy blond and the chunky math major can be members of the same club, then there is no rationale for even having a club in the first place. To put it another way, I think that status anxiety and class consciousness trump patriarchy.
These musings aside, I am inspired by the six women who quit the sorority to protest the national association's sexual Stalinism. It was probably a difficult thing for them to do, but it shows that attitudes about race, class, body type and beauty are changing for the better in some quarters. I would be proud to call them and the women who were expelled my sisters.