I recently reread McCall Hollie’s piece “Dear PNMs,” a letter of advice to Duke women going through sorority recruitment that she published the year I went through recruitment for the first time. I asked McCall, who wrote in a Facebook post last week that “sorority rush is an alienating, harmful, and archaic practice,” what she thought could be done to improve the system. “Abolish it,” she responded. “The foundations of the system are truly so ancient (re: sexist, racist, classist, heteronormative, homophobic, ableist) that I don’t know what could be changed of it that would actually make it a truly inclusive space.”
My first reaction to this response (as some of you might also be thinking) was, That may be true of the system as a whole, but my sorority is incredibly inclusive! I feel that my sorority provides a truly supportive community that fosters strong friendships, pushes me to become a better person, and embraces women for who they are without judgment or pressure to fit a certain mold. It is absolutely true that membership remains inaccessible to women of lower incomes who cannot afford dues, and we must find a way to provide more scholarships and financial aid so that the Greek system no longer perpetuates socioeconomic privilege (for instance by providing access to large alumni networks unavailable to those who could not afford to join a Greek organization). However, my own chapter actively works to keep dues as low as possible, and we are one of the most diverse chapters on campus.
My chapter’s inclusivity, however, is perhaps only possible because of its lower position in the Greek hierarchy* – or perhaps its lower position is due to its inclusivity. Excluding others is a way for groups to gain power and social status. I have heard stories of certain fraternities refusing to mix with certain sororities because of their perceived low ranking in the hierarchy, and vice versa. I have heard stories of certain sororities telling certain fraternities that they will only mix with them if the fraternity stops mixing with another “lower-ranked” sorority. I have heard stories of sororities that rank their members in an “A-list,” a “B-list,” and a “C-list,” sending only their favorite, hottest girls to events with the top-ranking fraternities and sending their “lesser” members to less “important” events. These behaviors are well-known by members of the Greek system and are blatant strategies for obtaining and maintaining power. Why do we continue to tolerate them as though they are an inevitable part of a system we cannot change?
The hierarchical nature of the Greek system is toxic to the individuals within the system as well as to Duke’s social scene as a whole. I sometimes catch myself being sucked into it, judging women based on their appearance and how popular others perceive them to be rather than who they are as people. I would like to think that the hierarchy and exclusivity could be eliminated, or at least reduced, through reform – for instance, providing more scholarships, instituting minimum requirements for the racial make-up of groups, or requiring (as some schools do) that every fraternity mix with every sorority.
However, I wonder whether creating equality within a system founded upon exclusivity is even possible. In my “Thinking Gender” class, we recently read Audre Lorde’s iconic essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” The phrase this speech is named after indicates that one cannot successfully fight inequality and oppression using the same methods as the oppressive system.
Sororities were first created in response to the exclusion of women from fraternities. The women who started them were rebellious, strong trailblazers demanding the same opportunities as men. These groups, however, remained accessible only to white Christian (generally Protestant) women. By using the same tools as the white men – creating an elite, secretive group that excluded entire segments of the population – they furthered the oppression of non-Christians and people of color. While these groups also reacted by creating their own Greek organizations, and white Greek organizations have since opened up to membership by non-whites, it is clear that the Greek system remains far from reaching full integration. One need only compare the make-up of “higher-ranking” and “lower-ranking” groups to see that it continues to discriminate, whether intentionally or unintentionally, based on race, appearance, socioeconomic status, and physical ability.
The way the system is set up now, if I want my own sorority to gain social status, then strategically, I should choose the women who I think the men in the highest ranking fraternities will most want to affiliate with (read: fuck), the women who will make my sorority look cool and attractive and who hold the most power within society. I should choose the girls who fit a certain ideal of femininity and reject, in Lorde’s words, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference”: minority women, poor women, LGBT women, women who do not fit society’s skinny standard of beauty, women with physical disabilities or speech impediments or who do not speak perfect English. I reject these tools of exclusivity and judgment that the system has given me, for exercising them will perhaps increase my own power, but it will not deconstruct the ladder of power upon which the system rests. I am challenging myself instead to judge women based on their character and to welcome those against whom the system normally discriminates.
Yet this may not be enough for Lorde. She articulates the position of radical feminism, which rejects reformism and asserts that eliminating hierarchy requires dismantling the existing system. Eliminating the hierarchy of the Greek system at Duke, if we accept this position, requires abolishing the Greek system entirely.
I normally consider myself a liberal feminist, for I believe (perhaps naïvely?) that it is possible to work within our existing society to obtain equality. I have hope that we can remake our Greek system to dismantle the hierarchy within and, as Lorde stresses, “take our differences and make them strengths.” Perhaps this position is a cop-out for me – it takes much less effort and sacrifice on my part to accept the system and work to improve it than to fight its existence, and it does not require me to sacrifice the strong sisterhood that my own sorority has provided me. Yet Lorde’s warning that using the tools of the system to attempt to create equality “will never enable us to bring about genuine change” makes me grapple with myself. By participating in this system, am I necessarily continuing the oppression that it creates?
But arguing at this point in time about whether the Greek system ought to exist or not seems counter-productive to me, because its power and popularity make it highly unlikely that any attempt to get rid of it will succeed. Rather, I prefer to tackle its negative aspects from the inside, while strengthening its positive aspects like the social bonds, the community, and the engagement in service that it fosters. If you wish, like I do, to dismantle the social ladder in favor of a round table, get off the ladder and take a seat. We have to stop climbing. We must sacrifice some of our own power and actively reach out to those who differ from us, for, “Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”
* I am referring specifically to the hierarchy within Duke’s Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council, as I have less personal knowledge about the National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Council.