Greek life is, in one form or another, as old as this country. Phi Beta Kappa began in 1776 at William and Mary, complete with a secret password, handshake, and initiation process shared only by five original members. Although it would soon transition from a secret society to an intercollegiate academic organization, even the infant Phi Beta Kappa had many of the elements that would come to define American fraternities for centuries.
For nearly fifty years, fraternity culture seemed to stall. No other fraternity emerged until 1821, and Latin societies still had a better hold on campus culture. (Latin societies did, as the name suggests, hold debates in Latin. Unlike fraternities, they had more or less open membership, and the student population was often split between a couple competing societies.)
But by 1870, there were 48 all-male fraternities, many of which had chapters on multiple campuses. And by this time, some college campuses were no longer all-male: women were allowed to enroll at about a third of American universities. This was an important step, but higher education was still an uphill battle for women in the early years. Men outnumbered women nearly five to one, and although women were considered university students, they were still barred from participation in many extracurricular activities and faced discrimination and ridicule in and out of the classroom.
That’s where (and approximately when) sororities came in. Many, including the three that exist at Princeton, were founded in the 1870s as primarily academic support systems for women deemed worthy of membership. Entry into early sororities was based heavily on academic performance—some of the founding Thetas reportedly waited until grades were published to send potential new members invitations to join. Members were also held to high academic standards: if an early Kappa were going to give a speech or presentation on campus, she was required to practice it at a chapter meeting first.
Still, even in their earliest days, sororities were more than academic institutions. Using the language of sisterhood to emphasize the depth of members’ commitment to the group, early sororities united to support their members both in their academic work and in a broader educational climate that was still extremely misogynistic and unwelcoming toward women.
This probably sounds familiar — from a historical perspective, the public face of sorority life has not changed much in the past century and a half. Sororities at many, if not all, schools at least nominally promote academic achievement and the social advancement of their members. Barring perhaps philanthropy efforts that benefit women, the sisterly benevolence of sororities rarely extends beyond members of a single sorority.
That’s not necessarily bad, assuming that we hold Greek organizations to the same standards as other exclusive groups that serve a primarily social function. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that bicker or eating clubs in general, have a positive influence on campus at large when the majority of benefits these clubs can offer extend only to their members. Greek organizations, similarly, really only offer support to their members, which are chosen via a rush process that can be both nominally and subtly selective: In other words, rush is not only selective in that not everyone will be invited to join sororities at the end of the process. It is also selective because even though everyone is “allowed” to rush, both the cost of participating in a sorority and the extremely high average income of sorority members can be discouraging or prohibitive for many students.
Still, each year, many students decide to rush a sorority, which has been true for over a century. Fifty years after the beginning of coeducation, about a third of undergraduate women rushed. And as Greek life became more entrenched in campus life, competing groups felt pressure to distinguish themselves from each other and to self-advertise in order to attract the best new members.
They did this quite well: by 1920, the sorority system had come to resemble the one that exists today, and women in Greek life had established themselves among the societal elite on college campuses. The groups’ goals pivoted slightly away from academics and toward extracurricular or purely social pursuits; evaluations of new members were increasingly based on how attractive they would appear to guests at social functions. Sororities were no longer quite so concerned with the advancement of all women—the support system was becoming increasingly members-only, and it has remained this way since.
An article in The Daily Princetonian in September made a different argument: that Greek life has a positive impact on campus as a whole. The author, who is part of a sorority, suggested that students who “decide” to join a Greek organization after rushing will find an important support system — one that she argues is typically obscured by negative stereotypes about Greek life.
This is probably true, taken at face value. Of the students who began the rush process this fall, 53% received a bid and chose to join a sorority. For those students, the experience of being accepted by a group of upperclassmen who personally invited them to join was likely a socially affirming one. I spoke with a sophomore who describes rush as a “very positive experience.” Still, she said, “I don’t want to be swept up into the dream world of being in a sorority because it is exclusive and self-selective.”
It’s important to remember, though, that for the other 47% of students who rushed, the selectivity of sororities was not a potential drawback but a very real barrier to entry. While it might feel accurate to people who were selected, to write about the end result of a selective process as a “decision” is to downplay or entirely ignore the fact that nearly half the participants were not afforded the same choice. The support system described by the author cannot really be broadly beneficial if only half the people interested in participating are allowed to do so.
The Prince piece does momentarily address the selective nature of Greek life, arguing that “Though membership is selective, it is based on girls’ fit with the group, rather than talents they may possess.” But this is also only partially true, and hinges on what is meant by “fit.” In theory, it could be any number of things (and is likely intentionally vague), from surface-level impressions or actual relationships formed during the rush process. We can’t really know which holds more weight. But when over 25% of members of Greek organizations come from the top 1%, and 77% of sorority members are white, the notion that “fit” is separate from race or class is difficult to defend.
This would all be less problematic if the article in the Prince had not set the stakes of sorority membership confusingly high. Greek life, the author argues, gives members “increased access to SHARE peers and bystander intervention training.” She also suggests that membership could somehow protect students from sexual assault on the Street, based on the idea that knowing more people who go out will increase the likelihood that someone will intervene on your behalf.
Why the same protective effect could not come from other (perhaps non-selective) student groups, or even close friends, is not made clear. This is a really problematic way to encourage incoming students to rush, and leaves open questions about what happens to those who rush, but do not end up in a sorority. Are they somehow less deserving of membership benefits, which purportedly include bystander intervention from other members? There are so many ways to prevent sexual violence that do not cost hundreds of dollars — Greek life is neither the best nor the only solution. To use the paper of record as a platform to perpetuate claims like this is questionable; but given that the Prince’s head opinion editor is also the president of the Panhellenic Council, the paper’s willingness to publish this content is not surprising.
Even if we assume that sororities, as they exist at Princeton, aren’t doing any active harm, they arguably aren’t doing much good for non-members. “I think the whole ‘force of good’ idea is kind of bullshit,” a junior and former sorority member told me. “I don’t see a huge impact beyond an individual positive experience.” Another junior and current sorority member said that “for people who aren’t in Greek life, I truly don’t know if it impacts their life.”
Given sororities’ impact on campus at large—neutral at best, exclusive and elitist at worst—it is difficult to buy into the argument the Prince piece makes: that “no matter whether joining a sorority or fraternity is a good fit for you, it is worth recognizing that they are in fact a positive presence on campus.” Not only is their impact on the majority of students neutral or occasionally harmful, it is certainly not “worth” it for these students to recognize Greek life as positive.
Greek organizations, like any exclusive institution, shouldn’t be praised for bettering a community larger than the one they actually serve. Rather, it’s important to be mindful of the narrative we cultivate around exclusive groups, and hold them to the standards they set for themselves.