My Sorority Inspired Me to Study Feminism — And I Left Because of It
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I grew up in a house of only women, so when I arrived on campus during my first year, I naturally gravitated toward communities for women. However, I initially didn't think about joining a sorority due to the stereotypes I had learned over the years.
Namely, sorority girls were rich and did not value diversity. But when I saw Greek letters on the shirt of a girl who was plus-size like me in one of my gen ed classes, I became interested in learning more. The particular sorority that I pursued — and ultimately joined — valued diversity not only in physical appearance, but also in economic background.
It gave me a community of like-minded women and led me to study feminism. But my studies made me recognize the violence against women in Greek culture that no one was willing to correct. I ended up leaving because of it.
Sorority History Introduced Me to Feminist History
As a pledge of my sorority, studying its history became paramount to my approval for initiation. Learning about our history, however, was not a mundane box to check on my way to becoming a sister. Rather, it inspired me to know that I had chosen an organization that broke down so many barriers for women.
At a time in U.S. history when only five state universities admitted women, my organization's founders met in secret to form their own fraternity for women. It became both a social community and a professional network. The 12 founders of my sorority ensured that women felt they had a rightful place on campus and beyond.
At the same time, I was reading Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" — a transcription of her lectures at the University of Cambridge. Woolf talks about how, ironically, she had been turned away from the library at the same university community where she was to deliver keynotes on fiction writing.
"Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind," Woolf said.
This exclusion resonated with my experience as a new sorority member because so much of university life seemed out of my reach: I grew up poor and didn't fit the physical mold of what most think is required to join a sorority.
The locked library became, for me, a metaphorical stand-in for the obstacles that stood in many marginalized people's way when pursuing higher education. Reading "A Room of One's Own" and learning more about the history of my sorority at the same time connected me to a history of feminist resistance within the ivory tower.
I Used What I Learned to Drive Diversity in My Sorority
That feminist spirit continued with my pledge class through our years in undergrad. At that time, our sorority was one of just a few on campus that allowed for — and even encouraged — diversity.
As such, we faced an uphill battle to be seen as legitimate and equal to many of our counterparts. We recruited and accepted first-generation college students, young mothers, non-traditional students, and other people of diverse backgrounds.
Since many of our members came from economically underprivileged backgrounds, myself included, a lot of us had multiple jobs in addition to full-time coursework and sorority obligations. Understandably, we did not have the highest collective GPA out of all of the organizations. We, as a group, were walking on thin ice.
The Same Feminism That Led Me to Join the Sorority Forced Me to Leave
During my junior year as an undergrad and sorority member, I began to follow my feminist instincts. I declared a women and gender studies minor. Up to that point, my experience with feminist studies had been mostly women's literature and media, so learning about material and current struggles women faced somewhat unmoored me.
I began to volunteer at the local rape crisis center and found myself invested in preventing violence against women on campus. Unfortunately, violence against women in Greek culture was and still is a big problem.
I took up leadership roles in my sorority and began functioning as the new member coordinator, what most typically know as the "pledge-mom." It was my job to educate our new members on our history, processes, and governing bodies, as well as to keep them safe throughout their orientation to the sorority. This unofficially involved functioning as the sober sister during the weekends to make sure new members and initiated sisters alike had safe transportation to and from social events.
It was in this role that I began to see just how insidious rape culture was within the Greek community. As both a volunteer at our women's center and the new member coordinator, I felt it was my responsibility to do something.
I proposed that we begin to have mandatory violence prevention seminars for both the sororities and fraternities. I also lobbied our sorority's executive counsel to put a more comprehensive protocol in place for when incidents do happen. At the time, these were radical ideas.
Since, as I mentioned before, our sorority wasn't in the best standing in terms of campus reputation, our executive board pushed back, arguing that we couldn't afford the controversy and that we still had work to do to improve our reputation. I tried to leverage my membership to negotiate these changes, but unfortunately, they didn't happen.
I turned in my pin one semester before graduating as an alum.
We Need to Address the Violence and Inequality Women in Greek Life Face
While we've certainly come a long way from women being banned from university libraries, campus violence against women is still a huge issue. Resigning from my sorority was, at that point in my life, one of the most difficult things I had ever done.
I was hurt and resentful for a while afterward, but I've come to understand that two truths can exist at once: Sororities can be wonderful communities that inspire women's personal and professional growth, and there is still a lot of work to be done to make Greek life, and university life in general, more equitable and safe for women.
I'm happy to say that, since my graduation, violence prevention seminars have been a regular part of Greek life on my alma mater's campus.
Meet the Author
Sandra Carpenter is a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She has an MA in Women's and Gender Studies from the University of South Florida and a BA in Creative Writing from Eastern Kentucky University. Sandra's research and writing focus on Feminist Geography, Appalachian Studies, and Critical Race and Postcolonial Studies.