Perspectives on Sisterhood
by Hannah Fleming
It is Thursday night on the University of Southern California campus. My friend Caroline, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, accompanies me down Greek Row, telling me what the strange symbols mean as I point to each house like a toddler at a new playground. I can’t tell you much about the rest of the night except that I jumped into a grocery cart filled with ice at a frat house.
The two sides of the row are night and day. Fraternities turned nightclubs are on the left, built with big atriums for the purpose of packing in as many partygoers as possible. On the right are the sorority mansions, primrose and wheaten, the parlors reserved for brunches, Kate Spade and relative sobriety. Caroline leaves me at their brunch the next day and heads to her 12 p.m. tutoring session. I know no one, so I sit outside and enjoy the L.A. weather and the free food. Looking through the shutters I admire the boundless feminine energy. The girls appear ecstatic to be with one another, at leastwhen seen through windows and phone screens—Instagram likes are one of the many perks that come with Greek life at USC.
The house itself serves as a safe haven for its members, shielding them from the large campus environment while providing easy access to nightlife. For $2,000 a semester, young women receive ample food and friendship. “I eat all my meals there. It’s convenient, and cheaper than buying groceries or paying for every single meal,” Caroline said. “It’s nice to have a place to go if I just need to go somewhere. I’m happy because I joined a sorority that fits my personality.”
Caroline doesn’t want others judging her by letters on her shirt—she ditched her Theta backpack long ago. Her sorority is perceived as being “prude,” as the “backdoor sluts.” She pegs other sororities as bawdy and showy about their wealth. “I tend to be a believer in getting to know someone first because people do judge you for those stigmas,” she said.
For many women at Colorado College, being on a campus where the first question someone asks you at a party isn’t “What sorority are you in?” is a gift.
Senior Angelica Florio was a Chi Omega at George Washington University before she transferred to CC her junior year. When I asked her why she made the switch, she replied that she wanted to be in a place where being involved didn’t mean weekly girl club meetings. “I was fighting it when I was there,” she said. “I thought to myself, this doesn’t have to be my college experience.” Upon reflection, Angelica admits she was resisting the entire Greek system rather than her own sorority. Her chapter called themselves “Chi Bro” and was “the least sorority sorority.” The girls in Chi-O seemed the most down-to-earth during rush week.
For Caroline, rush was a successful four-day period of talking and house touring. The gatherings “are usually pretty superficial, but it is the first time you’re meeting people.” Mansions are well decorated and girls ask questions that go beyond the surface level “where are you from?” and “what’s your major?” Caroline is from the South and likes photography; she was often asked about country music festivals and favorite artists. She wasn’t dropped by a single sorority.
For Angelica, the experience included a few Stepford Wives moments. With no hidden camera on her chest, the Oregon native who rarely straightens her hair challenged herself to convey the experience of rush to her friends back home. “Basically, you’re prescreened. They already know who’s coming in, and they already have an idea of who they don’t want,” she said. Unlike USC or larger schools in the South, the sorority houses are town homes in midst of a D.C. neighborhood. Angelica describes rush as nights full of chattering girls in themed outfits, crammed into a building the size of Worner. They were told to “line up boobs to back” by the temporarily disaffiliated sorority members leading them through rush, she says. Some girls had the home field advantage: letters of recommendation from their legacy mothers. Others had simply been waiting for this moment for most of their young lives.
The girls filed into different rooms decorated for each sorority. “The decorations save you because if you go to ten of these in a night, they want their room to be as memorable as possible,” Angelica said. It worked. She cites an entirely gold room.
While the scared, freshman sardines are challenged to stand out in different “business casual” and “date night” garments, sorority members have to look the same, Angelica said. Blue shirts and white pants, or something along those lines. When rush week came in the fall of Angelica’s sophomore year, some of the Chi Bro members wanted the sorority to be more like their counterparts and planned the rush-look “down to the brand,” she says. A senior member sent out an email outlining what wasn’t acceptable: MAC makeup? Out. Frizzy hair? Tame it. Angelica has a head full of wild, natural curls. “I was offended by that,” she said.
Granted, there aren’t many sisters who say freshman rush week was the best experience they’ve had in their sorority. CC calls the process recruitment; true to its definition, the chapters want to enlist you. Every girl interested in one of the school’s three sororities (Kappa Kappa Gamma, Delta Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta) gets a bid. The only limitation is numbers.
Theta president Eliza Milliken describes CC recruitment as a much friendlier process than rush at most schools. “You don’t feel locked in any point until you’re initiated. I liked all three groups of women, but the main criterion was connection. It was about being able to expand my network of people,” she said. She felt the strongest sense of ease from the Theta house. Greek life at CC, she says, is built on comfort rather than force. Apprehensive freshman are greeted with love and given protection by the upperclassmen. “Seniors completely took the freshman under their wing, invited us to hang out at their houses, have meals together. It’s hard to meet upperclassmen if you’re not part of a group. It made me feel good knowing I could go up to people and tell them if I didn’t feel safe,” Eliza said.
During the first week, safety takes the form of sobriety. As acting head of recruitment, Eliza couldn’t get too specific but did mention that alcohol is “eliminate[d] from the conversation because that’s not what sororities are about.” Drinks, drugs and being seen by a disaffiliated member at a party are all prohibited.
Ashley Johnson joined Delta Gamma her freshman year and dropped out in March of her sophomore year. She describes not being able to celebrate the first week of school as a bit stifling. “It’s like your grandma is with you all the time,” she said. Plus, there’s the $100 fine for breaking the rules. “I didn’t have special privileges being in Greek life; it was more like I got made fun of for being in Greek life,” she said.
CC sororities are, at least, cheaper than at big schools. An article published in the New York Times titled “Greek Letters at a Price” cite the average cost per semester of schools in the South (without housing) ranging from $1,130 to $1,530. Ashley says that sororities at CC get progressively cheaper per semester. The food, t-shirts, house upkeep, and dues to the organization all add up for incoming freshman, starting off around $1,000 and dropping to around $800 the second semester.
Sorority costs are not just monetary but include a considerable time commitment, especially when it comes to philanthropy. Ashley found it less than rewarding, mostly because Service for Sight, her sororities’ designated charity, wasn’t a cause she felt inspired by. “We worked with disabled veterans; there was a blind woman who lived near CC we drove her to doctor’s appointments and helped her read,” she says.
The rest of Delta Gamma’s events had a minor emotional impact for Ashley—especially after her older friends and mentors in the sorority graduated. She originally joined due to family pressure, encouraging NSO leaders and the promise of a secret society that was “skull and bones” rather than “bubblegum.” It turned out to be the latter. “It was never bad stuff, just boring stuff. Why was I paying to have this huge time commitment that I’m not even interested in?”
Some find it worthy of their time. In discussing last year’s Kicks for Casa, Theta’s annual kickball tournament benefitting the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the Pikes Peak Region, Eliza feels a sense of empowerment. “We raised over $10,000 dollars for Casa, which is huge. It shows me the way we can all work together to do something really beneficial for someone,” she says. Over winter break every member of Theta will be assigned a task for organizing the event. Outside of group projects, individuals are required to complete fifteen hours of additional community service and are responsible for maintaining a certain GPA. “You’re holding girls accountable and rewarding them for doing well in Theta,” Eliza says.
That translates into an entire network of post-graduate connections. When asked how she knew other Thetas would help her out, Eliza simply said, “Shared experiences create a lasting connection.”
Moments of sisterhood are not solely chapter meetings, founder’s weekends and paying homage to the higher Greek powers that be, but doing the real college kid thing. During Angelica’s time at GW the common draw to Greek life was painfully obvious. The service aspect of sororities, Angelica says, is “what people tell you when they want to sound like they’re not paying for friends—they’re paying for events.”
Greek organizations on the micro-level are susceptible to focusing on the experience rather than the cause. “It stops being about philanthropy,” Angelica says, recalling the Pi Kappa Alpha (or Pike) fraternity Fireman’s Challenge. The competition involved going to a field, hosing each other down, playing in the mud and raising money for firemen in D.C. “Everyone gets drunk before these events that are to raise money, and then you’ve raised money and done a good thing…maybe?” Angelica’s sophomore year, Chi Omega found out they won the fireman’s challenge (thanks to their parent’s money). In a completely reasonable gesture of enthusiasm, girls were screaming and running around the house. “It wasn’t about raising that amount of money, or even the cause. It was about the fact that they won,” she said.
Angelica now has Alumni status in Chi Omega, coupled with a better understanding of the inner workings of a sorority. “The interest in sororities is being popular. At GW, in order to have a social life, you have to be Greek. That’s the automatic ticket into the mainstream,” she says. But, in reality, no one escapes branding. Angelica’s other friends who didn’t pledge were referred to as GDIs: God Damn Independents.
“Having Greek letters on a shirt gave people this confidence, this idea of themselves, this identity. The interest of sororities is college. It’s not really about sisterhood,” she said.
For Eliza, CC Theta president, being in a sorority is about developing good relationships, serving the community and emphasizing academics. For Caroline, USC Theta member, it’s about looking over your shoulder at the chapter meetings you manage to make it to and flying under the radar as you wonder whose reputation you’re trying to uphold.
“We have to answer to national Theta—there’s a “higher power” watching over us. I think the paradox of joining comes from them. We have to live up to their expectations because it’s the only reason we’re able to have these events,” Caroline says. I call her on the phone a few weeks after my visit. While I was there I met her roommates and some of the girls she’s close with, all of whom are in Theta. Then there was the multitude of girls I met that Thursday night, most of whom Caroline only knows underneath the flashing lights of a frat party.
Caroline pauses on the phone. “A girl just waved and blew me a kiss and I have no idea who she is. I might know her, that’s the sad part.”
Sorority life is a curious mix of country club poise and real friendships—sometimes the two go hand in hand, and the girls are drawn together by the joy of a home base. Sometimes it’s that mandatory cookie decorating party that will get you a job opportunity when you leave the land of pins and formals. At Colorado College, at least, sororities are “an increasing presence on campus, in a lot of good ways,” Eliza says.
For us God Damn Independents, it’s the occasional excuse to wear heels and eat free brunch.