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Are We Failing Our Founders’ Legacy?

by Jessica Gendron Williams

I’ve had the great pleasure of working with one of the NPC sororities this spring, speaking at their regional events about something I considered controversial – feminism. I honestly applaud this organization, because when met with two options, one very standard leadership option and the second, a provocative talk about sorority and feminism – they chose feminism. I instantly got excited when met with the challenge of answering the question: “Can sorority women be feminists?” 

The more and more I researched, the more and more I read deep into the history of their organization – and sororities in general, the more I began to wonder…

“Why is the topic of feminism controversial in sorority?”

That seems like the most asinine thing to me. In fact, sorority and feminism seem like they should be synonymous.

To understand why sororities and feminism should be synonymous, you’ll need to understand our history. Here’s a brief, condensed history of sorority for the less informed:

In the mid-1800’s there were a total of about 11,000 women in college, spread across the country. Many of those women were in all-women’s schools, but some were attending institutions that were co-educational. At the time, no one believed women had a right to an education. They had few rights to begin with: they couldn’t own land, have a bank account, vote, or basically do anything without her husband’s permission or assistance. Prior to this time, most women’s education consisted of etiquette, cooking, and the like. The fact that women were heading off to college – some with the boys! – left many people confused and even angry.

The environment for women in college at the time was hostile. Many believed that women’s reproductive systems would literally quit working if they received an education. On a co-ed campus, women had access to fewer resources and possessed fewer rights than their male counterparts. Women couldn’t go in the library until the men were gone, they had to wait for all the men to be seated before they could sit in class, there were no clubs or organizations for women, certain majors and courses were restricted for women…do I need to go on? Being a college woman in these times was challenging on a daily basis.

Sororities (and secret societies) came out of those environments to support each other and help each other be successful. But, they also were created to fight for women to have more resources and greater access. If I had to relate it into today’s world: one woman turned to another woman and said, “This sucks.” The other woman responded, “Yeah, it does. We should fix this. I know a couple women…” And poof: insert founding story.

That might feel over-simplified, but I’d bet my life it’s not.

What I learned from all this research, was that we (sororities) were talking about women’s equality before feminism was a word (the word was first coined in France in the early 1900’s). From the very beginning, our organizations were about lifting women up – and fighting for equal rights. Fast forward to the early 1900’s as the Women’s Suffrage Movement was beginning to gain steam – and when you look at the history books of the women and the groups responsible for its success: sorority women and sororities were at the heart of it. Women – again – fighting for equal rights.

Feminists.

Activists.

Fighters.

With 5% of the world’s population possessing a college education, I look at sororities and wonder where we got off track? We literally have some of the most educated, connected, and affluent women in the world within our cumulative power. Where did our fight go?

We’ve been diluted down to organizations that primarily throw money at causes in exchange for photo opportunities with the underprivileged, sick, or elderly. Now don’t get me wrong, that money we’ve given to those causes has enabled many of those organizations to do good work in the world – but we are failing to use our collective power for something we were created to do:

Be activists.

Want to end illiteracy? Let’s lobby for better education and better schools in our urban and poor areas. Let’s lobby our government for universal pre-K education. Let’s use our collective power to change the system that requires us to give people books in the first place.

Want to end disease? Let’s lobby for more government funding for finding cures for the diseases. Let’s create better networks to connect patients, researchers, and doctors together across borders to get to a cure faster. Let’s build a culture that fosters and grows women in science, medicine, and engineering. Let’s literally create an incubator of people that will one day solve the actual problem!

Be feminists.

Want to end patriarchy and misogyny? WE can. We just have to stop being so scared of the word “feminism”. We must stop thinking that “equal rights for women” is one dimensional. That it includes oppression of men and ignoring the intersectionality of what feminism can mean. We must stop thinking that being a feminist requires us to pick a “political side”. That’s crap. Let’s stop polarizing every issue and work together.

We can all agree that women matter just as much as men, right? We can all agree that women have the right to be treated equally to men, right? If you don’t agree, I don’t’ know what you’re doing in a sorority, because somehow you accidentally joined an organization, that at its core, is fundamentally about lifting women up to be successful in a society driven primarily by the decisions of [white] men.

We cumulatively have more women in our organizations than any other women’s organization in the world – and they’re college educated. If we aren’t collectively fighting for equal rights for women –  what are we doing?

Probably arguing about recruitment t-shirts. (Sorry, that was unnecessarily snarky)

But seriously, what are we doing? Let’s be activists again. Let’s fight again. Let’s not just throw money at causes, clean-up highways, and dance with the elderly – let’s fight for important causes with our cumulative voices. Every major change in our society happened because a group of people gathered around a cause that was important to them – and they fought for it. They didn’t just raise money for it – they FOUGHT for it – with their time, their talents, their voices, their sweat, their tears, and sometimes even their own blood.

When’s the last time we’ve fought for something so hard we cried?

Want my honest opinion (you’re still reading, so clearly you do)? Sorority has gotten soft. We’re caught up in the day-to-day grind of socials, recruitment, filling the house, winning this award, hanging out with that fraternity, looking like this on Instagram…being bigger, better, hotter, richer, and cooler than the other sororities. Our members don’t even understand that this is what we’re about because we’ve drifted so far from it.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “But we’ll make members angry, we’ll lose alumnae, we’ll alienate donors.”

I get it, you’ve now found yourselves in the situation where you’ve got an organization to run with real bills to pay. We’ve got to figure it out, or take the risk and see what happens – if not we’ve evolved into nothing more than “fun clubs” focused on helping elite (mostly white) college students have a good time.

As for philanthropy: It’s become the way we justify and make up for all the bad crap we do. We think it makes us look good, but in reality, we look like rich kids, so disconnected and disinterested in the real-world issues that we just throw money at problems. It looks as inauthentic to outsiders as feels to us.

If you’ve gotten this point, you’re either totally jacked to get started, or you’re totally pissed that I’ve challenged who we are and what we do. Either way, that’s okay. Here’s what I need you to hear:

We were literally designed and created to fight, stand up, speak out, and change the world. The bold, brave, and inspirational women who started our organizations wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The question is: have we maintained their legacy beyond “sisterhood”? (The topic of sisterhood is for another day)

My guess is that we’re too distracted or too disconnected from our founding inspiration that we don’t even realize how far we drifted. Let’s get back to who we were intended to be:

Fighters. Activists. Feminists.

Who’s with me?

**P.S. I’m not suggesting that we quit donating money to important causes. We’re actually really good at it. I am going to continue to give money to causes that I think are important. What I am asking us to do is ALSO get dirty, to ALSO fight.