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Jan

27

The Schisms Of Sisterhood

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On Monday, January 25, Anushua (Shua) Bhattacharya published an op-ed in the Spectator about her experience with sorority recruitment and sorority culture on campus. Over the past few days, other women who are in sororities or have resigned from sororities on campus have reached out with their perspectives in response to Shua’s op-ed. In this piece, Deputy Editor Rachel Deal explores the sorority experience at Columbia, from problems with recruitment to the pressures of sorority culture–specifically the pressure to remain silent. The article focuses on Shua Bhattacharya and two other women–Laura and Sarah–whose names have been changed due to their wishes to stay anonymous. The article incorporates experiences and comments from other sorority sisters as well.

All sororities were contacted during the development of this piece: five sororities declined to comment for various reasons, and one did not respond to our request.

For Shua Bhattacharya, the sorority recruitment process was uncomfortable. She outlines this feeling in her op-ed, and though she originally enjoyed and felt validated by belonging to her sorority, Sigma Delta Tau, this excitement grew stale. She started to realize that the bonds she had formed with most of her sisters were based on drinking and partying, not on things that were actually important to her. She went inactive, and realized that she could still remain friends with the sisters she grew close to, but not partake in sorority culture. “I wanted to believe that Greek Life at a school like Columbia could be different,” she said, “that the sorority would be about empowering women and valuing long-lasting friendships that weren’t based on drunken nights and receiving validation on social media.” When she tried to voice her concerns to members of her sorority, her negative experiences were brushed off, and she was told that all sororities were like theirs.

DFMO = "dance floor makeout"

From one of the Theta GroupMe’s. DFMO = “dance floor makeout”

Laura, too, went through the recruitment process her sophomore year after transferring from a different college. “I thought that I would get a family,” she said, “and I thought that there would be a common goal.” In a way, she thinks her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, did have a common goal, but not one that she was expecting or was necessarily comfortable with. “The goal, I realized, was overwhelmingly booze and boys,” two of the banned topics of conversation during recruitment. “There’s nothing wrong with partying, but I didn’t want it to be the focal point of being in a sorority,” she said. She wishes the recruitment process had revealed her sorority’s emphasis on partying earlier.

Sarah went through recruitment her freshman year, and her decision came down to two sororities: ”One of them felt like home, and one of them was filled with the kinds of girls I had always wished I could be.” She chose the latter, and she regretted it from the beginning. “I never felt like I belonged,” she said, and she didn’t understand why her sorority had chosen her. “I thought they picked me because they thought I would fit in, but I felt like I was nothing like my other sisters.” According to Sarah, the culture of her sorority focuses on “who can be the most well-known on campus, and who knows the most boys in frats.” Sarah is still a member of her sorority, Delta Gamma, fearing the disdain she would face if she were to resign. Like Shua, though, she has found that her concerns have gone unheard. “If I disaffiliated, I would be an outcast. They would say that I didn’t try to work things out, but I did try.” She expressed her dissatisfaction to the leadership of her sorority, and was told that other sisters felt that way, too. “They didn’t tell me who, though, and they didn’t do anything to address my concerns.”

Recruitment

Sorority recruitment at Columbia takes place over the course of a single weekend. The process begins Thursday evening and goes through Sunday, with three different rounds. The first round, “Philanthropy,” spans Thursday evening and all day Friday. This is the first time Potential New Members (or PNMs) briefly meet two to three sisters of each of the six sororities. Afterwards, the following rounds are invitation-only, based on the brief conversations a few sisters have with each PNM the day before. The next round is called “Development,” consisting of similarly brief “parties” in either Faculty House or a first-year dorm lounge, followed by more cuts for the next round on Sunday, called “Preference Night,” after which PNMs list the sororities from which they would want to receive a bid.

An excerpt from the 2015 Alpha Chi Omega recruitment handbook

An excerpt from the 2015 Alpha Chi Omega recruitment handbook

The rules of recruitment are strict—leading up to formal recruitment, sorority sisters and PNMs are not supposed to interact. There are dress codes for each day, and the requirements are particularly harsh for current sisters, who are required to wear a certain formulaic outfit each day, and whose outfits must get approved beforehand. Sisters and PNMs are told to stay away from discussing any of the 4 B’s—booze, boys, brownstones, and bars. According to women who have previously gone through recruitment, the process feels “tiring, repetitive, and superficial.”

Recruitment at Columbia is rushed (no pun intended). In comparison to week-long sorority recruitments at other institutions, recruitment here is short, lasting only a few days. At schools such as Yale (which has four sororities) and WashU (which has eight), recruitment spans an entire week, allowing for a more relaxed and natural process. A briefer period of recruitment may just be part of the culture at Columbia—students are stressed and busy, so shortening the process could feel more convenient. However, fraternity rush at Columbia lasts two to three weeks. Despite frats being much smaller than sororities—most frats have around 50 members, while sororities have around 200—the frat rush process is more drawn out, thorough, and natural. Men are not forced to rush every fraternity, most rush events take place in the frats’ brownstones or EC suites, and men rushing fraternities partake in normal frat activities–they play beer pong, they hang out at the house and chat with brothers, they play soccer or whiffle ball on the lawns in front of Butler. Their activities become invitation-only after the first week, allowing potential pledges to form connections with brothers and figure out where they feel they would best fit in.

Sorority recruitment, on the other hand, feels forced and contrived in that it is stripped of some of the main elements of sorority life—the settings of Faculty House, John Jay, and Carman Lounge are random; the outfits are uniform; and the topics of conversation are restricted. Despite sororities’ commitments to fostering “unique” communities of “leading women,” the process is formulaic and superficial. At its core, sorority recruitment at Columbia limits the potential for sisters and PNMs to make substantial and meaningful connections, while also misrepresenting sorority life as a whole. How, then, can sororities choose the most well-suited PNMs for their organization if the recruitment process is hurried and the conversations are surface-level?

Many sisters admit to the existence of a “list” made before recruitment. While some sororities are more transparent about this practice–Delta Gamma and Alpha Chi Omega, for example, ask current sisters for recommendations of new members–others are more secretive. One member of Kappa Alpha Theta said that sisters are given a list of PNMs and told to “take a look at them,” meaning look at their social media accounts. She said, “I’ve been told there’s a list of potential girls we would like to have in our sorority, but I’ve never seen the list. Still, there’s a huge focus on the image and the looks of the PNMs, and that can be really frustrating. Someone’s personality isn’t always the focus during recruitment.” Though sisters do vouch for PNMs whom they meet during recruitment and think would fit into the sorority, it is harder to get in if you’re not already on the list. Even more insidious is a process she calls “blacklisting”—“There is a way to block a PNM from joining the sorority even before recruitment,” she said. “I personally despise this rule. It allows certain sisters in the sorority who have more friends, and hence [more] voting power, to blacklist a girl for reasons that may be exaggerated or not even valid.”

A Forced Sisterhood

It can be jarring to move the arbitrary process of recruitment into a group of women who are supposed to be your sisters. “It’s disheartening to realize that you don’t really have a true connection with these people,” said a member of Sigma Delta Tau. She felt that the sisters who were able to become closer were able to do so because they already had certain things in common, such as their religion or even their hometown. “If you fit the mold, you seem to be able to find a great sisterhood. But for those who don’t, the experience is completely different.”

In her experience, Sarah said members of Delta Gamma are often chosen based on “looks, wealth, and power.” She is a first-generation American, and though she said her family lives “comfortably,” she also acknowledged that her sorority does not feel like a place where she can discuss issues of socioeconomic status or race. “The majority of my sorority is white, and a lot of the girls went to private school and have money. [Socioeconomic status and race] don’t feel like things I could ever bring up. It makes me uncomfortable saying, ‘Yeah, my parents had to come to this country with nothing,’” she mentioned.

Not all of the sororities offer financial support for less well-off members, and the costs of membership can be difficult to afford even if the chapter does offer financial support. Beyond dues, which are generally between $500-$700 per semester, there are also hidden costs—buying t-shirts and hats and sweatshirts with the sorority’s letters on them, purchasing the right outfits for recruitment, getting a big spread of gifts for every day of “Big-Little Reveal” week, and paying for formal (from getting hair and makeup done to buying a new dress to paying for dinner and limos).

No sorority would offer an official comment for this article, but individual members within various sororities said that Panhellenic chapters on campus are prohibited from specifying their membership fees. They also said that they are not aware of their chapters keeping statistics on diversity.

Moving Forward

“I ultimately decided to disaffiliate,” said Laura, “because I felt the sorority was taking time away from being with other people I care about, and because there was so much more out there that I would be proud to be involved with and put my name on.”

Sorority life at Columbia hasn’t earned the most shining reputation in recent years. Most famously, Kappa Alpha Theta came under fire in 2014 for dressing up in racist costumes at a mixer. Photos of sisters dressed in sombreros and as “Japanese school girls” appeared in publications such as the Huffington Post. More recently, too, Alpha Chi Omega was criticized last Winter after their recruitment handbook was leaked to Jezebel, and the former president-elect of the newest chapter on campus, Gamma Phi Beta, was accused of bullying her way into the position in November.

That’s not to say these reputations are always fair–the language people use to talk about sororities is often demeaning, sexist, and mocking. Instead of considering a sorority’s problems to be temporary, students at Columbia often ascribe certain stereotypes to sororities as if they are inherent in organizations of women–internal conflict within sororities is considered inevitable, or labeled as petty drama.

ITB = “In the bond (of sisterhood)”

The structure of sororities doesn’t help to change that view, either. As many of the sisters who spoke to Bwog pointed out (and demonstrated through their fear of being identified in this article), members of sororities find it difficult to speak out. Sisters feel pressured to publicly support the choices of their organization, even if they personally disagree with those decisions. When people do criticize sororities, the organizations often unanimously restrict their members from responding to the criticism. Following Shua’s op-ed on Monday, Bwog was tipped an email that was sent from the leadership of Delta Gamma to its members telling them not to share the article on social media, and they ended the email with “ITButwhyareyousoobsessedwithus???” Instead of acknowledging potential problems with their culture, the DG officers actively decided to cast the issue as one of jealousy, playing into sexist stereotypes and closing off the possibility for discussion. A sister from Delta Gamma said afterward, “Seeing how some girls in my sorority reacted to the Spec opinion piece was a real wake up call. But there was no chance to discuss what I felt because the girls who were against the piece dominated the conversation. No one ever asked, ‘Hey, does anyone think some of what she’s saying is true?’ or even, ‘What’s your opinion, everyone?'”

The idea that sororities are in competition with each other also pervades discussions of Greek Life on campus, and much of this tension comes from the ways in which sororities interact with fraternities. Sororities have stricter rules toward alcohol and partying, and this helps perpetuate gendered power dynamics in the Greek community at Columbia. Not only are sisters and PNMs not allowed to discuss the four B’s during recruitment, but sororities are also not allowed to have alcohol in their houses, nevermind host gatherings with alcohol present. Fraternities, on the other hand, are allowed to possess alcohol, as well as host mixers and parties. This disparity feeds sororities’ dependence upon frats for social events, which in turn engenders a cycle of competition between sororities. While this competition between sororities appears unnecessary and is definitely unproductive, it also makes sense–time and time again, fraternities at Columbia have been explicit in their preferences toward certain sororities.

Looking back at her time in Kappa Alpha Theta, Laura feels sororities on campus can improve. She acknowledged how smart, talented, and powerful her former sisters are, but that in the environment of their chapter, she didn’t feel that any of them, herself included, were able to reach their full potential. “In a place like Columbia that brings together really incredible women on campus, sororities should be places of real female empowerment. Instead, it validates and enables tendencies and behaviors that I, personally, was not proud of.”

All of the women interviewed for this piece acknowledged their experiences are not shared by all–though they felt unhappy and isolated in their sororities, they know that others enjoy the sisterhood. At the same time, these women feel that they did not get from sororities what they were sold during recruitment. “My intention is not to tell PNMs to drop out of recruitment prematurely,” said Shua. “I think each PNM should go through the process on their own and, knowing what they know now from what we’ve all said, make a more informed decision.” Sarah offered this advice to PNMs going through recruitment this weekend: “Do it because you want to, and don’t have big expectations of what’s to come. If you doubt yourself, trust that feeling, because that’s not going to change.”

Shua hopes that this piece, along with her op-ed, will allow for candid discussion within sororities at Columbia. After her op-ed was published, she received numerous texts and Facebook messages from sorority sisters in support of her piece, but she also wishes these sisters were able to share their concerns more publicly. “Clearly I’m an outsider now in the Panhellenic community, but given the number of women who have expressed solidarity with my op-ed, it’s obvious to me that change will only come if the women within the sororities push for it.”

Edit (1/27/16 at 1:32pm): A sorority that previously gave us a statement for this article has since retracted it, saying that they made a mistake and are actually not allowed to offer official comments.

Brownstones via Columbia Housing

Alpha Chi Omega recruitment handbook via Jezebel

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27 Comments

  1. Member of Greek life  

    This entire topic is being blown completely out of proportion. I find it incredibly unfair that PNMs are now entering Recruitment with a potentially negatively-biased opinion on sorority life when, in reality, the vast majority of sisters across all of Columbia's Greek chapters have had positive experiences over all. Are there things that could stand to change within sorority life? Absolutely. But so could fraternity hazing, and processes within many different student organizations on our campus. The positive aspects of joining a sorority are being severely overshadowed by this negativity -- aspects that include having a meaningful relationship with one's national philanthropy, getting to know women from across the university, gaining valuable alumni connections, and having a better, happier, and more meaningful college experience over all.

    I would urge members of the Columbia community to remember that, just because sororities here are being attached to a nation-wide negative reputation of Greek life as a whole, that doesn't meant that the views represented in this article are at all representative of many sorority members on this campus.

  2. Anonymous  

    since when has mixer attendance ever been high? ask any social chair and they'll tell you its a struggle to plan a mixer people actually attend.... i dont think sororities "depend on frats for alcohol" or "base friendships off drinking" given that the majority of sisters dont even show up

  3. advice  

    If you are a potential new member reading this, understand that doubts are natural. I am in a sorority, and I have really questioned my place in it at times. I even considered disaffiliating at one point because of issues I had with the sorority system and structure, but ultimately decided not to because I realized I was focusing primarily on the wrong things. Yes, it is true there are things that can and need to be changed about the system, as sororities tend to have outdated policies and norms. However, do NOT think that these policies cannot be changed, and understand that this IS something that can be changed from the inside. Understand that your sisters will be nothing but supportive in helping you to make these changes. This is what you should be focusing on- that when you choose the sorority that is right for you, you create a system of support that is truly incredible. The girls in our sororities are intellectual, creative, and strong women- if you have ideas that serve to empower them and create a more enjoyable and fair sorority structure, they will have your back, as they have mine as I take the next steps to improve our system. The idea that a group of women can come together and provide support, resources, intellectual stimulation, and love for one another is not something that most people would call an issue- the issue is the antiquated structure around it. I suggest that you go through recruitment, find a group with which you feel comfortable with and respect, and enjoy the incredible friends you will get to meet. At the end of the day, that is your base, and what matters the most. And go from there.

  4. We can do better than this...  

    I still fail to see why sororities are targeted for recruitment when other organizations on this campus have even more rigid ways in which they establish their membership base. Some groups call for new member hazing, ostracize members if/when they quit, and create their own social barriers that prohibit and inhibit some people from joining to begin with. My first year I was deliberately excluded from one of the political groups on campus. I tried joining their social group, and they made it abundantly clear that they didn't want me there. Yet, you don't see me writing an article complaining about them. Additionally, hundreds of people go through A Capella auditions, and only a small fraction are given a spot in a group. More than just singing ability goes into that membership process as well.

    Targeting sororities is simply convenient because there are existing assumptions and pre-formulated scripts that says sorority women are nothing but snobby party girls who buy their friends. Articles like this are simply a ill-intended sustaining of those scripts. Regardless of how many sorority women are leaders on this campus, work jobs to pay for college and dues, and come from all walks of life, we are constantly reduced to a set of stereotypes and misrepresentations. To degrade a massive group of women (Panhellenic is ~600 people) is nothing short of impulsive stereotyping and deliberate devaluing of women (even if the author of this article is a woman).

    How about we challenge those prescriptive assumptions and take a moment to validate the positive that come from sorority communities, namely the forging of community support groups, creating social sites that remedy the BC/CC/SEAS/JTS divide, and the hundreds of hours spent volunteering and thousands raised for cancer research (Relay for Life) and directed towards other philanthropic causes. As a Columbia community, we can do better than to minimize a massive group of women into a degrading set of assumptions and actively ignore the benefits they offer.

  5. Anonymous  

    Does anyone have AOII's statement before it was retracted?

  6. grammarienne  

    biggest problem with this article AND the CU community at large: no one knows how to fucking use the em-dash anymore

  7. pnms please read  

    If you are PNM who has been reading these articles and is now scared or concerned about going through recruitment, please don't let this deter you from at least trying it. I'm not going to lie to you, the recruitment process itself is definitely outdated and a little superficial, but the conversations that you have with the girls are real - we want to get to know you, honestly. Of course, we can't talk about boys or alcohol but that is not our decision, it's national. That means that no sorority in the entire country can discuss these things, not just Columbia. I feel that we're really being attacked for a system that goes completely over our head, and is mandated by the national Panhellenic committee. That being said, we don't NEED to talk about boys or alcohol or brownstones in recruitment because that's not what the sorority is about. I can't tell you how many times I've chosen not to go out and had at least 10 sorority sisters ask me if I wanted to watch a movie or eat take out or do homework or just talk. Of course going to parties is a fun thing I do with my sisters, but I also do that with my friends who aren't in sororities because that's what I like to do - but nobody is ever forced to attend events like this, and most of what I do in my sorority has nothing to do with booze or boys.

    I'm not going to lie to you, my first semester in my sorority wasn't amazing because I didn't know everyone yet and I felt a bit lost - it's completely unreasonable to think that I would have an instant connection with everyone. But PLEASE, don't listen to the girl who says that if you doubt your decision "that's not going to change," because it definitely did for me. I was considering dissafiliating my first semester, but then I met new girls in my sorority who I didn't know before, I became an active part of the community and took up a leadership role, and now it's honestly the best part of my life here at Columbia.

    Don't believe everything you read, being in a sorority is an amazing and rewarding experience.

    • Anonymous

      Everything about this is 100% true to my experience as well. Please keep in mind that like any genuine friendship, it will take time but I'm so glad I stuck with it because my sorority relationships are now some of my most meaningful college experiences. It is really like having an extended family. There will be some people that you are closer to than others -- that's just the nature of being a member of a large organization. And I can only speak to my own sorority -- but it is not all about booze, boys, and bars! Really. We have so many meaningful sisterhood events (meaning without alcohol). I know it's hard after these pieces come out, but please keep an open mind this weekend. I was on the fence and I am 100% so glad I went through recruitment. Through leadership positions in the sorority and sisterhood bonding events (both formal and informal), I can honestly say that I have really grown as a person and found a true family/home at Columbia.

  8. impressed  

    good article, bwog!

  9. Anonymous  

    Bwog, what the actual fuck. You are supposed to be a NEWS source, not a gossip mill. You have information from ONE SISTER. ONE SISTER. This is such a horrible thing to do to Gamma Phi right before their first formal recruitment, and I'm gonna come right out and say it: it's sexist. You're clearly desperate to prove the stereotypes about sororities (and groups of women because lol women right) true by buying into one person's statement. I'm disgusted by this and so sad for Gamma Phi Beta. If you have any decency or sensitivity whatsoever, you'll take this down. It's NOT journalism, it's NOT news, and it's unkind. You don't even have another opinion. Basic as fuck. All my love goes out to the women in GPhi right now, who don't deserve this campus-wide scrutiny.

  10. Not a Sorority Chick  

    If you wanted to read comments not being brigaded by pissed off Sorority members, check out the columbia subreddit https://www.reddit.com/r/columbia/comments/42xhmc/do_sororities_have_a_purpose/

  11. Jimmy Cricket

    Why are you making such a big (Rachel) Deal about recruitment. Let the kids play..Three disgruntled women is not a sufficient sample size for any conclusions to be drawn especially among arguably the most socially inept student body in the country.

  12. DG alum

    DG is actually incredibly diverse: racially, ethnically, by school, sexual orientation... We consider what pronouns we use when talking about formal invites. Are you surprised sorority women are so conscious? This article is bigoted and bogus.

    • Theta alum

      Let's be honest.. DG is diverse by accident. You picked the hottest girls just as one DG girl admits in this piece. I'm proud this piece came out.. it's time we called out sororities for what they are. I felt super uncomfortable in Theta during my 3 years at Columbia, and now that I've left college, I've quickly realized that sisterhood is never for lifetime...
      This piece may be harsh in some ways but it's steering the conversation in the right direction. Sorority girls-wake up.

  13. ColumbiaSororityGirl  

    Rush theta!!

  14. bwogsreallygonetoshit  

    why is this so badly written? it doesn't even read like an article and doesn't add anything to the Spec op-ed? There is no counter viewpoint offered? Like did you even ask other people who had positive experiences? I see that institutional comments are not a possibility in this case but since the anonymity is used so liberally here, why not offer anonymity to sorority girls who actually enjoyed their time as well and get their counter arguments?

    The days of Anna Bahr are long gone and missed...

    • Alumnus  

      First of all, Anna was with the Blue & White, never Bwog. She wrote some great pieces. This article is better reported than some of her earlier work, which is impressive given that the author's a sophomore. I could very easily see her writing a piece as good as the sexual assault article with more experience.

      Anyway, I think you misunderstand what Bwog is. Bwog is not like Spec, chained to the idea of impartiality. This piece makes it clear that it has an argument, which is that there's something wrong with sorority recruitment. It then goes into detail, with screenshots and quotes, to convince people of that argument!

      Anonymity is fair here, given how many personal attacks there have been on Shua's reputation since her op-ed. The fact that this is the case supports her argument. Basically, there's a plethora of testimonials out there from sisters who love their sororities. This brings new information and a new perspective to the table.

  15. X  

    A small detail that underlies the issue of Greek Life governance, that was made out to be largely localized, may explain a lot to befuddled/underwhelmed rushees and concerned members alike: The national office of Panhellenic (not to mention each house's nat'l HQs) ordain how everything goes (those oddly specific dress codes? yep, that's them; the costly requirement that PNMs try out each house, also by virtue of nationwide decisions. Some even go so far as to regulate usage of hand-signs in photos. This explains to a considerable extent as to why sororal greeks seem similar, and face the same issues, is due to their kooky rules; however, "culture" (i.e. personality, or reputation) of a house is up for each ch to decide, whether by top-down reform or if somebody like Shua speaks out. Also, give them a break. Nitpicking does no good, from the outside; they are aware of their organizational shortcomings. sheesh, I mean who cares if they wear pink on Wednesdays?

  16. Bernie 2016  

    I think we all know what the real culprit here is.

    Too much wall street money floating around perpetuating inequality amoungst sorority life. We must reform this culture of consumerism and paid interests as middle income sorority sisters are silenced and coerced at the hands of a few wealthy sorority leaders.

    A vote for Bernie Sanders will reform this rigged and broken system.

    BERNIE2016

  17. Alum

    As I understood it at the time, I'm pretty sure this weekend long recruitment process was actually intended to level the playing field and be protective -- more time on rush = more expense, more opportunities for soft/informal recruitment and vetting that all girls might not be clued into, etc. Interesting to see that many think it's backfired.

    Maybe the problem is these sororities are just too big? I don't really know what people expect to get out of a group with membership 200+ in terms of community intimacy. More smaller sororities combined with a more tailored recruitment process could lead to better fits and less disappointment/surprise.

  18. shock horror

    is bwog doing...REPORTAGE?!

  19. Yale 2017

    A really strong piece that rings true at Yale as well. I particularly related to the point about sororities relying on fraternities for social events — a cycle that seems unbreakable at Columbia and its peer institutions.

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