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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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