Sunday, October 29, 2006

If This Is Sisterhood, Then No Thank You

I just finished reading an article for my WS course entitled "Sister Acts: Resisting Men's Domination in Black and White Fraternity Little Sister Programs," by Wendy Stombler and Irene Padavic (two sociologists). I predict that this essay, along with the two first chapters of Alexandra Robbins book, Pledged, will spark a heated debate.

My little college is dominated by the Greek system and one of the most pernicious affects of this is that sorority women--even though they are enrolled in a Women's Studies course--will invest a great deal of energy into disabusing us kill-joy-feminists that anything nefarious is afoot. They will adopt one of a few strategies: say the data doesn't apply to them because we are small school, argue that the portrayal of sororities as reproducing gender inequality is "insulting," insist that sororities are really empowering and offer important leadership roles for women, or simply get defensive. (Let's hope I am just being pessimistic!)

What really resonated with my experience with Greek women in Stombler and Padavic's essay is the observation that white women join sororities or participate in "little sister" programs as a strategy for "getting a man." What was surprising (i.e. new to me) was that Black women join sororities or participate in the same little sister programs to "get ahead" in their career. I have heard that Black sororities place far more emphasis on community service and lifelong networking, but I hadn't realized how much that was mirrored in the very structure of their organizations. While Black sororities are far from perfect, they do seem, according to Stombler and Padavic's research to foster more meaningful relationships among women--"sisterhood"--and work to empower Black women to succeed in the labor market.

I started thinking back to my own undergraduate experience and my very short-lived experiment in pledging. I lasted 3 days. I dropped out because I just couldn't bring myself to conform to the behaviors that the other women expected me to display during this period. Certainly few of them actually were as fake as they were acting, but the rituals of pledging forced us all to act in ways that were alienating to me.

Though I dropped out of pledging, I didn't totally disconnect from sorority women. I ended up living with a house full of Delta Gamma girls my senior year. And, I think that experience, above all, was the most alienating one of my life. I never had my self-esteem suffer so much than the year I lived with the sorority girls. I had just returned from a life-changing year in Rome, during the first Gulf War and a year into the Berlin Wall coming down. The world opened up for me in ways I had never expected. I had grown into an intellectual, cosmopolitan girl, carrying a dog-eared copy of the Second Sex with me wherever I went. When I found myself in a de facto sorority house, I thought I had been sent to purgatory.

These women, mind you, had been my friends. But, my all-too-provincial goals of being a typical co-ed, luring in hunky guys and getting drunk off of beer bongs had lost their appeal. Instead, I wanted to throw myself into stimulating classes, surround myself with others who had been abroad, and begin to avail myself of all the cultural treasure of the Bay Area that I had never thought to explore until I spent a year exploring foreign lands. What did my roommates want to do? Throw bid parties, get drunk with jello shots, starve themselves thin, and attract the attention of the best fraternity men.

Since I was so young, I tried to get along. I wasn't yet at a point of total rebellion. But, I found, increasingly, that when I was trying to blend in with the DGs, I was miserable. It usually manifested itself in dark, drunken moods where I would walk into sliding glass doors, trying to escape the mind numbing conversations about boys, boys, and boys. I would drag myself out to some disco or dance party with the girls only to feel immediately trapped and in need of a quick escape. I would walk home, in not very safe neighborhoods, just to get back to my apartment and read Madame Bovary or some such other novel that I had just learned to adore.

The fact is, that my sense of sororities is that they do in fact teach women to aspire only to the approval of some drunken frat guy. And, while it took me another year to articulate that to myself--after I took a few women' s studies courses--my body had begun to rebel much sooner. In fact, I think my bouts of depression first began during my senior year with the DGs.

So, what I can't seem to make sense of is why I am so unusual? Or am I? None of my former college mates seemed to have deviated far from their sorority girl selves. They are all married now, with kids and get together to relive keggers. The thought of attending a reunion with them makes me ill. So, how do they do it? How do they live what I take to be such an empty life? How is it that they derive their self-worth from having landed Tyler or Patrick from XYZ frat house?

I find myself really challenged by this kind of material and the defensive discussions that ensue. I have to hold back my judgment of these women and locate, if I can, some empathy for their need to belong in this way. I think the only way I can cope with tomorrow's lecture is to try and care for these women, to understand their driving need to conform in this way. But, now that I have a clearer picture of the role that Black sororities play, I find it doubly difficult to excuse the retrograde--truly anachronistic--role that White sororities play in enforcing gender roles.

UPDATE: So, as I expected, the students in the class totally rejected the articles. They said, over and over again, that these articles spoke to and described Sorority culture in the South, but not here. They also rejected any suggestion that Sororities encouraged conformity behavior, be it either in fashion, hair color or more dramatically eating disorders or cosmetic surgery. I had to spend some time really pushing them to defend their views, which tended to crumble when I did. Depending on what question I asked them, they either claimed that Sororities were just "social" clubs or they were "civic" ones. I asked them at one point how many lesbians were recruited for membership. I also asked them how they would go about recruiting lesbians. To those questions, they responded: "I don't really think they want to join." To which I responded, "why, because they don't believe in the civic goals or they don't enjoy heterosexual dance parties?"