The Sorority Question: Bringing in Opinions from 1931

This speech was given by College President Dr. Aydelotte during a meeting of fraternity and non-fraternity students, both undergraduates and alumni, on December 15, 1931, two years before the abolition of Swarthmore’s last sorority.  The meeting was a part of an ongoing discussion on the question of sororities, or women’s fraternities, at the college in 1931. In this stage of the debate, plans were drawn up by fraternity and non-fraternity members to address the concerns of the undergraduates. Seventy-seven percent of women on campus belonged to a sorority at this time.

The plans included: a proposal to limit fraternity membership to 20 members per society, and restricting the number of incoming pledges each year to five students; a proposal for deferred bidding, so that only sophomores and juniors would be permitted to seek membership; and a plan to bid every girl who wished to join a fraternity into one of the existing social groups on campus. All plans included modifications of the rushing system.

As described by The Swarthmore Phoenix on December 8, 1931, President Aydelotte’s opinion most strongly coincided with that of the lattermost proposal; as illustrated in this transcript of his speech given during the December 15 meeting, he did not enthusiastically support either the complete abolition of sororities or the continuance of sororities in their present state.

Here is the transcript of the speech:

“In commenting on the progress of the discussions of the fraternity problem, I should like in the first place to emphasize the point that this discussion was not originated by me or by the Faculty of the College but rather by student and graduate members of the fraternities. I emphasize this for the information of friends of the College outside who may find it difficult to believe.

“As you all know, there have been, during the last few years, two movements originated entirely by the undergraduates for the abolition of fraternities. So far as I am aware no faculty took any part whatever in either movement as I certainly did not myself. Undergraduate social life ought to be a matter for undergraduates themselves to manage, and I should like to emphasize the point that so far as the faculty is concerned this is your problem and you will be left to the task of solving it.

“I wish to say very frankly that I approve strongly of the discussion, that I feel it is timely and needed, and that I admire very much the spirit in which the undergraduate girls of the College have attacked the problem.

“I can readily understand the surprise which is felt by the public at large that we should have here a group of undergraduates who are too keen and too idealistic to accept the highly artificial working of the fraternity system as if it were one of the laws of nature. I congratulate you on your realization of the difficulties of the fraternity plan as it works here at present and upon your determination to improve it.

“When I spoke to you three weeks ago I expressed the wish that your discussions would not be too long drawn out. I begrudge the time which the leaders of the undergraduate body are compelled to give to these discussions. I know that most of you are leaders not only in social affairs but in your studies as well and that this fraternity discussion necessarily interferes a great deal with your academic work. Nevertheless, I should like to say that I hope you will not hurry your decision. What you are trying to do is something new; undergraduate opinion is divided; and it is clearly the part of wisdom not to allow yourselves to be hurried but to take time for thorough discussion before acting.”

“What you are trying to do at Swarthmore is to create a more democratic and a more delightful social life. The task is an important one. It seems to me that in an educational institution it ought to be part of the training of character that you should learn to think that no distinction is really important which is not based upon merit. It is for this reason that I believe you ought to so contrive it as to prevent fraternity memberships from bulking too large in undergraduate life and too near to the center of the stage.

“When any new proposal is made the first thing thought of is objection to it, and I am told that a certain number of fraternity women are so impressed with the objections and difficulties in the way of any kind of reform that they are coming to feel that perhaps the best solution is the total abolition of fraternities. This may be the best course, but I myself am inclined to doubt its wisdom. It seems to me that there is a great deal about the fraternities which is good and that your task is to preserve that good and to eradicate the very real evils which now accompany it. My own predilections are always strongly in favor of reform rather than wholesale destruction. I want whatever solution is reached to be your own, and I give you advice only for the sake of what you may find it to be worth. But I hope you will first explore every possible method of eradicating evils and of making the very real good which is inherent in the fraternity system available for everyone before making your decision.

“I hope you will attack this problem with an experimental frame of mind. Any step you may take will not be irrevocable. If you try some solution which does not work, you or the next generation can try another. One of the fortunate things about our small size is that we can make experiments, can closely study their workings, can alter them on short notice if necessity demands. If you approach the problem with the same experimental attitude that the faculty has shown in problems of academic work, I shall be confident of your success.

“In arriving at your decision you have an opportunity not merely to make a great contribution to social life at Swarthmore but also to do something for the American college fraternity as well. As you doubtless know, the fraternity system is under criticism from a large number of forward-looking colleges and universities throughout the country. Many of the evils which you feel at Swarthmore are felt by students and members of the faculties of other institutions. If you can reach a solution of the fraternity problem which will make the fraternity system a force which will assist in the development here of a democratic and happy social life and which will work for the intellectual ends for which the college exists, you may be sure that your experience will be watched and that the measures you take will be initiated insofar as they are successful. If the fraternity is so inflexible that it cannot be changed, then it is as good as dead. But my contact with national officers of a great many fraternities leads me to think that they are eager for any suggestion or any experiment which may lead to its improvement. The opportunity to make that experiment is now in your hands, and I hope that in working it out you will be bold, large-minded, imaginative and wise. This may seem to you a good deal to expect of undergraduates, but I may as well confess to you frankly that this is what I expect from you.”

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