Op-Ed: Pursuing, Achieving, and Rejecting My Bid: The real nature of the Swarthmore Sorority

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last weekend, Kappa Alpha Theta offered me a bid to one of the most prestigious sororities on the block. I won’t be accepting it, and I want to be clear about why.

I come from an upper middle class New England family, and when it comes to sororities, I look the part. To somebody who didn’t know me, ‘theta pledge’ would not be a shocking addition to my identity. After all, white and sporty is what sororities stand for in this world, right?

Most of us have friends from high school who went on to become Tri Delts, Pi Phis, or even Thetas. If our Facebook news feeds are any kind of judge, their experiences support the anti-Greek hypotheses that are casually thrown around at Swarthmore. They look fun and pretty: typically plastic. But for all their publicized shenanigans, those girls were still the same ones who I knew to be strong and smart and real.

The first semester of my freshman year had me wanting a network of support. In the academic and social whirlwind, a codified support system appealed to me. I knew and liked many of the DU and Phi Psi pledges, and despite the warnings of my grandmother, they were smart and gentlemanly guys. Furthermore, I had met several of the most active women in the Not-Yet-Sisters (NYS) community, and was impressed by their thoughtfulness and humor. Joining the group seemed like a sure-fire way to guarantee that I would find friends—and particularly upperclassmen—who could answer my questions about everything from registration to the Yule Ball to what it means to emerge as an adult.

I started attending NYS organizational meetings right from the get-go, and was reassured to find that despite my impression of Theta at other schools, the main subjects of discussion were just as advertised: ensuring financial accessibility, pursuing true diversity, and creating opportunities for service. Believe it or not, these meetings lived up to the propaganda. But is it really so surprising? The idea to reinstate sororities at Swarthmore began with a woman of color pursuing a support network through Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), a historically black sorority. Her goal eventually evolved into creating a group that would fight the social fragmentation she perceived among women at Swarthmore by drawing in women from different corners of our community. So at its inception, inclusivity was the point of the Swarthmore Sorority.

Still, these noble values were sometimes eclipsed by more frivolous issues. After all, an important event on the agenda was planning events for ‘sisterly bonding’. First of all, remember that Kappa Alpha Theta is a strictly dry sorority. The no drinking policy is rigorously upheld from the official perspective. I spent one night this week deleting Facebook photo after blurry Facebook photo featuring undisguised red solos.  However, there was no reason not to drink at co-sponsored events, and I admit that I toasted sisterhood with a shot glass several times. But drinking was never the reason I wanted to join. What I loved about Theta was the Sharples dates debating cultural femininity, or in Danawell basement baking and getting goofy romantic advice. Those relationships, which sustained me through both the petty crises and real setbacks of my first semester, were my main reason for pledging.

But things got complicated fast when the official administration of Kappa Alpha Theta appeared on campus. Almost every potential pledge expressed some healthy skepticism. I was naturally suspicious of the super beautiful and always put together Educational Leadership Consultants (ELCs). We were all wary of their obedience to the sacred code of Business Casual attire. And when I stepped into a banquet in Upper Tarble, I immediately thought of the myths that warn against the dangers of the eerily perfect food found in the Underworld—once you partake, you’ve irrevocably sold your soul to the Hades.

The two elements that Swarthmore students have used to personify the high heels hell god that is supposedly embodied in the sorority are the gender identity issue and the exclusivity provided by high semester dues.

Many of the leaders of NYS threatened to abandon the cause completely if transgender women were excluded from the sorority. In my interview, I specifically asked about the issue, and I was reassured that anybody who self-identifies as a woman would always be welcome in Kappa Alpha Theta. This policy, coming from the fourth largest sorority in the entire pan-Hellenic community, is progressive, but not perfect—as so many other writers have already demonstrated.

As for the money, dues were originally listed at almost four hundred dollars for the first semester. Since then, persistent NYS leaders have gotten the prices halved and established an anonymous means of getting financial aid. Subsidized dues are still high, and I imagine that people who need to apply for aid or scholarship may not feel included simply because of the list price. But I can vouch that the Swarthmore women involved in the financial process are fully committed to ensuring that the Alpha Beta chapter at Swarthmore will never become a rich kids drinking club.

The moment that best describes the Swarthmore women who make up the Alpha Beta chapter occurred after bids were distributed—notably to all sixty five women who interviewed. At the ensuing celebration, a professional photographer flitted from table to table and eventually organized the entire group in a single frame. To do this, girls in the front row were commanded to assume the position. Yes, it was the infamous Sorority Squat. The entire group immediately burst out into chaos, asking if there was a different option for our arrangement that would exempt the front row from the humiliation of the Squat. The photographer and the ELCs were at first taken aback, and then bemused by our resistance. It was clear that the women at Swarthmore were not interested in buying an image.

Why then, will I not be participating in Theta this year? Only because I think that my time and talents will better serve the community in other ways. Because the policies on gender identity and finance still make me a little nervous and because sororities at other schools are pretty terrifying. Oh, and I hate business casual. But I have seen the inner workings of this project and I can honestly say that while Theta has its problems, the women who are working for it have the highest intentions which if realized will be immensely powerful to support the emerging woman. If that support comes packaged with high heels and hangovers and a big black and gold bow wrapped around it, I hold no scorn. And neither should you.

Op-Ed submitted by Lydia Bailey ’16 


  1. If that support comes packaged with high heels and hangovers and a big black and gold bow wrapped around it, I hold no scorn. And neither should you.

    I hold no scorn for this type of support. I love heels. Black and gold is a great color combo. I will always be in support of women helping women, because I think it’s vital for our success.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that women hoping to pledge must be listed as female in college records to do so according to Theta Director of Communications Liz Rinck. Until everyone can have the kind of support you describe, I want none of it on this campus.

    • Thanks for the comment, Allison–I’m with you!

      I believe the argument Theta is making is that anybody who self-identifies as a woman can go through the registrar to make that the clear in the records. So anybody who thinks of themselves as a woman should be able to join. But I don’t know the details or reliability of that process and I think you’re right to be anxious about it… I know I am!

      • My understanding is that for federal funding reasons, in order to be listed in college records as a given gender, you must also be legally identified as that gender. In the State of Pennsylvania, I believe that means that you must take hormone replacement therapy and/or have some sort of surgery. Neither of these procedures is covered by the student health insurance policy. Not to mention the fact that not everyone trans* person feels the need to have these procedures.

      • Did you read the other article? If Swarthmore’s Theta chapter allows women into the sorority who aren’t legally listed as female, then Swarthmore’s Theta chapter will be in violation of the national policy.

        As it stands, Swat’s Theta chapter is operating under a discriminatory policy whether or not they choose to adhere to it.

  2. I’m really impressed by this piece, Lydia, and by the level of nuance offered by your position.

    Could you (or another more knowledgable of Theta than I) describe the dry policy in more detail? Does this mean that parties sponsored by Theta would be dry? If so, I think this would add an important new element to the conversation.

    • Hey Chris!

      Theta parties would definitely be dry. But Theta could co-host parties with the frats or other organizations who could provide alcohol (i.e.; SwatGlow)

      Hopefully that helps!

      • Lydia, thank you for your article. I think what you said is very important and spot on, but I would like to make a clarification on Theta’s alcohol policy.

        Theta does not host open social events where alcohol is freely distributed. Any social event hosted by Theta where alcohol is served implements risk management policies to ensure that alcohol is not purchased by the organization, is served by a third-party vendor, and that only 21 and over attendees are privy to alcohol consumption. In addition, a risk management team is in place to ensure that policies are upheld.

        In terms of co-hosting a social event with another Greek or student organization on campus, the same policies apply. Theta does not condone co-hosting events where alcohol is purchased for individuals and distribution is not regulated.

    • Alex, why are you so critical about DG comments? This is at least the third time you’ve made strangely aggressive posts about them.

      • I only count two: The first is when the comments editor published publicly the email of a commenter. This is both in direct contradiction to the promises made in the commenting field, and leaves that email open to spam. I’d argue that both of these constitute a pretty severe breach of journalistic ethics, and are certainly worth making “strangely agressive comments” about. He then deleted the comment instead of just editing out the email address; both hiding the evidence of his wrongdoing, and breaking the nestedness of comments in that thread. This incident is why I now always comment with my name, to spare the comments editor the trouble of outing me in the event that he decides he doesn’t like what I said.

        And now the above comment is maybe “agressive”, but I’m genuinely curious as to what is moderated if spam isn’t.

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