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