After the police killing of George Floyd sparked greater scrutiny of anti-Blackness in organizations across college campuses, a wave of students has disaffiliated from Panhellenic sororities at Columbia—at Sigma Delta Tau and Alpha Omicron Pi alone, 60 members in total have disaffiliated.
However, despite having previously come under fire for creating and upholding systems of oppression, sororities have leveraged their “feminist” foundings to carve out a reputation as the groups within Greek life who promote gender equality and community in contrast to their male, typically white counterparts. This is especially true at Columbia, where the Greek life participation rate is half the national average, suggesting a separation from the highly-criticized “frat culture” observed to dominate other institutions.
Columbia’s six historically-white Panhellenic sororities—separate from those on Columbia’s multicultural Greek council—have been called out on issues ranging from superficial dress codes to overt racism. Most recently, Panhellenic sorority Kappa Alpha Theta introduced its most recent class of pledges—the chapter’s most racially diverse class to date—with an internal campaign to “Make Theta Hot Again.”
Simultaneously, these sororities have continued to justify their place on college campuses by emphasizing career opportunities and a focus on philanthropy. Both have kept the institution of Greek life relevant with each new generation of students, as experts say they have been able to remain aligned with modern social values despite reliance on fundamentally anti-Black, classist practices to form exclusive communities.
Participation in Greek life has found itself on the rise in recent years; as of 2016, interest in sororities at Columbia has grown at a rate unparalleled by fraternities or the multicultural Greek council.
During their founding, sororities poised themselves as spaces where white women could prove to be just as intelligent as men, noting the access and professional connections fraternities grant to members. Today, many still note the dominance of fraternity brothers in major companies and branches of the U.S. government. As a result, many sororities focus on initiatives that elevate women in the workplace and provide access to career networks later in life, legitimizing sororities as a feminist response.
Columbia sororities found their particular niche of activism in white, corporate feminism that promised to grant a group of women the same opportunities as wealthy, white men. Establishing sororities as the supposed equalizer of corporate access between genders, however, ensured that sororities would be founded on the same elitist principles that excluded nonwhite, wealthy students from joining fraternities in the first place.
In a 1984 New York Times article documenting Columbia’s first sorority, sisters were said to “shun” the “snotty, rich” sorority girl stereotype of “blond, beautiful and bouncy.” In 2016, a Times article features Columbia’s Kappa Alpha Theta chapter as a new, modern form of Greek life, citing sisterhood events as taking “the form of presidential debate watching parties and a recent alumni networking brunch.” The piece noted sorority members' diversity in the roles they held across campus as well, including their majors in various science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and participation in other activist causes.
But barriers for low-income students' participation Greek life have long been documented, with expensive rush processes, dues in the three-figure range, and hidden costs to social events. And Panhellenic sororities often aim to accept those who would have likely had access to competitive spots in the job market regardless of Greek life participation.
Kayla Koffler, BC ’21, and a disaffiliating member of Panhellenic sorority Sigma Delta Tau, said access to networks beyond graduation are maintained through consistent payments after dues are no longer owed.
“The primary focus is friendships and connections with other people; once you leave, the payment is the primary thing that holds you to the organization,” Koffler said.
To retain access to the resources promised by connections with other elite Greek organizations, sorority activism has does not often included criticism of the organizations' own exclusionary and anti-Black roots.
In 1992, when hundreds of students marched to protest rape culture on campus, sorority members made it clear that while they denounced sexual assault, they did not agree with the stereotyping of fraternities in that process. “As a sorority, we want to express our support of our fellow women. It is unfair to stigmatize the Greek system and promote a stereotype,” said Sujathah Murah, BC ’95, a Theta pledge.
In the 2016 New York Times article, members of Theta were cited as outspoken critics against campus sexual assault during Emma Sulkowicz’s 2016 protest against the University’s handling of her sexual assault complaint. Members of the chapter signed their names on and decorated a donated mattress, Sulkowicz’s chosen symbol of her assault, carrying it to a rally in support. According to the article, they made an effort not to use Greek letters to avoid raising controversy with the national office.
Belen Cahill, BC ’21, a member in the process of disaffiliating from the Columbia chapter of Delta Gamma, said that sexual assault remains a main topic of activism within sororities. But, without blaming survivors of sexual assault or disregarding the gravity of these issues, Cahill said she noticed sororities members did not apply the same efforts to analyzing how sororities engage in and perpetuate violent systems of themselves.
“There seemed to be a big disconnect for me in these past few months with seeing who reacted to sexual assault and who reacted to racism, obviously they’re not mutually exclusive ... but that’s kind of how it ended up playing out which is really not okay,” Cahill said.
In light of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many sororities have turned to criticising structures of Greek life across social media, pledging to integrate education and activism around systemic racial violence into their organizations.
“We firmly denounce the public and private institutions that deny Black Americans fundamental human and civil rights, as well as the dignity and respect that comes along with them,” read a Sigma Delta Tau Instagram post from June.
But as sororities at Columbia continue to integrate social criticism as an example of their inclusivity, Cahill said she believes Columbia sororities only appear more progressive in comparison to the stereotypical American depiction of sisterhood. Cahill described this facade as an “insidious” method allowing these sororities to continue to exist longer.
“Compared to like a Pac 12 school or a school in the south, ... a lot of [Columbia sororities] feel super white feminist which is, sometimes, in certain ways, maybe a little bit scarier in that it just kind of conceals itself really well,” Cahill said.
Even amid the mass disaffiliations and debate surrounding Greek life, many members nevertheless differentiate their own, presumably progressive chapters from the overall system of Greek life.
“Even if we may have never (as chapters or individuals) committed acts of interpersonal violence, we continue perpetuating systems of oppression and violence by participating in an institution which enables this harm,” Alpha Omicron Pi chapter leaders wrote in a letter announcing their disaffiliation.
Some have pointed to the overarching power of sororities' national headquarters as the force preventing tangible change: While many hope for reform, the corporate interests of sororities and their policies will drive forward as long as women continue to join.
“The fraternity will always value the survival of [its] business over the interest of [its] members. In every conversation I’ve had with fraternity staff, their concern is always that of retention, survival, and operations of Alpha chapter,” read the letter written by Alpha Omicron Pi leaders.
Aja Johnson, CC ’21, a disaffiliating member of Sigma Delta Tau, said that based on meetings between disaffiliating members and chapter leaders, those who chose to remain in the chapter did not seem to internalize the need to enact systemic change within the institution of Greek life.
“It felt like our basic request to have our voices heard and [the] conversation brought to the forefront of this chapter [weren’t] met with as much respect as it deserved. Even now [that] all these people have left—50 of us have left the chapter—it’s almost like nothing ever happened,” Johnson said.