Published in the Spring 2010 issue • Features
Modern-day Canadian sororities are trying to break the stereotypes associated with Greek life. But are sororities empowering, feminist organizations, or destructive, conformist cults?
It’s a September evening, and a small classroom at the University of Toronto holds about 30 young women. They might be more conventionally attractive, a bit better dressed than average, but mostly they look like any group of undergrads. A lone guy settles in to wait for the lecture to start. After an awkward minute, someone tells him that he is in the wrong room. After all, this is an information meeting about sororities.
Many students don't even know that sororities exist in Canada. With this meeting, and dozens like it across the country every fall, sorority sisters set out to change that. They are after more than visibility.
The theme for this fall's recruitment at the University of Toronto is "break the stereotype." No one at the meeting needs that stereotype spelled out. Some classmates think these women are dumb, sexually promiscuous and only interested in partying. Others will say that sorority girls are spoiled brats who have to buy their friends.
"Break the stereotype" is well in line with the National Panhellenic Conference's public relations strategy. This umbrella group for 26 sororities and women's fraternities — the terms are used interchangeably — is based in Indianapolis, but sets policy for chapters in Canada. The formal recruitment process at U of T is run by NPC rules, and the Conference is in the midst of an energetic, if not entirely successful, public relations offensive, designed to convince students, parents and university administrators that sororities can be a positive force on campus, not just a magnet for underage drinking.
To distance itself from past scandals, the NPC has changed its vocabulary. The process by which you join a sorority is no longer called "rush," but the more professional-sounding "recruitment." Girls who accept bids are no longer pledges, but "potential new members." Hazing is strictly forbidden and broadly defined. Sororities are using language about female empowerment that wouldn't be out of place in most feminist organizations. U of T sororities promise "classroom to boardroom life skills," networking and leadership opportunities, and mentorship from alumnae.
Back at the meeting, two sorority leaders assure us that the parties that make up recruitment are not about being accepted or rejected — it's a process of "mutual selection." On bid day, it's implied — if not quite promised — that everyone will be invited to join a sorority. Partway through, one of the recruitment leaders goes to some lengths to note that same-sex couples are welcome at sorority events that require a date, like a formal dance ("You can invite a guy, girl, whatever, someone who's more than a friend"). As the meeting wraps up, two girls discover that they are in the same computer programming class. A third mentions that she plans to major in women's studies.
At first glance, those stereotypes are looking pretty fragile. It's certainly hard to square them with the enthusiasm that these young women have for their sororities. So are sororities empowering, feminist organizations, or destructive, conformist cults? The answer probably lies somewhere between these extremes. It might be different in Canada and the US. And it seems to vary between sororities, chapters and even individuals.