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?
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Fraternities have been a part of university campuses since the 18th century. At first, they were secret societies for America's elite young men. As women began to attend university late in the 19th century, they were shut out, and began to form their own fraternities. Fraternities, women's fraternities and sororities, no longer secret societies, are all called "Greek letter organizations." Today a dizzying constellation of organizations, customs and hierarchies is referred to as "the Greek system."
Anyone can form an organization and call it a sorority. Some have only one chapter, while others have almost 200. Some chapters own actual houses, others do not. The largest sororities are run by a central office that collects dues, sets rules and employs staff, and are governed by elected members.
Some sororities belong to umbrella groups like the NPC, and others are independent. Quite separate from these international umbrella groups, some or all of the Greek chapters on any given campus might form local umbrella groups in the form of "pan-hellenic" committees that organize the process of rush and big social events together. Sorority members are privy to "secret" passwords, mottos or handshakes and participate in closed rituals to induct new members and mark sisters' achievements.
Many sororities run parallel organizations for their graduates and graduates play a role in advising collegiate sorority chapters. Some US universities officially recognize sororities as part of the campus and employ Greek advisors, campus staff that support the Greek system, but in Canada sororities are primarily an unofficial part of student life.
When sororities hit the news, it's generally when they're at their worst. One woman alleges that two of her sorority sisters, enraged by her strong religious convictions about premarital sex, drugged her and arranged for her to be raped. Two pledges drowned after apparently being led into the ocean for an initiation ritual, blindfolded and bound. Staff from a sorority's national office expelled most of a DePauw University chapter of their sorority, leaving only the skinny, conventionally attractive sisters — half of whom then quit in disgust.
These are exceptional cases, all from the US, but they all took place after 2000. Research into sorority life isn't encouraging. Studies from the US show that while sorority alumnae are more likely to donate to their university, they are also more likely to drink while they are students — and drink more often — than non-members. They are much more likely to be raped, even compared to other women who frequent fraternity parties. They are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders.
But statistics aside, it's hard to be critical of sororities while chatting with Teresa Ferreira. Home from Carleton University for the weekend, Ferreira is working at her parents' takeout restaurant in Toronto's Little Portugal.
Perched on a stool in the middle of the kitchen, as pots and pans crash around her, Ferreira talks about how she found her place in Carleton's Greek system. When she talks about joining Delta Psi Delta, a small independent sorority with chapters in Toronto and Ottawa, she is confident and enthusiastic. But in her first year at Carleton, she struggled.
"I was having the hardest time ever trying to make friends, and that's really weird, because usually I make friends so easily," says Ferreira. "But I got to university, and it was like, 300 kids in my class, kind of overwhelming."
Sorority women across Canada tell similar stories, especially those from big, urban universities.