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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"What joining a sorority does for U of T and other bigger campuses is it takes a big campus and makes it small," says Sabrina Zuniga, president of the Toronto Area Alumnae Panhellenic, which in part advises student leaders in Ontario's NPC sororities.
"I've heard from a lot of girls, a lot at U of T, that joining the sorority is what kept them at U of T," says Zuniga.
After seeing some classmates at Carleton wearing Greek lettered clothing, Ferreira hit Google and decided to attend rush in the second semester of her first year.
"At first I was like, I'm not sure I'm going to like this. But I actually fell in love with it," she says. Now in her second year, Ferreira is in charge of social activities and rituals, and she serves on Carleton's Greek Council. She is heading for a career in criminal law, and hopes that the relationships she has built in her sorority will help.
As sorority boosters tell it, the professional benefits of Greek membership come from both the skills developed while organizing chapter events, and from networking with fellow members and alumnae. Zuniga argues that the day-to-day business of belonging to a sorority — from staging rituals to planning parties — builds skills.
"It can be very serious things, and it can be very frivolous things. It doesn't really matter what it is, but the organizational and the leadership skills are the same," she says.
This seems to be a central tenet of sorority life. But in an age when university students found web start-ups and do medical research, there are plenty of other ways to gain skills.
Many sorority members assume their leadership in the Greek system will qualify them for jobs in the outside world. But when they're not talking about the benefits of membership, they also argue that the world can be ignorant, even hostile, towards sorority members. If it's true that sororities have a bad reputation, deserved or not, affiliation seems as likely to hurt as help the average job applicant.
As much as sororities claim to empower women in the workplace and beyond, plenty of committed critics remain skeptical. Alexandra Robbins, an American journalist and author, spent a year living at an NPC sorority and then wrote Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, about a group of anonymous sisters who helped her go under cover. Robbins argues that sororities are destructive, conformist institutions that hurt members' self-esteem and cut them off from their non-sorority peers.
Many Canadian sororities are chapters of predominantly American organizations, but they can escape some of the disadvantages of their southern neighbours. Recruitment is much less competitive here, which takes the pressure off. And plenty of Canadian sororities are, like Ferreira's, small and independent, without an expensive American head office.
Dues for small or single-chapter sororities are substantially lower than for NPC chapters because there is no international bureaucracy to support. Dues for new members at U of T's NPC sororities are mostly well over $500, and Delta Delta Delta initiates pay $1,121.
At Delta Psi Delta, annual dues are only $100. (Sorority life does have financial benefits, though — members get a great deal on rent, $200–$300/month in Toronto, where most students would pay closer to $600.)
Not all fundraising is for the sorority itself. According to the NPC, philanthropy is a pillar of sorority life. Robbins argues that in most cases, philanthropy is an afterthought, inspiring only a couple of fundraisers each year and very little actual service, but this varies. Ferreira's sorority volunteers at the food bank and runs monthly fundraisers, and new members run a fundraiser as part of their initiation.