The Gender Revolution on Greek Row

Photo by Arièle Bonte on Unsplash

We live in a moment of remarkable inconsistency in the gender structure. We have ever-increasing numbers of young people who reject a gender category or are gender fluid, while the movement toward equality between women and men has stalled. Do today’s young women believe they are—or deserve—equality with the men around them? We provide unique data to address this question, comparing intensive interviews from two studies, one conducted in the mid-1970s and the other on a present-day college campus. We study the historically white Greek system because it dominates university life on many campuses and contributes to college students’ socialization into gendered adults.

We find striking likenesses but also evidence of significant social change. Then and now, women talk about membership requirements for elite sororities depending on beauty, wealth (and implicit whiteness). Then and now, women speak about fraternity men controlling vital elements of their social and sexual lives, including the physical setting for parties and the alcohol that lubricates the evening. We find women, then and now, talk about the power imbalance between sororities and fraternities. However, here the likenesses end. In the past, women accepted those power imbalances, taking them for granted as the natural order. Women talked about college in terms of the Mrs. Degrees they hoped to earn. Admission to a top sorority required beauty, wealth, and the right connections, but career ambitions were unnecessary or even a hindrance.

Beauty still matters, but women stress that admission to a prestigious sorority also requires “passion” and “ambition.” The standards for admission are higher: “being it all.” Further, women no longer say they accept the sexism built into the gendered Greek rules as morally valid. Women say that differences in the rules for sororities and fraternities are unfair and sexist. They complain that male control of social life puts them at risk of sexual assault. This is an example of a “crisis tendency” in the gender structure. Organizational rules remain gendered, while cultural logics no longer support their existence. Our analysis suggests how institutional inertia amid shifting cultural norms creates frustration, dissonance, and an opportunity for change.

The 20th century study.

The second author collected the data from the late 1970s-early 1980s. This study focused on official regulation, informal cultural norms, and gender socialization in the Greek college world at the end of the 2nd wave of feminism. In 1975-76, Risman conducted participant observation of Greek life at a private university. She used the data for a college assignment and an article in a local media outlet.

Between 1976 and 1979, Risman (1982) did an ethnographic and interview study at a large public institution on the west coast. On the public campus on the west coast, approximately 10 percent of the undergraduates belonged to fraternities and sororities. However, their impact was disproportionate, partly because fraternities hosted parties that many others attended. Risman randomly selected twenty-two girls from far too many volunteers for the formal interviews. The interviews provided initial access and prompted invitations to Greek functions, introduction to other sorority members, and relationships that ensured recurring contact throughout the next two years.

Observations included attendance at sorority dinners, preparation for “rush,” fraternity parties, “Greek week” for high school recruitment, and a fashion show advising potential members how to dress for “rush.” Other observations were less formal: conversations with sorority members over coffee and discussions in class. Risman also analyzed approximately 25 undergraduate papers that discussed sorority life. The remarkable consistency between data collected using different measurement strategies supports the validity of Risman’s (1982) findings. The in-depth interviews corroborated the participant observation, and both these strategies were corroborated by the student papers analyzed.

Contemporary Study.

Roughly forty years later, from 20172020, Ispa-Landa (2020) collected interview data from sorority women at Central, a private university very similar in selectivity, size, and geographic region to the university where participant observation had occurred in the mid-1970s.

Central is one of the nation’s elite universities. In Fall 2018, the acceptance rate was less than 10 percent. As at other highly selective universities, students from upper-class families are overrepresented at Central. Roughly 15 percent of students come from families whose earnings put them in the top 1 percent of the income distribution (630K+).

In the 1970s, when asked why certain girls were chosen, the most common answer was that they “fit in.” (Marquette University)

In the winter of 2017, Ispa-Landa posted recruitment fliers offering $40 gift cards to sophomore women in historically White sororities. Eighty-six women responded. A team of five trained graduate students conducted one-on-one interviews. They interviewed all sophomores who volunteered from historically White sororities for 37 interviews in Spring 2017. In Spring 2019, they recruited an additional 16 participants. Over the three years of the study, many of these women were interviewed for a second or third time. Including the follow-up interviews, the dataset contains 106 interviews with 53 participants. All organizations and respondents were given pseudonyms. Interviews were recorded and transcribed.

The findings below compare data gathered in the 1970s to the current study, a nearly 40-year time span. We compared the published research from the earlier era with transcripts from the recent Ispa-Landa and Oliver project. Our comparative analysis focuses on three areas: why women join, perceived criterion for membership, and narratives about sexual relationships and safety.

In the 20th century study, people reported “going Greek” to ensure a good social life, usually phrased as wanting to “meet people.” “Meeting people” included access to fraternity men and easing the search for female companions. Going Greek meant instant friends and access to the social life through which an “appropriate” boyfriend could be found.

Today, many women still see sorority life as a way to make friends and connect with peers who have a similar social orientation to college. As Deborah explained,

I thought like, I want to meet people, make friends, meet people that are outgoing and like to drink. So I have to join a sorority to do that. (21st century study)

However, looking for access to fraternity men is no longer considered a legitimate reason to seek a Greek affiliation. Today, potential new members, or “rushes,” must have the cultural capital to understand that mentioning fraternities and the desire for easy access to men is taboo during recruitment. Indeed, in today’s context, asking about mixers during recruitment is a blunder that can block access to sorority membership.

The criterion for membership has also changed since the 1970s. At that time, no one could be invited to join a “top” sorority without a letter of recommendation from a former member. However, it was the case that a much-desired member without enough cultural capital to know an alumna could be introduced to a local one. If the local alumna was impressed with the rushee, the alumna could then produce the needed letter. Good looks, family background, and overt interest in socializing with elite men (e.g., the mixers with fraternities) were also considered necessary.

Today, letters of recommendation from alums are no longer required. And family background is less openly discussed as a criterion for admission, although legacy status can still help women get a bid. Now, academic or career “ambition” and “passion” have become essential for admission. As one woman explained,

One thing we look for is passionate girls. You have to be passionate about something, whether it’s, I don’t know—I started as passionate about marketing and I had a bunch of marketing clubs. I think that’s one of the reasons why I would’ve gotten in. I think every other member I’ve met, whether it be politics or engineering or doing whatever, you know—they have that sort of passion. (21st century study) When today’s sorority women evoke an imaginary ideal member, it is an outspoken, driven, career-committed woman who downplays her interest and investment in appealing to elite men.

Current members claimed that, during recruitment, they were looking for confident women who were motivated to join a sorority because they were looking for a “girl power” kind of environment—a place where women felt emboldened to proclaim their unique interests, talents, and enthusiasms.

And yet, in both historical eras, a woman’s looks and perceived sociality remain crucial for being invited into a sorority. What has changed is how openly women are willing to talk about this criterion. In the 1970s, when asked why certain girls were chosen, the most common answer was that they “fit in.” When pressed further on what that means, the answer was nearly always physical attractiveness integrated with social skills and, secondarily, family status. One girl from the 20th century study stated what others implied:

Most important, you’d be looking for pretty girls, that is what is going to attract the frats.

Openly judging each other in terms of male approval was a central theme from the 20th century participants. Another respondent explained that it was not the case that only attractive “girls” could be pledged. Instead, the sororities were ranked hierarchically, and they competed for the most beautiful “girls” they could recruit, as each house “knew against whom they competed.” Top houses recruited beautiful, wealthy White women. One member in the 20th century study explained why her sorority was a “status” house, saying, To put it bluntly, we’ve got the best girls! You know, the smartest, the best looking, the most popular, stuff like that. I know it sounds conceited, but that is, you know, the way it is.

Beauty still matters, but women stress that admission to a prestigious sorority also requires “passion” and “ambition.” (HendersonStateU)

Today, White Greek letter organizations are still organized into a tier, or ranking, system. (At different universities, the same sorority or fraternity may belong to a different tier.) There are still top-, middle-, and bottom-tier sororities. The “top houses” are still viewed as recruiting the most stereotypically attractive, thin, social, and wealthy White women, although they also now have to be ambitious in their career goals. One woman, a brunette from a White working-class family, explained that these traits combine in distinctive ways that feel out-of-reach for those who don’t come from money:

I think a lot of the houses that are considered top-tier have a reputation on campus of all the women having blond hair. Which is actually kind of accurate. A lot of them do! I remember thinking [when I went to their house during recruitment], they were all beautiful [laughing], but in a very intimidating way. Um. I had heard they were very exclusive and they seemed to only want a certain type of woman. Like, everyone looked very put together but kind of in a similar way. Like, it’s more than just like make-up or clothes, ‘cause I wear make-up and clothes too. I guess… I mean, maybe expensive’s a good word for it, cause they are predominantly higher-income. (21st century study)

The researcher from the 20th century study also remembers that the women interviewed from “top tier” houses had straight hair and were thinner than your average woman.

Just as 40 years ago, women are still keenly aware of how men judge them. It continues to be the case that the “top” houses have the women deemed most attractive to men. According to the 21st century participants, fraternities hold competitions where men and the fraternity houses are given more “points” the greater their social and sexual contact with top-tier women. As one woman explained,

Fraternities have spreadsheets for girls they’re taking to formal. They give points for who brings the hottest girl to formal and points for rank, like how many women in [one top-tier sorority] are coming to our formal and how many women in [other top-tier sorority] are coming to formal. And I know fraternities have “Ws and Ls” (wins and losses) of the week. They do it in chapter [meeting]. It’s like the W of the week is who hooked up with the hottest girl or the top-tier girl, and then the L of the week is who hooked up with the ugliest girl.

In sum, while much has changed, much has remained the same. Women continue to be evaluated based on their physical attractiveness and willingness to socialize with fraternity men. Now, however, women must also be high academic achievers with strong career ambitions; the new sorority woman must embody traditionally feminine traits plus the traditionally masculine drive for career success.

Women continue to worry about their reputations, but what counts as stigma has changed dramatically. In the 1970s, dating was still the norm in sororities, although it was losing popularity outside of them. Moreover, the dating the sorority “girls” in the ‘70s reported was very traditional. One respondent said, “The girls feel they’d rather not go out than to have to ask to be taken… it is really scorned.”

Even during the institutionalized “girl asks boys” Sadie Hawkins Day dance, the sorority women usually gave the men the money to pay the check to avoid the embarrassment of being seen paying in a man’s presence. Similarly, there was a uniformity of opinion that women did not ask out men on dates, at least not directly. As one respondent claimed,

I mean you’ve got to be subtle or else it scares the guys. Plus it’s always better when the guy makes the first move…. It’s just more proper. I think the other girls look down on girls who, oh, let’s say, ask guys out on dates. They kind of look desperate. I guess, I mean, it just doesn’t look very good, not only for the girl but for the sorority too. (20th century study)

The women in the 20th century study waited to be asked on dates, and everyone expected men to cover all the costs. Men were clearly prioritized over a girls’ night, as this woman’s words imply:

Around here no one makes plans together, of course, until the last minute if no date has turned up. You should watch the Friday night scene here between 7:00 and 9:00 o’clock. The girls left around at the end decide to do something together or stay in their rooms.

White Greek letter organizations are organized into a tier, or ranking, system. There are top-, middle-, and bottom-tier sororities. (HendersonStateU)

There was not much open talk about what happened on the dates, although one woman was asked to resign from her sorority for having openly spent the night at her boyfriend’s apartment. This was in the midst of the sexual revolution. While many women were undoubtedly having sex with their boyfriends, they had to be discreet and not sleep over.

Today, women continue to worry about their reputations, but what is considered promiscuous has changed. Having an active sex life is not shunned and may even be celebrated. However, having too many drunken hookups with too many different men is looked down upon. To have too many hookups unfold in clear sight of others at fraternity parties is seen as “sloppy.”

Another difference is that sorority women now seriously discuss the problem of sexual assault in Greek life. They express a sense of resigned outrage. And they echo sociologists Hirsch and Khan who suggest that an institutional system that requires male control of space for socializing is a set up for men’s sexual predatory behavior.

Most women argued that the best solution would be for Panhellenic Association, the national governing body for all historically White sororities, to allow sororities to host parties. If this happened, women would have greater control over the environment. Yet, there was little evidence they believed change was possible. A clear note of resignation ran through narratives about sexual violence in Greek life. As one woman in the 21st century study reported,

I think the fact that women are not allowed to have alcohol and are not allowed to have men in the house creates this unsafe separation in which anything fun or involving alcohol or sexual has to happen in the fraternity house. Um, where, let’s be honest, brothers look out for brothers. So wouldn’t it make sense like, hey, if a woman wants to sleep with a fraternity man, shouldn’t she have the option to do this in her place of living where there isn’t this power dynamic, where it’s like, “This is my house, that is my alcohol you’re drinking,” blah, blah, blah. And I just find it so demeaning that a house mom (an older woman hired by the sorority to live in the house as a quasi-chaperone) and Greek life has the policy and the authority to be like, “You can’t have someone stay over.

We find much has changed, and yet much remains the same in Greek life from the mid 20th century to today. In the past, different aspects of the gender structure were in sync. Now they are not.

The women in sororities in the 1970s still took gender inequality for granted. Fraternities invited sororities to parties, and men paid for the evening. Men expected to pay to take women out on dates, and then to support them as wives. The sorority system was socializing women for a life of marriage and motherhood, preparing them to be chosen as a wife by an appropriate man. The cultural ideals of the society and the rules of Greek life were aligned, even if they were not always followed and did not suit everyone’s needs. Like a well-designed puzzle, the elements of college social life supported the expected roles of college-educated adults. The Greek system’s official rules supported cultural beliefs. The structure and culture were in sync.

However, that puzzle has now cracked. We find ourselves in a moment with what Raewyn Connell has called a “crisis tendency.” Beliefs and regulations no longer align. We are raising girls to be confident and ambitious, and they tell us that they are. But then we continue to expect them also to be beautiful and sociable, and let men remain in the driver’s seat of heterosexual relationships. The stress of “being” it all is apparent. So is the sexism of continuing to judge women by their beauty and social graces.

The cultural beliefs that support sexist rules have crumbled. And yet the Greek system’s rules that allow men to serve alcohol and host parties but deny that same right to sororities have remained in place. Why does any university continue to allow a private club’s regulations to discriminate against their women students?

Recently, some members of Greek organizations, including those at Vanderbilt, Duke, Emory, American University, Northwestern, and the University of North Carolina, have begun to revolt. According to Marcus, the trigger for the revolt was a recognition of racial inequality in the historically White Greek system, but the rhetoric of revolt includes misogyny as well. The current movement to reform or destroy the Greek system is a powerful lever. Campus administrators and leaders can use it to change formal rules and regulations, decrease racial bias in recruitment and other areas, and end the regulatory power asymmetries that have always existed between fraternities and sororities. Such policy changes could reduce the power of the “patriarchal bargain,” which requires women to maximize their well-being within the constraints of asymmetrical power relations with men. It is about time that universities take gender equality seriously.

In many cases, going Greek means instant friends and access to a social life through which an “appropriate” boyfriend could be found. (HendersonStateU)

Recommended Reading

  • Armstrong, Elizabeth, Hamilton, Laura. 2013. Paying for the Party. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Google Scholar | Crossref
  • Hirsch, Jennifer, Khan, Shamus. 2020. Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. Google Scholar
  • Ispa-Landa, Simone, Oliver, Mariana. 2020. “Hybrid Femininities: Making Sense of Sorority Rankings and Reputation.” Gender & Society 34(6): 893-921. Google Scholar | SAGE Journals | ISI
  • Marcus, Ezra . 2020. “The War on Frats.” New York Times. August 1. Available online: NY Times | Google Scholar
  • Risman, Barbara J. 1982. “College Women and Sororities: The Social construction and Reaffirmation of Gender Roles” Urban Life 11(2): 231-252. Google Scholar | SAGE Journals | ISI

Simone Ispa-Landa is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Northwestern University. She studies race, gender, and class in education.

Barbara J. Risman is a Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her work focuses on gender inequality and families, feminist activism, and public sociology.