The Feminist Sorority

Is the feminist sisterhood more sorority than social justice?
A sorority at DePauw University in Indiana has recently come under fire for dismissing 23 sisters for being “socially awkward.� The women evicted from the Delta Zeta house included every woman who was overweight and the only black, Korean, and Vietnamese members.
The national officers of Delta Zeta claim to have booted the “undesirable� women because of their inability to attract new recruits to the sorority. As I read the unbelievably pathetic excuses given by the sorority for their actions, it occurred to me that in the same way Delta Zeta resorted to active exclusion as a recruitment strategy, mainstream feminists rely on passive exclusionary tactics to keep the movement “pure.�
Read the rest at TPMCafe.
UPDATE: Katha Pollitt responds to my post in Take the Movement–Please!
UPDATE II: E.J. Graff also weighs in.

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  • the frog queen

    Awesome. That TPMCafe article was just freaking awesome.

  • BabyPop


  • Feminist Review

    Did I miss where in the article it said that this is an explicitly feminist sorority?

  • The Law Fairy

    Hmm… I have mixed feelings about this. I do agree that feminism needs to give itself room to grow and learn and accept all kinds of “feminists” — but also, we’re talking about an ideologically-based movement, rather than a social organization. Sure, we shouldn’t alienate younger feminists because they (we) haven’t paid dues yet, or because of differences of opinion on somewhat specific, non-universal matters. But at the same time, don’t we have to draw a line somewhere? The right tries to co-opt “feminist” with groups like “feminist for life.” I’ve known women who’ve called themselves “feminists” and yet hold extremely un-feminist views. And I do think that there is such a thing as “un-feminist” views. It’s one thing to decide to change your name. It’s another thing to sniff your nose at those “uptight career women” who keep theirs after getting married (or who, heavens!, decide not to get married at all).
    But at the same time, we do need to be careful that in our zeal to fight an oppressive society, we don’t sweep into our condemnation those women who choose to make a living within the confines of that oppression. We can no more blame others for being raised in and living in an oppressive society than we can blame ourselves for not having fixed it yet. Thus, just because a woman wears sexy tops to the club, or flirts with strangers who buy her drinks, doesn’t mean she “can’t” be a feminist. But at the same time, I think it’s totally appropriate to make sure we’re constantly reinforcing the message that a society that tells women and not men to wear sexy tops, and that tells women but not men to flaunt their sexuality for favors, is sexistly oppressive, without crossing the line of telling *women* to circumscribe *their* behavior. That’s a REALLY fine line to walk, and I think we all do it imperfectly. But, with all things, the key is practice.
    Interestingly, I had a somewhat similar conversation a few months ago. I and two other women in my office teleconferenced in to a meeting with some other attorneys and staff in another office to plan a holiday party. Disgustingly, (one of?) the most powerful partner in the firm is pretty much in charge of the party. I say “disgustingly” because he insists on hiring women wearing sexy Santa outfits to “work” the party every year (he also gets pissy if we get too “PC” about making the party inclusive toward non-Christians). Sadly, I’m not making this up. I raised the objection that this offends a lot of the women in the firm (which it does). I was summarily shushed and told by the partner that he didn’t care that it was sexist, we would continue doing it. (I know I should probably complain to someone higher up about this — but to be perfectly frank I’m too chickenshit that I might lose my job if I actually do anything about it.)
    I was LIVID the entire day. I couldn’t even focus on the rest of the meeting — I was visibly upset and (yeah, kinda childish) made snarky comments under my breath for the remainder of the meeting (only the two women in the room with me could hear, since I spoke away from the phone). One of the other women seemed upset that I was so pissed off about this and made a comment about how young women “take everything for granted” nowadays or that we have a sense of “entitlement,” or something along those lines. It struck me as a supremely odd thing to say… wanting to be respected as an equal means I have an entitlement complex? I’m not a hundred percent sure what her point was… but to be honest, it bothered me a lot. Not only was an oppressive sexist male partner throwing his weight around, but I couldn’t even get support from the other women I work with. And that’s just fucking depressing.

  • Heraclitus

    Really good post at TPM (and congratulations on posting there, which I assume is a good thing). And although I thought Pollitt, who of course I like and respect a great deal, was strangely literal-minded about your dipshit sorority comparison (I thought it was just meant to be provocative), I thought she raised some very good points in response. So a really good exchange, which I once heard is the point of these blogs.
    And, incidentally, that picture of you making your pirate face and flipping off the camera (titled something like “My attempt to class it up by wearing a dress is pointless”) is awesome.

  • Feste

    The skeleton crew remaining at the DePauw chapter seems only to have attracted a handful of new recruits. Bravo! Why should anyone pledge herself to eternal sisterhood in the shadow of such a massive betrayal of trust?
    I said that the scorned sisters should form a new sorority. My wife is correct, of course, when she says that the new organization should be called Phi Delta Zeta.

  • Alon Levy

    My take on this is a lot less charitable to Pollitt than you are in her post’s comment thread. If you’re Markos Moulitsas, trying to revitalize feminism and to make it more effective, Pollitt is the old establishment Democrat who feels so threatened by Daily Kos that she’d do anything to derail it.

  • Melissa Rose

    Brilliant article Jessica.
    And, as a bona fide feminist sorority woman, I’d like to point out the the facebook group formed in support of the Depauw women (entitled “sisters of substance”) has some very interesting dialogue about privilege, victim blaming, and the culture of the Greek system that contributed to the whole mess. Just an FYI.

  • Jessica

    Thanks for the comments, y’all. I’d also encourage you to go comment at TPMCafe where there are three different threads about this topic and the conversation is really interesting…

  • Heraclitus

    By the way, just to clarify what I said above after glancing at it–I meant the sorority is dipshit, or I guess dipshitty, not your comparison.

  • Patti Binder

    I am a feminist in my mid 30’s who has been working in non profits for women and girls for several years. I worked hard to find ways to support younger feminists take on leadership in these organizations and to create networks in other women’s organizations.
    I can’t believe how naive I was, as the young women I worked with went out to reputable women’s organizations who stated they were looking for younger women’s participation and yet gave off a less than welcoming vibe. This isn’t about young feminists writing off an entire generation of women. This is about womens’ organizations passively or actively turning off young women.
    It’s extremely discouraging to young women who have founded and led feminist organizations on their college campuses to look to the organizations that they want to join because they respect their contributions to feminism like AAUW (great research!) or NOW (a powerhouse) or local networks of women working on policy issues, to be treated like they have nothing to offer except their membership dues or to work the registration table at an event.
    Young women are constantly viewed as potential “recipients” of programming and not its creators.
    The highly motivated young women I know are looking to learn from larger more established organizations, and be seen as sources of information, ideas, and of leadership, not just free volunteer labor and a way to make the organization look like they are bringing younger people to the table.
    Worse, women’s organizations often do not invest in the younger women who work there or view them as future leaders of the organization. Really, at 36, I should NOT be the youngest woman in the room at symposia and conferences organized by women’s organization. It’s not that younger women don’t want to go, it’s that they often don’t get the “perk” of conference registration through their organizations.
    This is a real issue, felt by so many young women I know. I hope there is momentum out there for flipping feminism on its head with younger women at the helm.

  • donna darko

    Hmmm…. Very interesting. I side with Jessica on this one. Jessica wants young feminists to have power in and over the feminist movement. Second wave feminists have every opportunity to participate on feministing but they don’t just want to participate they want to change the logo on feministing, tell young feminists to not be exhibitionistic (even though the sexless, old school, uncool image is what scares young women away from feminism). You can’t compare NOW and FM with feministing. C’mon. The former have millions of dollars and name recognition. Young feminists want a seat at the table and older feminists are keeping them out. Second wavers don’t want a seat at feministing but just want to control the ideology.

  • prairielily

    I think the idea is that young women should just watch and learn, but for how long? When are we old enough, or wise enough, or whatever the criteria is, to participate?
    I think older feminists should look back on their own lives and realise that when they started the women’s liberation movement, they were young. They rejected the traditional notions of what womanhood is, and demanded more respect. They should not be surprised if young women reject some of the traditional notions of feminism and demand more respect. It should be expected.
    I’m also in a sorority, and my chapter is the smallest one on our campus. We’ve had problems with recruitment for years. It appalls me that our International could come in and tell us that a good portion of the sisterhood was unnecessary. EVERYONE in my chapter is integral to the function of the chapter. Fortunately, from our history, they seem to be more supportive than DZ, so I don’t think that would happen to us.
    Here’s the thing, though: I think our problem is actually the stereotype. My school is known as a party school, and the women who come out for sorority rush invariably want to party. It seems like every year, there’s fewer women who want something more, and many of them become discouraged not so much by the women they meet in the houses, but the other women they rush with. The remaining women are afraid of joining a small sorority, so we stay small. It’s a vicious cycle.
    In my opinion, one of the best things about sororities is also one of the best things about women’s colleges; it allows more women to take on leadership roles. A couple of the women in my chapter were EXTREMELY shy, but with the positive reinforcement of their sisters and the chance to take to take on responsibilities and shine in a safe environment, they’ve completely blossomed. It’s amazing to see, and in an ideal system, it’s all we would see.
    We wouldn’t have all this other bullshit. We wouldn’t have the ridiculous in-fighting that I know goes on and makes me suspect that there’s more to this situation than we know about. (I know of a fraternity that went through a similar process, and it was instigated by a split in the chapter and one group trying to eliminate the other.)
    In my sorority, we have a saying that goes, “I will never disparage another sister.” I can’t think of anything more disparaging than a group of women coming in and telling two thirds of a chapter they are unnecessary to the function of their chapter and to leave.
    Maybe that should apply to feminism, too.

  • kathygnome

    I think a lot of this is generational. I’m 40 and, honestly, the boomer feminists were saying the same things to us back in the 80s that they’re saying about feministing now.
    And yes, I think there is something to the idea that they want to keep it to themselves. As a generation, boomers seem to have trouble letting go of things.
    Now having said all of that, having been a feminist my entire life, things are a lot better now than they ever have been. Most women aren’t chased off by older feminists, they’re chased off by far right wing stereotypes of feminists.

  • kpsisu

    I work in a nonprofit, also. I am the youngest (at 28) on staff who is full time with benefits. We work to end violence against women.
    I have had the privilege of attending conferences, but then when I bring back the information, tying to share new ideas is like pulling teeth! The woman who is in charge of our outreach/prevention program has been doing it for 20 plus years and is very near retirement age- she hates me. Like, she will invite me to work with her on something, tell me my ideas are great, and then go to management behind my back and freak out about how terrible they are, etc. She has succeeded in stopping any opportunity of us to partner together- the last time she was back-biting over a presentation I told her I would keep a prior commitment rather than do the presentation with her, but then my boss said to go with and watch her for part of it. I went, and she expected me to know her material and present with her- included in her material was an essay about ‘what men think about girls that dress sexy.’ I felt very uncomfortable, and I did tell them that I didn’t agree with it- but I was so angry!
    It is not that younger feminists don’t respect the contributions older feminists have provided, we do. When I took my current position I was so excited because I would have the chance to work with the colleague mentioned above.
    You can respect someone and disagree with them. I think that is something that I have learned, that my colleague has yet to- it is possible to have a difference of opinion and discuss it openly and frankly, face to face, not by stabbing each other in the back.
    I think the tension between younger and older feminists comes from the ‘lack’ mentality (that we have to fight over scraps) instead of abundance, communication issues, and a lack of respect from the older feminists to the younger.

  • EG

    Kind of off-topic, but I don’t really like the dichotomy that seems to be coming up between “sexless” second-wave feminists and sex-positive contemporary feminists. It’s just not accurate. Back in the day, saying a woman was “liberated” also implied that she was fast. But more to the point, it was second-wave feminism that attacked the traditional sexual double-standard, that advocated for better sexual self-knowledge, including birth control, and that actually made women’s orgasms a priority in sex. I also think that the focus on ending sexual violence is about reclaiming female sexuality, as one of the obstacles to feeling happy and comfortable sexually is the fear or reality of having that sexuality being used to hurt you.
    I guess this is less a comment about the issue Jessica wrote about–I have not experienced such exclusion, but I’ve rarely tried to participate actively in traditional feminist organizations–than about not letting that divide make us buy into anti-feminist stereotypes about our elder sisters.

  • Brittany G.

    As a member of a sorority, I find it not only sad, but also extremely disgusting that the DZ Nationals could do this. I have sisters in my SISTERHOOD who aren’t the most social women, however they are great women, and they bring much to our organization. If the Delta Zeta National Council truly wanted to know what they were like, all they would have had to do was to open their eyes.
    Not everyone is a party girl. Not everyone is comfortable being “out there,” and in-your-face. Some people are quiet and just more comfortable being around a few of their sisters. Sure, this might be a problem come Formal Recruitment when they need to bump Potential New Members and whatnot, but their membership in the organization shouldn’t be based on whether they have the most outgoing personality or whether they are a stick figure, or were the Prom Queen or date the star player on their college’s best seasonal team. LOOK BEYOND THAT AND SEE THE MEMBERS FOR WHO THEY ARE.
    They chose to join the organization, not because they thought, “hey, Nationals is going to kick me out in 2007, and I won’t have to pay dues because I’ll be on Alumna status,” but rather because they felt they had found their home. That is why I joined my sorority…because I found the place where I felt most like myself; like I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else!
    I am me. Then I am a member of my sorority. Not the other way around. Delta Zeta Nationals needs to realize that!