Sunday, August 23, 2009

Such Devoted Sisters...?

(I know I've used this title before, but I can't help it if it's such an easy line to grab for sisterly posts!)

This letter could have been written by my grandma before I left for undergrad:

Dear Amy: My granddaughter graduated this year from high school.

She will be attending college in the fall.

I had hoped that she would join a sorority. It doesn't matter to me if she joins the one I joined years ago.

She indicated that the system has a bad name and does not want to even give it a try. I think she may be wrong, but in your opinion, what is the general reputation of the system today?

My friends from college are still close friends, so I have a hard time thinking that things have changed that drastically. — MollieBee

Dear MollieBee: I don't think sororities have a bad name, though the Greek system has been through its ups and downs, and the reputation of the sorority or fraternity depends on the particular organization and the school.

Some sororities and fraternities are intended to be service organizations, though in general they seem to function mainly as clubs uniting students with common interests.

I know several people in sororities and fraternities, and they all say they are enjoying their friendships and value the affiliation.

Your granddaughter could find a sorority drawing young women through a particular academic interest, music or sports.

You have tried to influence her, and she is showing you that she is ready for college by declaring she will make her own decisions. That's the whole idea.

I didn't necessarily have strong negative feelings about the Greek system before I went away to school (but really....calling yourself "MollieBee" doesn't do much to undercut the stereotypes this granddaughter is probably familiar with), I just didn't have much interest in it. My mom was not in a sorority, because at her university they just weren't a big deal, and none of her friends were rushing. My dad was in a frat in college, but hasn't remained friends with a single person from it (or anyone from college, really).

My grandma, on the other hand, was--no, IS--a devoted Alpha Gamma Delta. She went to University of Illinois, but when she came to visit me on the Illinois Wesleyan Campus and saw a random girl in an AGD sweatshirt on the steps of the library, she unexpectedly grabbed her by the hand and re-hashed history for awhile. (Me: Grandma, look at the beautiful library! Grandma: Alpha Gam, Alpha Gam!)

I think what may have changed from the time my grandma, and this grandma, were in school is not so much how sororities work, but what options are available to women on college campuses.

When I worked in my university archives one summer, I was surprised to learn that the sorority houses at my school all grew out of the boarding houses that female students lived in in the 19th century. To re-state: they took the buildings where all the female students lived, and transformed them into sororities. (This, for curious IWU folk, is why the frat houses belong to the university and the sorority houses don't).

At that time, female students were in the minority, and living and socializing together came first, and out of this, they established and declared their sisterhood.

By the 1940s things had changed somewhat--there were dorms and other places to live, and more women in general. But my understanding is that sororities were still the main way for women on campus to band together and form a bond. At IWU, it wasn't until the 1960s that they got rid of having a curfew for female students and not (or a different one) for men. (I KNOW!! It's insane). If I had to be in by a certain time, I would want to live in a big old house with all my best friends, so that "in" didn't mean the fun had to stop.

Now, most undergraduate universities are made up of more than half women. Apartments and houses are widely available (and, in contrast to the frighteningly recent past, can be rented to single women). Universities offer school-owned apartments and dorms have triples, quads, and suites. And casual friendships and rooming with people of the opposite gender are more widely accepted. Today, sororities are just one of many ways for women to find a place to call home on a college campus.

I used to feel really frustrated and hurt that my grandma didn't seem to recognize my college days as valid or complete because I wasn't in a sorority--it took me awhile to realize that I had to listen to her intent, rather than her words. It turned out that she didn't necessarily care, specifically, that I join the Greek system and follow her footsteps. What she wanted for me was to feel safe, secure and happy at school, forming close, lifelong bonds with women that I'd live with, study with, and socialize with. For her, that meant being in a sorority. I did all these things, but in my own way. After my first year, her pressure about the Greek system dissipated because it was obvious that I was happily busy with many other things.

I think Amy's advice here is good--let the granddaughter make her own choices, and lay off the pressure. With any luck, the granddaughter will have a great time forging her own path at college--and her gram will be happy to watch her grow into herself in her own way.

1 comment:

Ashley said...

It's sort of a weird thing when the previous generation wants the younger generation to do exactly what they did when they were growing up. I know I'm guilty of advising students to choose a small, private school and major in English which may be just the same as advising students to join a sorority! :) I think, when you have really great experiences, you want to share those experiences with everyone else not thinking that the younger generation will create their own great experiences all by themselves.