My phone blips. Another email. Given that I’m stuck at an un-jaywalkable intersection in the East Village, I pause to open it. It’s another reply to my sorority sister’s chain email. The subject line from 35 emails ago simply reads: “Interesting.” I’m immediately engrossed, missing the walking man and chance to cross the street.
Earlier this week, another email sent off to “sisters” surfaced on the internet. It has received hundreds of thousands of reads, an onslaught of comments and at least two well-known dramatic readings. Rebecca Martinson’s virulent, expletive-filled rant confirmed and probably strengthened everybody’s stereotype of Greek life.
Her email evoked many emotions. I was embarrassed for her and disgusted with the email. I was incredulous that she could send something like that to an entire chapter of girls that she pays dues to be a member of. (Also that she used email, when everybody knows can easily be forwarded or published.) I thought of my own past Greek Weeks with amusement. But mostly I recalled the intense and all-consuming nature of the Greek system — the politics, the rankings, the jockeying for connection to a certain fraternity, the endless events, the rivalry of shirts and styles. I remembered what it was like to care so much about the frivolity.
What I then realized, much to my own surprise, was that this was the first time in years I’d wasted this much thought on Greek life. It had been such an important part of my college experience, yet today very little of it matters. I cannot even recall who our Greek Week partners were when I was a senior, a mere three years ago. Like diving into a cold pool, I was fully immersed in Greek life at the time. It shocked all of my senses. Then suddenly post graduation I got out, dried off and walked far from the water’s edge.
I joined a sorority for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t for sisterhood. It wasn’t to get more involved. I joined a sorority because it was the closest thing I could get to being in a fraternity.
The majority of my male friends, freshman year, were in the Greek community. At 18 years of age, I was pathetically frustrated that I couldn’t fully participate in their world. Asked to a fraternity’s spring formal in Palm Springs I found myself surrounded. Giggling groups of girls with mysterious hand signals looked at me puzzled, “You’re not affiliated? You should join XYZ!” I had one foot in the shallow end of Greek life.
I’m lucky that the recruitment process worked. It’s a longer more arduous, high heel-clad Hogwarts Sorting Hat. There are songs, many observers and you walk away with a new house, symbol and set of colors. As the hat does with Harry, recruitment takes in consideration what you want while adding its own preferences.
Soon I found myself christened with a pair of letters and baskets full of chapter-themed paraphernalia. Not just that, but I was now a member of a group of strong, thoughtful, bright young women. Those I connected with became my mentors and I aspired to match their accomplishments.
Compared to some other schools, I was a member of Greek Life Lite. At my college there were no houses. We were located in a rich, stuffy town. Rumor was that houses with that many women living in it would be labeled a brothel. I was not hazed: never made to strip down to my underwear to be jeered at critically, nobody used a Sharpie to circle my flaws. I was spared the horrors represented in pop culture, books and myth. I wasn’t forced to drink obscene amounts, or humiliate myself in front of college boys. (In my final teenage years, I was fully equipped to do that on my own.) I am not blind to these atrocities of sorority life. I am sadly aware that they exist; they were just not part of my narrative.
As I set out to do, I spent an enormous amount of time with a fraternity. They became my brothers and neighbors. They helped me move, built my furniture, cooked dinners of grilled steak and mashed potatoes, participated in art projects, hosted Brinner (breakfast for dinner), played casual games of Beirut, or Pictionary, or Life. They were far from perfect, espousing high levels of crude sexism and an unhealthy amount of binge drinking. Still, what friendship these college-aged “bros” could provide, they did.
More important than fraternity friendships that faded once college ended was what I gained from being a member of a large group of girls. I learned among other things: the importance of privacy in social media, that you might not like everybody and not everybody will like you, and at the end of the day it’s just easier to be nice.
In a strange way my, sorority helped me find my footing in my own brand of feminism. Through the Greek community I took my first steps into leadership and organizational roles. I became a member of Greeks Against Sexual Assault and was trained how to help victims, educate about consent and hopefully prevent rape. Too terrified to join UC San Diego’s school paper, I joined the Greek Column and began to write. I became a member of our executive board tasked with making decisions and leading a team. I cast off my shy exterior, gained confidence, found life long friends and a sense of worth.
There were of course many instances where my sisters and I faltered into petty, slutty, stereotypical rutsm worrying about social status or sweatshirt colors. We got ourselves so disgustingly overwhelmed with the bullshit. We exhausted all conversation of recruitment, and exchanges and boys. But then we grew up. After I graduation, I left most of college behind. I held onto dear friends and my newfound confidence. But I was determined to become a functioning adult member of society. I had little trouble shedding my sorority letters for business casual. Most of my friends did, too. In our mid-20s our conversation has shifted. We’re spread across the globe, teaching English abroad, getting good jobs, earning our Masters degree or even a doctorate.
My hope is that Rebecca Martinson realizes that in the end it won’t matter who won Greek Week, or what the boys of Sigma Nu think. (Seriously. It won’t matter). You will hardly remember who played in that sports matchup no matter who you cheered for. It only seems like such a damn big deal when you’re squarely in it. The cult of Greek life can be the root of many evils. It creates the scary group mentality that can lead young men and women to do terrible things to each other. It can foster sexism, rape culture, hazing, abuse of alcohol and drugs. But if kept in check, and used wisely, it can also promote leadership, friendship, sense of self, philanthropy, ambition. If you’re lucky, you won’t “cunt punt” all your sisters away, and retain some wonderful friends who will continue to inspire and challenge you.
And the “Interesting” email I opened? Two very smart replies to a Rosie Says article about the Bechdel Test, a link to a New York Times article, and a host of other stimulating reads. To think I joined the Greek system looking to win the approval of fraternity men. Instead I emerged engaged in women’s issues and connected to a wonderful group of people.
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[Photo of laughing women from Shutterstock]