Sororities should look to history to be reminded of power in campus elections

I have a story I'd like to share with the CW in response to the March 8th article titled “Women underrepresented, yet unsupportive in SGA politics.” I appreciated this article as a thoughtful and accurate look at the rather confounding support base that the Machine has in sororities.

The story I would like to share is about how SGA's first and only black president, Cleo Thomas, was elected.

Cleo was a Malleteer who attended UA during the seventies, and he was also greek. His affiliations facilitated some interaction with other greek organizations, particularly sororities. Within that community, Cleo made many strong friendships and, from what I hear, was pretty popular in that circle.

At the time, the Machine had not yet opened up to sororities – it was an exclusively fraternity-based organization, and they successfully kept women from any meaningful SGA involvement. Even today, I often hear the Machine categorized as racist, but it isn't often that people make note of its sexism. This is another reason I appreciated Wyckoff's article so much.

In 1976, Cleo decided to run for SGA president. He defeated the Machine candidate and became the first black SGA president on UA's campus. He won because he was able to rally support from the sororities in his campaign. He had Mallet's support obviously, and he had support from plenty of independent sectors of the student body, but it was Cleo's friends in sororities that enabled him to take the presidency.

In a Crimson White article covering the election results, Cleo was said to have commented on how he believed “sororities had gained new political confidence from the race.” Cleo directly referred to “signs of more independent thinking of students, particularly those in sororities and in dorms. It's a signal that times are changing.”

Of course, this story has a disheartening conclusion – shortly following Cleo's election, the Machine wised up and realized they needed to manage the problem of sororities if they wanted to maintain control of campus politics. They invited the sororities into the Machine, promising them Homecoming every year if they joined. The sororities, after having been the only group on campus to have collectively defeated the Machine, became a part of the Machine for something as petty and effectively meaningless as Homecoming Queen. This worked out well for the Machine because they ensured themselves of the docility of the sororities without having to give an ounce of actual power to them.

Since joining the Machine, the sororities have won Homecoming lots. They have won president four times, and I suppose one could make the argument that they should be grateful for those four times that the Machine so graciously and progressively allowed them to run. I am not grateful, however.

I am furious because while women have been given permission to run by the Machine four times, we have been beaten by the Machine dozens upon dozens of times. Countless women who participate in Machine meetings have been denied permission to run for president, executive office or senate. Those individuals who are granted permission for senate are admittedly many in number, but they are always held back by the organization that elected them. Rarely, if ever, will the majority of these women see their names on a ballot for higher office.

What we see with the Machine and sororities is a classic instance of exploitation. A male-dominated organization uses the compliance of women to remain in power and maintain control of the most significant offices. Because sororities make up such a significant part of the Machine, they can't get away with electing an all-male senate, but the women in these organizations are so complacent that even when given an opportunity to elect incredibly competent and worthy females to executive offices, they continue to do as they are told.

Because I am not of the opinion that women in sororities are unintelligent or weak, I am willing to consider the possibility that many of them vote according to the Machine because they have critically evaluated their options and have reached the conclusion that remaining in the Machine is of a greater advantage to them than escaping it. This is a possibility, but if women are willing to vote against their own sisters to maintain the meager allowance of influence allotted to them, then that paints a cold view of the individuals in these organizations indeed. I would rather discount that as a possibility.

Perhaps they do this due to fear of being ostracized. Perhaps they do it out of ignorance. But they certainly do not maintain their current predicament by lack of power to change it. The story of Cleo Thomas illustrates that fact with indisputable clarity.

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