Sororities should encourage members to speak for themselves

Sororities should encourage members to speak for themselves

As a tidal wave of empowerment for women sweeps the nation and world, sororities at The University of Alabama choose instead to live in some past time when women did not have a voice. 

One mission of the National Panhellenic Conference is to foster “the power of the individual and the empowerment of women,” yet this seems to be lost at UA. We do not teach sorority women to think for themselves or to express what they believe in. 

One of the authors of this column is an instructor on campus who attended UA in the early ‘90s as a member of a sorority and later became a sorority advisor. The other is a current student and member of the UA Greek system. We both, across generations and the passing of time, are angry about the same thing: the lack of freedom of speech afforded to sorority members on this campus. 

One thing we’ve noticed hasn’t changed in the 23 years between us: the Greek system at The University of Alabama is doing a disservice to women by not teaching them to question or challenge the injustices they see take place around them – whether within the Greek community or the campus at large.

We should teach the women of our campus to be strong, fearless independent thinkers, but when sorority women do courageously stand up, they are exiled by their sorority, both emotionally and, sometimes, officially. 

Sorority members are censored, self censoring, flat-out reprimanded or kicked out of a house for expressing thoughts and opinions that are unpopular with the majority. This must end. UA and national and local sororities must empower sorority women to have freedom of speech. They need to educate them about what that looks like because, in its current state, it would be impossible to know.

If you’re shaking your head and locking the sorority house gate right now, we’re talking to you.

This isn't middle school. We are at an institution of higher learning. So let's learn what not to do: sorority women should not ever be told how to vote, what to eat, what to wear, what type of contraception to use, who to date or what news article to share or not share on social media. Yet these things happen, every single day. It's unconscionable.

At its best free speech looks like Melanie Gotz, the brave woman who spoke out about systemic racism while in the Greek system. At its worst it looks like Harley Barber and her racist video that went viral last week. But the truth shall set you free, and that’s what happened for her.

Since that video, women within her sorority have endured a maelstrom of one member’s making. Any reasonable person knows that one member is not responsible for a group of women any more than the person reading this is responsible for the entire University.

Yet the actions of Barber speak to the larger problem. When we don’t challenge women with new perspectives or teach women to think for themselves — but instead welcome them into a culture that fosters an attitude of elitism and exclusivity   — we cannot claim ignorance when things go wrong.”

It starts during recruitment, when a woman is almost never asked, “How can you challenge the thinking of this group? What can you offer that is uniquely you?” Instead, sororities stick to surface-level questions such as, “Did you travel over summer?”  Women are not welcomed into sororities based on their diversity of experience or thought, but how similar they are to the other women that comprise the house. When women join the Greek system, they are stripped of their individuality.

Women quickly succumb to groupthink (big T-shirts and all) and immediately have 10 friends to sit with for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a large mansion that excludes them from the rest of campus. They don’t directly interact with non-Greek students – or the majority of campus – unless it’s intentional.

The pressure to keep up and fit in with hundreds of girls makes members feel self-conscious when they ask too many questions. We have both experienced firsthand how toxic this thinking can be, and how it can shut down free speech faster than you can say “standards meeting.” 

We propose, as part of new member education, encouraging women to speak publicly and articulate thoughts clearly. Sororities should invite guest speakers that focus on empowering women and should teach members how to promote individuality. In addition, sororities should utilize resources on campus, such as UA Crossroads, which offers workshops specifically geared toward inclusive engagement that could wholly benefit members of the Greek system.

We also propose ending swaps, the most antiquated of all traditions, which typically serve no purpose other than to get new members intoxicated. These events are outright discriminatory and exploit women, especially when members are forced to “bump.”  Women no longer attend college for the “Mrs. degree,” so let’s stop acting like we’re in the ‘50s. Want to meet new people? Work together on philanthropy, schedule dinner with other houses or attend a cultural event.   

We can do better and it doesn’t start with UA’s administration. It starts with each member actively changing her attitude so a sorority accurately reflects society. While we can theoretically empower women all day long, until sororities stop shunning women that courageously speak up – whether it’s a wardrobe choice or a social justice issue – only then will we see a shift in Greek culture. 

By trying to protect the image of sororities, we only hurt them. 

Alex Smith is a student majoring in political science and journalism. 

Meredith Cummings is an instructor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media.

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