This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper.
Society has evolved tremendously since the first Greek-letter organization was created in North America at the College of William and Mary in 1776, but the rules that govern sororities today remain startlingly outdated.
According to the National Panhellenic Conference, the umbrella organization that sets the standards of national chapters, the majority of the 26 recognized sororities are forbidden from hosting parties or serving alcohol in chapter houses -- even if members are 21.
Many sororities have strict rules prohibiting the presence of men in their houses. To compensate for this restriction, some organizations have weekly "visiting hours" during which boys can visit members in a public common room. I am a Greek-affiliated student at Duke, and when I learned about these rules, I felt like I had been whisked back to the 1800s.
"The media is quick to spotlight fraternities for recent scandals... but people rarely question why only half of the participants in Greek life -- fraternity members -- control the social scene in the first place."
The National Panhellenic Conference, commonly known as Panhel, originally prohibited sororities from hosting social events to maintain lower insurance premiums. According to The New York Times, fraternities that throw parties pay higher fees because they face increased liability for property damages. Other rationales includes the desire to preserve the intricately decorated interiors of sorority houses and to protect the safety of house residents.
Although fraternities are also Greek organizations, they are not limited to the same restrictions. Fraternities are allowed to host parties and have women present in their houses. The media is quick to spotlight fraternities for recent scandals with which they have been associated, but people rarely question why only half of the participants in Greek life -- fraternity members -- control the social scene in the first place.
We live in the 21st century. Modern women are proactive and independent, breaking barriers in every element of academia and the professional world. Our roles in society are incomparable to what they were centuries ago when women had to pay dowries to be handed off to prospective husbands and were chaperoned on dates. Yet the constrictions imposed by Panhel -- a women's organization -- do not reflect progressive societal changes.
Society pushes me to believe that I can build a successful career in any traditionally male-dominated profession. But if I want to invite my best friend, a male, to my house for dinner, I can't? The continuance of these regulations suggests that affiliated women should not bear any responsibility for our own social experiences. We are unable to control the most basic, intimate unit of our daily lives: our living spaces. These measures were supposedly instated for our benefit, but they result in women being channeled into a social domain that men dictate.
The fraternity brothers who host an event provide the space, supply the refreshments and determine the guests. Inherently, an imbalanced power dynamic develops and a gender hierarchy forms, regardless of how welcoming or respectful the men could be. We are their guests, which formulates a subtle but underlying relationship of obligation. While women still may appreciate or enjoy the hospitality, the patriarchal dynamic perpetrates the idea that we should rely on men. This does not reflect how modern women operate, especially Duke women.
The "no boys in the house" rule unfairly implies that most relationships with males are promiscuous and deserve to be condemned. An affiliated NC State student, Kelly Elder, spoke out regarding her frustration when her chapter deliberated placing a sorority sister on social probation as punishment for sneaking a boy into her bedroom.
"Society pushes me to believe that I can build a successful career in any traditionally male-dominated profession. But if I want to invite my best friend, a male, to my house for dinner, I can't?"
The girl was struggling with personal issues and relied upon her male friend for support. Since he did not attend the same university, the most comfortable place to speak was in her house. Although the circumstances clearly warrant her actions, the chapter was obligated to consider repercussions. Furthermore, Kelly raises the point that girls in long distance relationships are compelled to leave their own houses when their significant others visit.
Beyond initiating dialogue, some women have taken the issue a step further by breaking ties with their national chapter. An independent local sorority at Dartmouth University, Sigma Delta, has flouted convention by throwing its own parties. Panhel cannot impose rules upon Sigma Delta because no technical affiliation has existed since 1988. The New York Times portrayed the creation of this unique sisterhood as a reactive measure to prevent sexual assault and avoid possible safety issues at fraternity houses.
While many girls admit they feel safer on their home turf because they are familiar with the house, the contents of refreshments being served and the people in attendance, Sigma Delta was not localized as a passive response. These women wanted to proactively construct an organization that reflected their values in a space they could control.
I am not trying to express that whenever I enter a fraternity house I automatically feel compelled to abide by someone else's standards, behavior or desires. Some women may never feel uncomfortable in fraternities while others may feel differently. Nonetheless, I would feel a sense of security and empowerment if I at least had the option to be on my own turf and manage my own experiences.
When granted the choice, some women might say the risks and liabilities of hosting a party on their premises outweigh the benefits. Regardless of the ultimate decision, women should have the right to make the same choices afforded to fraternity members. The fault of this does not lie with fraternities, at Duke or nationally; it stems from the bureaucracy that sets these guidelines.
Panhel must reframe these obsolete double standards to convey that sorority women can, and should, act as independent community members. More importantly, we must question why these gender discrepancies have been permitted to exist for so long.
Americans have been scrutinizing Greek life, universities' sexual misconduct policies and campus climates to increase students' safety. In order to comprehensively understand these matters and yield tangible improvements, first we must investigate the inequitable standards that underlay the foundation of Greek life and commit to breaking them down.