In 2019, I chose to join a sorority in college. Even though my chapter doesn’t align with most people’s typical view of a sorority, going Greek was a controversial choice for many reasons, and the future of sororities continues to be a point of contention on college campuses. In pop culture, Greek life is known for its privileged partiers, who pay thousands of dollars for their memberships. Greek life can be exclusionary and even dangerous, with college students continuing to die from fraternity hazing. But these practices are antithetical to the values of social justice and equity that Gen Z upholds, even as they continue to rush.
Where Greek life was once seen as the peak of campus social hierarchy, the allure of exclusive empowerment no longer appeals to Gen Z, thanks in part to the activists from older generations who have been criticizing Greek life for decades. After the murder of George Floyd link and responding protests in the summer of 2020, people began calling into question so many institutions that uphold white supremacy, including fraternities and sororities. Both Greek life outsiders and insiders launched attacks on the system, calling out its racism, classism, and heteronormativity.
Gen Z has made some headway on this front. But while practices like abandoning legacy policies and establishing task forces point to a hopeful future for reforming Greek life, they should only be the start of larger changes if we want to make a lasting impact. College women are reimagining what it means to be a “sorority girl” in 2021, and have the potential to transform the impact of sororities on their communities, shifting away from their problematic origins.
The History Of Greek Life
In August, Alabama Rush girls took over your For You Page. While many onlookers mocked the PNMs (potential new members) for their fervor for sisterhood, others were fascinated, and even envious, of the bonds these chapters supposedly formed. Sororities have historically provided a space for a select group of women to network and find recourse in an academic environment that was generally hostile toward them. (See: Rape culture on college campuses — widely perpetuated by frats and sports teams.) By the time women were admitted to colleges in the early 20th century (and even later for Ivy League schools), fraternities were well-established and boxed women out of social and professional advantages on campus, necessitating the creation of a space for women to come together.
But this type of empowerment is limited. Just as quickly as sororities gave wealthy white women the ability to support one another, the Panhellenic sororities also worked themselves into the larger structure of Greek life by promoting classism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy. As scholar Margaret L. Freeman writes in her book Women of Discriminating Taste: White Sororities and the Making of American Ladyhood, the “southern aesthetic” is central to the image of sororities, meaning that though sororities now exist throughout the country, their place of origin was the antebellum south. Freeman argues that sororities “have always been conservative in nature and inherently discriminatory, whether they be selecting members according to social class, religion, race, or physical attractiveness.”
The image that was so carefully curated by sororities — the “southern belle,” modernized today as the “sorority girl” — reified whiteness as the beauty standard and created new structures that provided advantages for white women. This not only had an impact on American culture beyond college campuses, but provided sisters with social advantages within their university. The social network that comes with being in a sorority is central to its unfairness: Being in a sorority can help you get invited to parties, land a job, or even run for office.
But as more people started pointing fingers at Greek life’s lack of membership diversity, culturally appropriative party themes, and emotionally traumatizing hazing rituals, the initial appeal of Greek life became the very thing that prevented it from evolving with the times. Today, the image of the sorority girl — aka, the “southern belle” — is at the center of the problem Gen Z is attempting to solve.
Greek Life Now, According To Gen Z Sisters
Sarah,* 23, is a recent alumna of Alpha Phi at the University of Georgia (UGA). UGA is ranked sixth on Niche’s list of Best Greek Life Colleges in America. According to Sarah, who is white, the protests following the killing of George Floyd had an impact on Georgia’s Greek system. “They’re definitely trying more,” she says of her chapter’s efforts to address systemic racism. “So much more than other sororities have done in the past.” In Sarah’s opinion, the changes mostly took place on Instagram in the form of performative activism to appease students outside of the chapter. “It’s an external thing,” she says. “There are not really conversations happening within the organization.”
Encouraged (though not enforced) by Alpha Phi national, her chapter also made changes to their leadership structure, adding a Diversity and Inclusion chair. Sarah’s reaction was mixed. “It’s great that they have one, but what is she doing?” she says. Before Rush — the period where sororities recruit new members — Sarah’s sorority sent out a “little black book,” which tells sisters what they should wear for the week. The book included a rule that members should use “two hot tools” in their hair, either a blow dryer and a flat iron or a blow dryer in a curling iron. These rules were accompanied by images of “yes” and “no” hairstyles. The “yes” section featured white women with curled and straightened hair while the “no” section featured images of a woman with wet hair, a woman with bright pink hair, and a Black woman with natural curls. This is the type of situation that could have been prevented by a D&I chair, had there been one at the time.
“I was irate at the time, but there was no one for me to talk to about the issue,” she says. Not having a voice is a major problem in the Greek system, which is known for its strict rules and secrecy. “In my sorority, there was no time for you to voice your opinion,” she says. “We don’t even get to vote on the girls who get in or not. It’s a committee that picks who gets in, so no one really has any stake. You don’t get to determine what the reputation of the sorority is.”
This is a huge challenge for people like Sarah, who have walked away from their sororities with a sour taste in their mouth, and a challenge for anyone who wants to make changes. It’s also antithetical to what sisterhood should be — as Sarah says, “What is the whole purpose of a sorority if not to build strong women who speak their minds?” But she still believes that sororities have room to grow. “I think some can be saved, but I’m specifically saying ‘some,’” she says.
Kami, 19, who is a member of William & Mary’s Delta Gamma sorority, is cautiously optimistic about Greek life on her campus. Kami is the Head of Social Awareness and leads many D&I efforts for her chapter. She is encouraged by the increased dialogue in her sorority about race and sexuality, and feels supported as a Black woman in this predominantly white organization, though she believes that there is room for improvement.
“I want the conversation about diversity to not be so forced,” Kami tells Her Campus. “The first thing I think about all the time is, ‘Why aren’t these things naturally coming up?’ And I think that’s what will change everything.”
From the start, Kami’s sorority was different from what she expected. “Everybody had piercings and tattoos, and it was very normal to what I would see outside of my sorority,” she tells Her Campus. “There was a wide range of people in the sorority, with a wide range of sexualities and perspectives on life, so that was really interesting and comforting.”
Kami longed for an organized space to come together with other women while at college, too. “I do feel like I need a safe space, and to have people who also want to have fun,” she says. “I think it’s superficial, but it’s cute, being in the same group of people and talking about the same things. But I also make it clear to people that I didn’t lose my Black identity when I joined a predominantly white sorority.”
Kami’s case is an example of an individual sorority that was able to make her feel welcome as a Black woman, but simply having people with different identities without making changes to the way that your sorority runs isn’t so progressive; it’s tokenizing. Central to Kami’s positive experience is the ways in which many members of her organization actively engage in changing it. If that level of engagement isn’t happening in every chapter of every sorority, real progress will remain out of reach. Additionally, Kami plans to start a group at her college that brings Black women together.
How Gen Z Navigates Identity In Greek Life
Regardless of how much sororities are changing their ways, their history of classism, heteronormativity, and racism (not to mention flat-out discrimination) is leading many current members to have moments of identity crisis. Through their time in the organizations, especially if they identify as low-income, LGBTQ+, or BIPOC, Gen Z sorority girls have to reconcile their identities with the institutions they’re a part of. While they love their organizations, which provide important friendships and support systems, they question if their general participation in Greek life is causing more harm than good.
“I literally considered dropping because I feel so much pressure,’” Kami says. “But everything you do in life should be meaningful, and every person you meet should be meaningful, and whether it’s a good experience or a bad experience, it is an experience. While I’m not going to be able to tell you that I’m going to graduate in a sorority, the people I’m meeting, the way that people have taken care of me, and taken me under their wing has been powerful.”
Kami acknowledges the internal struggles many sisters face. Ultimately, she comes back to the values of her specific chapter. “I don’t compromise my values because I joined a sorority because they had the same values as me, and they had the same perspectives as me, and they had the same priorities as me,” she says. “I’m not compromising who I am, and if I was, that would be the issue. What Black women have to start doing is unapologetically fitting into these spaces and being like, ‘What are we going to do now?’’ The women in a sorority should define the sorority rather than being defined by it. Creating a permanent space for women outside of the narrow image of the “sorority girl” will reshape our understanding of what it means to be in a sorority, and what sororities can do for all women.
Like Sarah, Kami agrees that Greek life can be changed. “I think it can be reformed,” she says. “I say that optimistically, but also pragmatically. I think it will need to be reformed.” The biggest problem, Kami says, is that Greek life isn’t evolving with the people who want to be in it. But she believes that can change because of sisters like her. “I think it’ll just happen naturally,” she says. “A lot of people in my sorority are definitely pushing the boundaries of what it looks like to be in one.”
Gen Z Is Looking Forward To Greek’s Life Future
So, can sororities adapt? Individual chapters may have a bright future, thanks to members like Kami and Sarah, who are pushing their organizations to think more critically about what they’re doing. There are structural impediments (for example: asking members to pay a high price to be in your organization almost guarantees that low-income students will not be able to participate), and there are cultural ones (do transgender women feel welcomed by your narrowly defined version of femininity?). Change starts with calling these problems out and then transforming them at their root cause. The result shouldn’t look like anything we’ve seen before.
Greek life is already changing, even if at small levels. There is a chance for the smaller, more social justice-inclined sororities like mine to make a difference and become leaders. But it’s not a free ticket to turn away from all sororities’ shared history, or to consider themselves wholly separate from the groups that aren’t as far along. They can celebrate their improvements, but still need to keep an eye on other groups. The tendency of more progressive sororities to distance themselves leads to a lot of back-patting, instead of much-needed reflection and continued action.
Above all, students shouldn’t feel beholden to the way sororities have historically existed. We can let go of terms like “rush” and “big” and still find ways to be in community with each other. We can make huge structural changes and still have fun parties. The first step toward forming a better sorority, if that’s even what we still want to call it, is disaffiliation from national chapters that dictate rules for girls they’ll never meet. The next is listening to sisters and non-sisters alike to figure out what you really want your organization to be. What harm does your chapter cause to your larger college community, and how can you change that? What good does it do?
Sororities must have ongoing conversations, spanning years, about their identity as a group and what impact they want to be making — the same anti-racist dialogues happening in boardrooms and classrooms across the country. And these conversations shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of disenfranchised community members — we all have to put in the work. As long as we are holding on to the original idea of the sorority girl, we are perpetuating white supremacy, classism, and heteronormativity, but so many current members of Greek life don’t value this image anymore.
“We can look at sororities as a microcosm of the entire nation,” Kami says. “Sometimes, I think America can’t come back from its history. But I don’t believe the same for sororities.”
*Name has been changed.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.