Founder of Zeta Omega Eta: Courtney Cook

Who run the world? Girls. Who run University of Michigan? You guessed it – girls. 

Case in point: Courtney Cook, an LSA junior studying Creative Writing, launched the Beta chapter of Zeta Omega Eta, a feminist sorority, at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2015 (as a sophomore!). In just one year, Cook has catapulted this revolutionary organization from a grassroots movement to a full-fledged chapter staffed by a passionate Executive Board and populated by some of campus’ most articulate, brilliant and passionate feminists.

This St. Patrick’s Day, as the Michigan snow flurries fell outside, Her Campus had the pleasure of sitting down with Cook to learn more about ZΩH’s history, mission and structure, her personal take on feminism, and her life on campus.

 

Her Campus: What inspired you to launch Zeta Omega Eta (ZΩH)?

Courtney Cook: I rushed Panhellenic sororities my sophomore year, and I didn’t end up getting a bid. I felt discouraged – not only about not getting a bid, but also about the whole experience itself. I was frustrated by the overarching structure of the sororities – there seemed to be little diversity, strict and often times sexist rules, and other barriers to empowering women. I was looking for that same experience offered in Panhellenic sororities, where I could have friendship and sisterhood with like-minded women, but with a greater focus on empowering women.

I called my mom expressing my frustration with the whole situation once recruitment had ended, and she suggested that I research feminist organizations. That’s how I came to discover Zeta Omega Eta. The Alpha chapter [first chapter] had been established at Trinity College in 2003; although that chapter hadn’t been active for many years, I found their president on Facebook and talked to her about launching a Beta chapter here at Michigan. She gave me the go ahead, and that’s how it all began.

Our constitution differs a little bit from the Alpha chapter’s constitution, but we are – at the core – the same organization. The difference between our two chapters is mainly that we focus more on sisterhood at the University of Michigan; we’re less politically driven, meaning that our political ideologies – namely feminism – bring us together, but we as an organization partake in mostly sisterhood events. Our organization is built on supportive sisterhood; we go out to eat together, attend movies and concerts, have craft nights and do other fun activities together. The political events – like rallies and protests – are optional to our members.

HC: You said feminism is at the core of your organization. How would you, personally, define feminism?

CC: Well to start, I guess I’ll give you the textbook definition of feminism. Feminism is the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. But obviously there is so much more nuance to that concept, so much more detail to be added in facets such as intersectionality and so forth.

So our bid day this year is actually this coming Sunday, and we’ve been hosting rush events for the past few weeks. During one of those rush events, one of our sisters gave a really poignant definition of feminism that I hadn’t been able to articulate until she presented the idea to me. She said that feminism to her is a verb rather than a noun or ideology; it’s a way you life your live with the purpose of continually promoting equality and inclusivity. I was just so blown away with that definition, and I feel like it encompasses my interpretation of feminism. Feminism is making active efforts to understand all women – women of color, women with disabilities, women of other socio-economic standings, women of other religions and so forth – in order to uplift us all. Feminism is taking the time to listen to these women and their experiences, sharing my own experiences, and promoting equality together for us all.

HC: How does Zeta Omega Eta engage with feminism on campus and as an organization?

CC: So like I said before, the main focus of Zeta Omega Eta is the sisterhood aspect, supporting women in our organization and their endeavors to promote gender equality on campus. With that in mind, we really have a huge range of events that we participate in to engage with feminism and advocate for gender equality. Oftentimes we attend our sisters’ on-campus endeavors and support whatever they’re up to. One such example is Lorraine Furtado – she’s been heavily involved in the planning and execution of Yoni Ki Baat’s 10th Annual Spring Monologue Show: HUSH, which is a series of monologues illustrating the challenges that women of color face here on campus. The show is coming up on March 20, so many of the ZΩH sisters will be attending her show to support her.

A group of sisters attended the Women’s March together which was a really powerful and empowering experience, being able to protest the current administration and advocate for our rights. Following the Orlando nightclub shooting in summer 2016 we had a lot of open dialogue and offered one another a great deal of support, especially considering that many of our sisters identify as LGBTQ+. Generally, open dialogue and support of one another has been a huge aspect of our sisterhood following the election of Donald Trump. During the holidays we expressed our frustrations and heartbreak of going home to family members with differing and otherwise unsupportive political views.

Apart from support of our sisters in their on-campus endeavors and participating in protests, vigils and marches, Zeta Omega Eta is looking to make connections on campus. Since we’re such a new organization, we’ve really tried to establish strong connections to other groups on campus to partner with for future endeavors and make our presence known.

 

HC: Who are some of your feminist idols and other role models?

CC: I definitely have to say – a classic answer – Audre Lorde. There’s a quote by her that I feel really encapsulates my goal of promoting intersectional feminism through ZΩH. It goes, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Lorde, and that quote in particular, really epitomizes intersectional feminism; as a white woman I can’t even conceptualize many of the struggles that women of color face, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and learn about it to better support women in general.

I also really admire Marina Keegan, the late author of “The Opposite of Loneliness” [Keegan died 5 days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale at 22 years old]. First I think it’s heinously sad how her life was cut short by such a freak accident, but I think she was unapologetically herself and seemed so determined and passionate in her writing. She never let anything get in the way of what she wanted to do. Being women, there are so many naysayers and obstacles to our success, and she was so fiercely against that, even if unconsciously. I think loving yourself is a political act, and Marina Keegan truly embodied that ideal.

Lastly I’d have to sad Sharon Olds, who is a poet and writes about a vast number of women’s issues, but not necessarily in a classic or expected way. She writes about topics like losing her virginity and getting her period in a very visceral way. In one of her poems – “Monarchs” – she equates the blood on her thighs after losing her virginity to the migration of monarch butterflies. I think she approaches topics that are seen as dirty or taboo and makes them accessible to readers and eliminates the fear surrounding these topics.

HC: Are you a Rick’s girl or Skeep’s girl?

CC: Oh I’m totally a Skeep’s girl. Rick’s has better music, but I’m less enticed by the 30 year-old crowd that I predominantly find there. I don’t like their shark bowls either, there’s only one flavor! Also my phone doesn’t have service in the basement there, which is quite problematic. Going to Skeep’s means dressing up more with heels and a skirt, and I’m always down for a chance to get really dressed up. Plus Skeep’s has an overhead heater for the line, which I think is so nice.

 

 HC: How has Zeta Omega Eta enriched your college experience?

CC: I would definitely say that ZΩH has made me more outgoing and open to meeting people that I wouldn’t necessarily get along with on first glance. Like engineering students for example – when I launched ZΩH I was in the Stamps School of Art and Design, so I was very much sequestered on North Campus. At that point, I used to think to myself: How could I possible have anything in common with a mechanical engineering student, for example. But after making friends through ZΩH I realized that that was a total misnomer. Zeta Omega Eta has made me more outgoing and willing to meet new people. 

 

HC: What is your advice for students who are interested in learning more about activism and activist groups on campus?

CC: Well my advice is first and foremost to be open and try out new organizations and take advantages of new opportunities. Earlier this year I expressed to my grandma that I was interested in going to church, and she advised me that it was important to attend a church multiple times before I decided whether or not I would enjoy it there. I think the same mentality should be taken when looking for activist groups on campus – even if the first meeting isn’t super enthralling, it’s important to go to a few more meetings before you make a decision about the organization.

On Facebook, if you say that you’re going to an event, the site will suggest other events that you might be interested in. Take advantage of this feature! Once you dip your toes into the rich activism that Ann Arbor has the offer, you’ll find that new opportunities are numerous. Also, I think it’s important to recognize that activism comes in many forms: signing petitions, actively petitioning for causes, calling your representatives. Activism can literally just be having a conversation with a friend who holds a differing viewpoint and trying to understand her position. I think all in all, when people become more politically aware and engage with one another in a respectful manner on these issues, the entire community benefits.

 

Images courtesy of Courtney Cook.