I grew up in a college town, passively aware of the hoards of girls in matching t-shirts living in beautiful houses. I knew about boys that traveled in wolf packs — the ones that threw parties. I was quietly accepting of Greek life as a simple fact, basking in a false sense of normalcy that I carried with me to the Northeast.
I’m a part of the Greek system. This is not a disclaimer or some sort of defensive, self-preservation technique. I’m not trying to be one of “the good ones,” or preempt claims of hypocrisy or deny anything you may accuse me of when you hear that I’m in a sorority. I’m only establishing that I’m well versed in the subject from both an external (townie) perspective and an internal (member) perspective.
With all my experience, I can say with conviction that Greek life is adverse to the Cornell experience overall. Time after time I have wished that it would just disappear. Sure, within the walls of my North Campus sorority house I found incredible support through serious traumas and silly, everyday trials. I also found some of my best friends. For this, I owe outstanding gratitude.
But I also found a lot of pain. I found a lot of privileged, white feminism. I found exclusivity. I found a system that pits girls against girls — ones that have all the same prelims and preoccupations as each other. I found an expectation to be deferential to the men who invited me to their parties, to be gracious and gorgeous regardless of their behavior. I didn’t need a house rank to tell me that I didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t need the scale that sat in the entryway to tell me that I was taking up too much space.
Many members of the Greek system feel a sticky discomfort in speaking this way. It’s hard not to be protective of an institution you call your own — an institution you might even really like. The accessibility to social capital and the convenience of recreation are obvious upsides, and the greatest issues hide under the surface. But in one breath, I could confess my distaste with the fraternities that run rampant with power hierarchies, hazing, alcohol abuse, violence, toxic masculinity, deindividuation and privilege. Sororities, in their marriage to fraternities, become strikingly anti-feminist.
National leadership forbids sororities from throwing parties, denying women the physical domain they need to ensure their own safety and comfort. If drinking and parties are disallowed in our own homes, we become dangerously reliant on fraternities. Some of the most horrifying situations I’ve witnessed at Cornell were direct results of space and capital being used as tools of control, often manifested as hazing or sexual assault. This imbalance of power between men and women in the Greek system was one of my earliest grievances upon joining a sorority.
My feminism was challenged again and again throughout my experience. The vague concept of sororities is pretty good, which makes the result even more disappointing. Living in a house full of cool girls? Sign me up. Having my social media, outfit choices and behavior towards fraternity men scrutinized and sometimes even censored? Not my favorite thing.
Your house may be fine and free of these dynamics, and you may feel an urge to be defensive or detached. Instead, ask questions, look inward carefully and be mindful.
I understand a sense of loyalty to one’s house. I stayed, after all. The unprecedented sense of belonging and some sweet people had me stuck.
I have met great feminists in sororities and tender, kind men in fraternities. It’s hard for me to reconcile this with the issues I see in Greek life. This isn’t about total condemnation for all members, but I do believe that the Greek System is dangerous and divisive; an ill-conceived and outdated model that could one day be revolutionized and regulated. Abolition seems unrealistic but reform does not.
If you don’t agree with my frustrations, try to understand how anyone could feel this way. I know that I’ve questioned if I even deserve to be so distraught. I’m a middle-class, mostly-white woman, and this system is catered toward people just like me. I can’t assume the experiences of people of color or trans people, but I can refuse to feel passive, privileged comfort in an environment so hostile to so many.
These changes might seem fundamentally contradictory to our accepted conception of what Greek life is, but I am fully confident in the ability of all members of the Cornell community to express their discontent, especially if they believe they could actually change something. As Greeks, it’s our job to hold ourselves to an impeccable standard of progressive inclusion and intersectional feminism. The Greek System is not our friend. It’s not our job to stick up for it when it’s catching negative attention. But if we believe it’s worth sticking around for, it is our job to make sure everyone gets home safely.
Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.