August 2004

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Undercover Sister

I know nothing about sororities. At the University of Chicago, Greek life is practically non-existent. With three fraternities and no official sororities to speak of, the practices of rushing, pledging, and sisterhood are foreign to me. Not that I feel I missed out on any of these experiences -– considering that I never joined any organizations save for a brief stint with our student newspaper which I did only so I could gain legitimate writing experience -– I doubt I would have paid much attention to sororities had they been a part of U of C life. With their absence, however, the only conception I have regarding sororities is the catty, petty, eating disorder ridden, stab-your-sisters-in-the-back stereotype that wasn’t at all alleviated by the airing of MTV’s Sorority Life. While Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, doesn’t necessarily dispel this stereotype either, her research and well-formed observations do well to report everything else that goes on behind the hype.

Admittedly, I was dubious when I first cracked this book. A study on sororities? How is that at all productive? But, as a sociology major and someone who wrote her Bachelor’s thesis on pop music fandom, I should have known better than to immediately dismiss a study on the workings of a popular social group. Fortunately, Robbins does the field justice. Though portions of the book are written in the narrative and come across similar to an ill-conceived beach read, I felt no guilt about enjoying the many stories of bitchy sororities girls. They were, after all, true, and were used to fuel Robbins’s research questions. Instead of providing a voyeuristic piece on sororities’ “secrets,” Robbins observes how these groups work and questions what they mean for women in general. “Why are twenty-first-century women still so eager to participate in such seemingly outdated, ritualistic groups and activities?” Robbins asks. “What is the purpose of sororities and what does membership truly require of the sisters? How does a sisterhood change the way a girl thinks about herself? Do sororities cause women to fall further behind in the gender wars or are they instead women’s secret weapon?” The challenged was to “reconcile the unexpected discovery of a dark side to sorority life with the observation that many of the girls who participate in it and continue to join it in droves are ‘normal’ girls, girls who are sweet, smart, successful, and kind both before and after they join.”

Robbins immediately faced obstacles when her initial idea of tailing a sorority for a year, as a sort of unofficial member, was dismissed by the sorority’s national office. Apparently, Sorority Life, which had depicted sororities in a bad light, greatly influenced the office’s decision to ban all members of the media from sororities. This was done with the idea that this would protect the girls; Robbins questioned as to what it was they needed protection from. By assuming the role of a fellow college student, she was able to follow four sisters in two sororities -– Vicki in Beta Pi, and Amy, Caitlin, and Sabrina in Alpha Rho –- by posing as their friend. What she found was that it was not the individual girls the office was interested in protecting, but rather the reputation of Greek life as a whole, the girls themselves be may well be damned.

Not so fortunately, Robbins found that many of the sorority stereotypes are true. For example, eating disorders are so common among sisters that one alumna confessed that she and her sisters “used to have puking contests after dinner,” and many sorority bathrooms have plumbing problems due to the large amounts of flushed stomach acid. The sorority can also rule a sister’s dating life, ostracizing a girl who dates a boy from the wrong fraternity. But far more seriously, girls have gone so far to gain approval from their sisters during the pledge process that they have risked their academic success, lost their lives, been brutally abused, and even been subject to arranged rape at the hands of the sisterhood. Robbins observes that, “The urge to fit in can be so petrifying, especially at the start of the year, that the new girls often go to great lengths to blend in as quickly and seamlessly as possible…if they don’t make every effort to conform, the girls worry that even after being invited to join a sorority, they could be deemed unsuitable sister material and subsequently be cast out from the group.” However, Robbins’s question remains: Why?

Robbins found several reasons that girls go to such lengths to belong to sororities. For some it’s a matter of legacy – their mother, grandmother, and maybe even great-grandmother all belonged to a particular sorority, making sisterhood crucial to the younger generation. For others it’s the desire to continue the superlative nature of high school and the continuation of a place in that social hierarchy. Overall - and for Vicki, Amy, Caitlin, and Sabrina, who seemed like normal girls with academic minded goals and likeable personalities – joining a sorority meant making a large campus smaller and belonging to a group with the opportunity to build strong relationship within that group. Satisfyingly, Robbins acknowledges that not all sororities operate in despicable ways. Many exist with rather veritable objectives in mind. She interviewed girls of different ethnicities who had established their own sororities after the traditional white ones rejected them. More often than not, she found that these sororities performed far more charity work and emphasized the sorority for what it could do rather than merely for who they are. But these sororities remain less desirable than the traditional variety and girls continue to shy away from them.

By tying her observations to feminism and exploring what they mean for the female social network, Robbins does far more than expose the absurdities of these wildly popular groups. The study concludes with suggestions for bettering sorority life. The problem is that the groups promote what she calls “fake feminism” – “Under the guise of propelling women forward, sororities also tug them backward – with dress codes, male-centered activities, ideas of proper comportment, and a subjugation of self to the group – that the constant contradictory pulls lead to a stagnancy that is slow to accept any change at all.” Robbins’s suggestions, therefore, include first and foremost, recognizing sororities for what they are – not intellectual groups or feminist empowerment groups, but social groups that girls join to meet other girls, to meet boys, and to have parties. Where she finds disappointment is in the realization that sororities could be much more than they are, that their collective power could abolish many of the issues that they, instead, perpetuate. With these concluding remarks, it’s difficult to dismiss Pledged as one woman’s desire to relive her college days. Far more than that, it’s a study that speaks loudly on the socialization of young women and an investigation of a very time-honored practice that may not be so honorable as it is believed.

But beyond everything, one sister let Robbins know the single undeniable benefit to being in a sorority – “The clothes sharing was the best part…there were so many different girls, you could always find something to wear.” Ah…what we’ve all been fighting for.

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities by Alexandra Robbins
ISBN: 1401300464
372 pages