With Harvard and other leading universities seeking to ban or effectively eliminate single-gender organizations by sanctioning their members, sororities and fraternities are under attack.
It’s not the first time.
Also known as Greek organizations because their names are usually based on Greek letters, sororities and fraternities have been controversial since their beginning in the 19th century. Often, these criticisms have been warranted. Greeks have faced opposition from those who viewed them as undemocratic, exclusionary, and unfair to non-members. They faced opposition in the mid-20th century for racial exclusion and secrecy, and in the late-20th century for issues surrounding hazing. While some organizations did not survive these crises, many did. They adapted, changed, and moved forward, just as they will today.
As a sorority woman and historian who works with organizations to preserve their archives and make them accessible online, I’ve been immersed for the past year in the world of fraternity and sorority history. What has shocked me most while poring through thousands of letters, images and publications are numerous references to ongoing challenges facing the organizations.
College administrations across the country began to crack down on Greek organizations as early as the 1870s, when many organizations were still in their infancy. Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma – whose Eta Theta Chapter at Harvard was suspended indefinitely early this year due to the university’s sanctions – lost their Alpha, or first, chapters at Monmouth College after the United Presbyterian Church decided that no college under its jurisdiction should have Greek-letter fraternities in 1873. The chapters continued to operate secretly for several years after the initial ban, but both formally disbanded in the early 1880s. In 1914, the trustees of Wesleyan College in Georgia disbanded the first chapter Phi Mu had established 60 years earlier. In fact, almost every Greek organization at the time lost some of their earliest chapters in these years due to administrative opposition to fraternal organizations. Anti-Greek sentiment among administrations did not stop in these early years, however. For decades, chapters would be disbanded when administrators banned Greek organizations on their campuses, only to resurface again when the bans were lifted.
20th Century Opposition
In 1912, anti-Greek sentiment had grown so strong that legislation hostile to fraternities was introduced in many states. Members of 55 fraternities and sororities – at the time, likely the most representative gathering of fraternity men and women ever assembled – met in Chicago in 1913 to discuss strategies to combat the legislation and distribute information about the benefits of Greek affiliation. Anti-Greek legislation passed in a few states, including Mississippi, where Greek organizations were banned from the state’s public colleges and universities. The laws later were repealed.
Following World War II, fraternities and sororities faced criticism over restrictive membership clauses that banned non-white and non-Christian students. Administrators demanded to know if such clauses existed and threatened to ban chapters from campuses if the clauses were not removed. Many in the Greek community worried that these new policies would end Greek life, arguing that if organizations did not have the right to offer or deny membership as they saw fit, that the organizations would cease to exist. Some organizations attempted to fight to keep exclusionary practices, but many others chose to adapt and change with the times. These are the organizations that have continued to this day.
I’ve seen documents from fraternity and sorority archives recount anti-Greek sentiment at colleges and universities from almost every decade of the 20th century. Greek organizations have weathered the test by adapting and evolving with the times. Exclusionary practices based on race and religion have been removed from official policies. Today, we can see this not as a loss for Greek life, but a victory for progress. While many individual chapters still have work to do to become inclusive, at the national level progress and change have been embraced. In the same way, the specific practices opposed by administrations today – party culture, sexual assault, and social divisions on campus – shouldn’t be blamed exclusively on single-gender organizations, and institutions shouldn’t attempt to “solve” these problems by outright bans or highly restrictive sanctions on membership. Rather, colleges and universities should allow Greek organizations to deal with these issues at the national level; it’s worked in the past. Individual chapters may have to be closed, but outright bans and sweeping policies punish everyone.