In February 2015, then-N.C. State University student Kelly Elder wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post critiquing her sorority’s rules against allowing men inside members’ rooms.
The op-ed showed up again on UNC’s Overheard Facebook page in September.
Elder’s story was sparked by an incident in which one of her fellow sorority members had a male friend visit her room. The sorority then had to discuss whether or not to put the woman on social probation for violating the rules.
Elder was upset about the process and believed she shouldn’t have to blindly accept rules that hold her to a different standard than men in Greek life just because they’ve always been there.
“I want the acceptance of rules like these to be questioned for their validity,” Elder said in the article. “The conversation regarding women’s safety needs to change from reactive measures, which the Greek women must adhere to, to proactive measures that make it clear that harming women is unacceptable and unthinkable.”
Who makes the rules?
Dani Weatherford, the executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference, said in an email that individual sororities make their own rules concerning their houses and shared living spaces and they are usually made for safety reasons.
“There are no universal rules about when members can host visitors of either gender. The culture of some chapters set rather tight guidelines, while others are exactly the opposite,” Weatherford said. “And when chapters do set up specific norms, they are almost always aimed at a simple goal: making sure their members feel comfortable and safe in their own homes.”
Aaron Bachenheimer, director of the Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement at UNC, said these rules have been around for many years, as far back as when it was widely considered inappropriate for men to be in women’s rooms.
“I’ve had conversations with alumni who were at Carolina in the 1950s ... and men were typically not allowed in living areas of those houses then either,” he said.
Bachenheimer said successful organizations should be open to change, but he doesn’t know if housing rules should be one of those changes.
“I think some of these policies — and this is not a value judgement — but some are historically just there. They’ve been in place; they’ve always been that way. And I think it’s fair to say that fraternities and sororities sometimes are a little slow to change,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the policies are bad policies.”
Christina Cupello, president of the UNC Panhellenic Council, said all members of the sorority are considered when rules are made. She said housing rules are mainly put in place for safety reasons.
“I would think that if someone came up to a chapter’s exec and wanted to change something, they would be open to it,” Cupello said. “But they would also take in to account the fact that they would have to think of everyone, not just the one person that’s bringing up something.”
Cupello, a member of Phi Mu, lives in her sorority house and said she appreciates the rules and realizes they are put in place for her safety and the safety of all the members.
Brian Joyce, director of Dartmouth College’s Office of Greek Life, said he could understand why some sororities may have rules in place if they wanted to have their house as a place to promote and facilitate sisterhood.
“You could make an argument that the presence of men in that space could disrupt that. A woman bringing a male, or having her boyfriend there all the time or even a friend there could negatively affect the experience of other sisters,” he said. “I guess that’s a group decision to be made.”
Sororities with a different culture
The rules vary at Dartmouth College, where four sororities were once national sororities but decided to become local after disagreements with their national organization.
Local sororities are organizations that only exist at one university, so they can create rules and traditions on their own and without the oversight of national organizations.
Sigma Delta, the first local sorority at Dartmouth, was once known as Sigma Kappa. The sorority became local in 1989 because their values didn’t align with the national organization.
Alanna Kane, president of Sigma Delta, said the sorority doesn’t have restrictions on allowing men in living spaces or on hosting social events in the house. While they are allowed to make their own rules, they still have to abide by the policies of the Office of Greek Life.
“We have full ownership and agency of our social space and we take a lot of pride in being a female-dominated social space,” she said.
Kane said she thinks it’s important to have this space especially for women who may not feel the same sense of safety in fraternities at Dartmouth as they would at Sigma Delta.
Joyce said these sororities are still within the Panhellenic Council and operate as normal sororities would — but the ability to make their own rules makes a difference.
“It’s really different and I think if nothing else, it lessens the social power of having only male-dominated social spaces,” he said.
Giving sororities the tools to empower women
Weatherford said the NPC has a long history of empowering women, particularly on college campuses.
“We do that by promoting scholarship, leadership and engagement on campus. We also see empowerment in much of the work our members are doing to lead bystander intervention programs and raise awareness about the crisis of sexual assault on college campuses,” she said.
Bachenheimer said his office hosts programs — such as the Delta Advocates — to promote empowerment and challenge the antiquated notions of gender roles in society.
The Delta Advocates program trains sorority members to be effective allies within their organization for women who have experienced sexual violence.
“I think our office has a historical track record of engaging in those dialogues and conversations again so that we can create a healthy, safe community of students who are supporting one another, empowering one another and not tearing each other down, and not making assumptions about each other and not relying on antiquated gender norms,” Bachenheimer said.
“Sometimes the issues are how men think about women, but often it’s how do women think about other women.”
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