When Friendship Involves An Audition

This year, more female freshman at Harvard rushed for a sorority than in the University's history. This means both less and more than it appears; there are only three sororities on campus, and Greek life has always played second fiddle to the college's more established final club scene. (Remember that AEPi scene in The Social Network? Well, that was sorta realistic.) But it's worth considering, more broadly, why women (and men) seek out social spaces that will include them — and exclude others.

The oped in the campus newspaper, The Crimson, registers some ambivalence on this front:

As historian Diana B. Turk has written, since the creation of the first sorority in the mid-19th century, these organizations have enabled college women to "navigate collectively the perils of coeducational life." As Turk points out, when women have confronted academic and social environments hostile to their presence throughout American history, sororities have often been the only organizations that have enabled them to carve out a place for themselves on University campuses. We have no doubt that, for some, sororities can still serve that function today.

For years, the social scene at Harvard mimicked the gender norms of an era where women couldn't own property. Even after women were admitted to the college, elite men could still control private spaces — not officially sanctioned by the university — in prime locations, festooned taxidermied animals and the photos of former presidents and, occasionally, cocaine. (What other social attractions existed were barred by strict drinking laws and dorm rules.) Girls could line up outside and have their social fate rise and fall with their access to members; until recently, female social clubs, sororities or otherwise, had no property of their own. Gender privilege was the only absolute, but class and connections played the next-largest role.

When we were seniors, my roommates and I, having accrued a little bit of space in a housing lottery, threw a party that was a mock "punch," as the pre-admissions rituals were known. We even hand-lettered invitations, solemnly instructing both "black tie" and "BYOB," with a wax seal, and limited the amount of guests each one of us could "punch." It was a joke, but one of our neighbors admitted sadly to me that he was disappointed not to have been included. The irony? He was in a final club.

I asked a friend of the site who was in a sorority to reflect on her experiences.

To get a bid was to be chosen, to be invited to sit at a lunch table. If you were lucky, the lunch table you really wanted also wanted you, and so long as there weren't too many people they wanted more than you, you'd get in. And then your social life was set. Frat parties had guest lists; only certain sororites were invited to various events. If you were in a good house, you were going to have a "good" social life.

But behind the invitation into that world was, on the part of the sororities picking through thousands of rushees to find the perfect pledges, a real ruthlessness. Sisters gave girls scores, assigning a numeric value based to a rushee based on her desirability — this was determined after talking to her for 3 minutes. It was a cattle call, and competition between houses was intense. Everyone wanted the prettiest, most personable freshmen — the better your pledges, the better your house, the better your party invites, and the hotter your boyfriends, and so on and so forth.

And yet this person remains friends, individually, with many of these women; I've heard glowing testimonials about sorority experiences from accomplished, intelligent women. I can say for myself that female friendship of the non-institutional sort was the single most positive force in my college experience — and beyond it. So what are the factors that tip it in the Lord Of The Flies direction? Is it the institutionalization? Is exclusion just another way of saying that you can't be friends with everyone all at once?

A Fourth Sorority? [The Crimson]