The Edge of Sisterhood

Mikayla Harris never thought of herself as a typical sorority girl. Like many women who become involved with sororities at Yale, she was attracted to the University in part because Greek organizations don’t dominate the social life. But sometime around the end of her first semester, after attending first classes, going to first keggers, and making first friends, she began to wonder if something was missing. Like hundreds of other women at Yale seeking community, female friendship, and extracurricular and professional opportunities, Harris decided to rush. Unlike most women in sororities, Harris is Black.

In the winter of 2014, Harris, now a senior, was initiated into Pi Beta Phi (Pi Phi). In her pledge class, she was one of eight women of color, part of a group that comprised about sixteen percent of the class—an unusually high figure for the sorority, Harris said. (In the Yale undergraduate population, about thirty percent identify as students of color.) If Harris’s class deviated from the Pi Phi norm, she says it was thanks to one woman: Olivia, an older Pi Phi member at the time and member of Yale’s Afro-American Cultural House. “She really wanted to make Pi Phi as diverse as possible,” Harris said of Olivia. “I was like, if people who look like me are in this, then Ill join it.”

Olivia described her work to make Pi Phi more inclusive, with a tinge of irony, as being like “the ambassador for Pi Phi” to the Af-Am House. (Olivia asked to be identified by a pseudonym to avoid the backlash she said accompanies “the airing of uncomfortable truths within Yale’s Greek community.”) Harris also said she sometimes felt there was a “frustrating” burden on her to single-handedly diversify the group. “It’s a lot of pressure on the women of color to get other women of color to join,” she explained.

Harris resigned—the official term for cutting ties—from Pi Phi in the winter of 2016 in part because of time constraints, but also because she found it harder, as she puts it, to “push it out of my mind that I was one of the only Black people in a room” after the campus-wide conversations about race last fall.

Shortly after she made her decision, the ritual of rush unfolded much as it does every year, but Yale’s campus had changed. Throughout the fall, students witnessed charged conversations and protests about racial justice, and testimony from students of color described experiences that contradicted the admissions brochure narrative of a community that is not only diverse but also fully inclusive. Student organizations at Yale put out Facebook statements of their failures, desires to change, and support for women of color.

Sororities, often seen as bastions of race and class privilege, were no exception. All four of the sororities—Pi Beta Phi, Kappa Alpha Theta, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and newcomer Alpha Phi—held chapter-wide conversations, and Yale’s Panhellenic Council, comprised of representatives from all the sororities, held an open forum just before recruitment that sought to establish new diversification initiatives regarding race and income.

Attendees broke into small groups where they discussed big questions: How could they make sororities more accessible? What role should they play as a group of women in discussions about racial justice? How should they be better allies to women of color?

Lauren Weston, a member of Pi Phi who graduated in 2016 and who is also Black, echoed Harris’s sentiment that she hadn’t initially anticipated the sorority to be especially racially inclusive. “I never came to Yale expecting my sorority to be this all-encompassing entity that would support me as a marginalized person,” she told me. “I didn’t expect it to go out of its way to include people of color, because most places don’t do that.”

Increasingly, however, students at Yale and across the country are asking for exactly that. In the Yale College Council Greek Life Task Force Report, released this past May, students of color in focus groups “explained that due to the homogeneity of much of Greek life, they are often not only at a disadvantage during recruitment, but are also vulnerable to feelings of discomfort and exclusion.” The report called on Greek organizations to have honest conversations about the degree to which their membership reflects campus at large.

At Yale, exclusivity, reputation, and hierarchy pervade aspects of student life from seminars to senior societies, and sororities are no exception. Pi Phi and Theta members sometimes speak frankly about the general campus perception that they particularly attract privileged women; Theta member and junior Sophie Freeman described Theta’s campus reputation as “rich bitches.” Pi Phi and Theta offer their members entrée to a particular sliver of the Yale social scene, one that blooms around High Street frats and at glitzy formals that yield a slew of similar Facebook profile photos.

I spoke to past and present members of Pi Phi and Theta about their ability to provide communities, safe spaces, and platforms for Yale women. At a university where students continue to engage in heated and often painful debates about institutional inclusivity, the question is: Which women?

Every winter, Yale freshman and sophomore women gather to primp in residential college bathrooms, sharing straightening irons and eyelash curlers, rummaging through roommates’ closets for the perfect top, and finally pouring out of dorms into the barely-plowed streets. Many walk in high-heeled boots, huddling close together for warmth in the second-semester cold. They hope to join a tradition that stretches back more than a century.

As Jessica Bennett noted in last spring’s piece in The New York Times, “When a Feminist Pledges a Sorority,” sororities began in the nineteenth century with the mission of helping young women navigate hostile co-ed institutions. Some early sorority members were active in the suffragette movement, and the groups served as organizing spaces for women seeking social, academic, and professional support. Kappa Alpha Theta came to Yale in 1986, less than twenty years after Yale College accepted women in 1969. Kappa and Pi Phi followed in 1987 and 1989, respectively. When Theta was founded, it was the only sorority on Yale’s campus, in some ways following in the footsteps of the early twentieth century groups by serving as an alternative to all-male fraternities and secret societies.

But while sororities are meant to offer refuge to female students, they don’t always become more inclusive as student bodies become more diverse. As Bennett points out, many sororities responded to an influx of first Jewish students, and then students of color, by tightening their recruitment process, safeguarding their privilege and, often, their whiteness. Their histories share something with the American feminist movement: wealthy, educated white women struggled for equality with white men, holding onto what power they had while excluding large numbers of low-income women and women of color.

Skyler Inman, director of the Yale College Council’s Greek Life Task Force and president of Alpha Phi, said that sororities and fraternities have been at the “vanguard of tradition in a very negative way in a lot of places.”

Today, Yale’s sororities are reckoning with that history. Some sorority sisters, like their early founders, want their organizations to be homes for political activism and platforms from which they can effect change. Unlike the first sorority members, many hope their organizations can one day provide a supportive community for all women.

The recruitment process, where each member’s relationship with her sorority begins, is an example of how unquestioned traditions can create barriers to access. But relatively small changes in these traditions could have a big impact on the composition of the group. In most sororities, the executive board turns over right before the rush process, so deliberating over a new class is any new president’s first opportunity to make major decisions. It’s the entry point for diversification. As several women made clear to me, it’s where you would start if you wanted to change things.

The culture of recruitment is such that some people may feel they must arrive ready to talk about their prep schools or summer homes, according to Nat Wyatt, a Theta, and Diana, a member of the Theta executive board. (Diana requested to be identified by a pseudonym after corresponding with the group’s international organization about this piece.) Some of this atmosphere comes from old reputation, but some comes from modern practice.

Before the actual rush process starts, Pi Phis and Thetas have traditionally had the opportunity to alert their sisters to friends and family who may be rushing. Facebook profiles were projected on a screen in the Pi Phi or Theta house, during a sort of unofficial pre-recruitment presentation. It is a tradition that allows women to give people they already know—often people similar to them—a small advantage.

Weston described the practice as “fifteen minutes of Greenwich, Connecticut girls.”

At the Panhellenic meeting in November, practices like the pre-recruitment slideshow faced criticism. Many of the most concrete suggestions for change concerned rush. One proposal was that sororities be more transparent about finances during the recruitment process. In the past, the Panhellenic Council has mandated that sororities not specify their exact dues during recruitment. Instead, the Council gives a pre-recruitment presentation to women rushing, which depicts a range of dues. A Panhellenic Council member said the dues typically range from $300 to $500 per semester; she declined to provide information about each sorority’s specific dues.

“They don’t want us going up to girls and saying, ‘Well, Kappa is…cheaper than Theta.’ They don’t want us influencing girls in that way,” Carly Huard, a Kappa member, told me. She recounted an instance last winter in which a woman rushing found out another sorority’s more expensive dues and decided to withdraw from recruitment. Huard told me the woman had assumed all the sororities had equally expensive dues and that she couldn’t afford to be in any of them.

“Maybe the concern is that people will start segregating themselves by income,” Huard told me, “but what happens is people who think they can’t afford it just drop out anyway.”

The Panhellenic Council disagreed. They decided they’d continue to run that first meeting themselves, but stressed that “each sorority had an obligation to explain their financial situation at some point during recruitment,” Diana explained. For some, it presented an opportunity for a turning point—the chance to speak candidly to potential members about the financial burdens of sorority life. For others, the lack of a clear directive from the Council opened the door to continued obfuscation about dues. “To what extent it was explained was sort of up to the group,” Diana said.

The Council’s decision put the burden of change in the hands of individual sororities rather than addressing it at a systemic level.

When Jéssica Leão rushed Theta, it was for one main reason: “I had heard Theta was number one, and that’s why I joined it basically,” Leão, who became president of Theta in 2015, told me nonchalantly, flipping a lock of her dark brown hair over her shoulder. She was walking with difficulty, on crutches after a recent accident, but wore a tight crop-top and shorts to our interview.

Leão, who graduated in May, may have joined Theta because of its elite reputation, but she quickly realized there was much she didn’t share with many of the other members.

“I’m from Brazil, I’m from Latin America, my parents don’t speak English, I’m a QuestBridge Scholar here,” Leão told me, explaining that she had personal reasons for wanting Theta to be a more inclusive organization. In 2014, she ran for president to effect those changes herself. “I was, I guess, particularly good at assimilating into white spaces and rich spaces,” she said.

As president of the sorority in 2015, she tackled recruitment as the first challenge.

“I feel like when I went through recruitment, people were like, ‘Oh my god, I love your shirt, I love your earrings,’ and we were like, ‘Don’t make this about materialism,’” she said. She wanted the group to instead focus on the interests of those pledging. “What we were looking for was people who were really engaged and passionate about something and leaders in their own right, and not pretty girls, basically.” She says the class she recruited as president was “incredibly diverse.” According to Theta’s executive board, thirty-five percent of the new members initiated in January 2016 are women of color, compared to roughly twenty percent of the class initiated in 2014.

Theta members I spoke to insist that Leão’s efforts have redefined their sorority. Diana points to her presence as a Latina sorority president as a huge shift in and of itself.

What started with Leão’s discussions last year has grown into a revamping of some of Theta’s traditions. The sorority now has a speaker series that includes lectures on the prison-industrial complex. Last year, they held a fundraising drive for the Flint Water Fund that caused Yale’s NAACP representative Brea Baker, who graduated in 2015, to say she was surprised Theta had participated in such an initiative.

Most significant, however, seems to be Theta’s new financial aid plan. Like most sororities, Theta’s national chapter offered competitive scholarships for academic costs, such as books and tuition, but no assistance for paying dues. This year’s executive board wanted to change that.

Diana told me she thought about asking alums, current members, and members’ parents for funds to support scholarships, though doing so without permission from the international organization would be against its policies. According to Liz Rinck of Theta’s international staff, restrictions from the Internal Revenue Service prohibit raising money for individual members.

Despite the restrictions, Diana said, the chapter began fundraising in November. “I wasn’t hiding it from [internationals],” she told me, “I just didn’t consult them.”

Freeman has a different take: “I don’t think our financial aid program is legal technically,” she told me. “We didn’t want to ask [internationals] because we were pretty sure they’d say no. So they’re not super supportive of that, which seems racist to me, and classist.”

Diana eventually broke the news to the international Theta organization, who explained that if they deposited the money for safe-keeping with an alumni organization instead of retaining the rights to dispense it themselves, they wouldn’t be breaking the anti-fundraising rules. Diana continued fundraising over winter break, eventually raising five thousand dollars from alumni and parents. Their financial aid program is currently supporting twenty percent of the 2016 pledge class.

Celeste Dushime, a current Theta and member of last year’s pledge class, is one of the new members using Theta’s financial aid plan. Dushime is from Rwanda and identifies as queer. In “old” Theta, she would be an anomaly. “New” Theta insists she exemplifies a growing wave of change.

When I asked Dushime if she thought the sororities had been transparent about dues during recruitment, she told me Theta was the most straightforward, which led to her choice to join. She reiterated that dues and financial aid were “the first thing that they talked about” at the first recruitment event.

Wyatt is in Dushime’s Theta pledge class, and as far as they know they are the only non-binary person in all of Yale Greek life. They mentioned Theta’s financial aid program as a reason why they joined. “I thought this could be fun, this could be interesting, but I was like, man…I don’t know if I can put my name with an institution that essentially is fundamentally elitist and does not give people the opportunity who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds to actually be a part of this group,” Wyatt said.

The scholarship program has made a difference for Theta, at least in the eyes of a few new members. But it required the chapter to sidestep traditional rules in a way that is perhaps difficult for others to replicate.

In Pi Phi, the “Greenwich girl” slideshow is now gone—a change intended to make the recruitment process a more level playing field. In Theta, it continues, though one member emphasized that in recent years members have been asked to introduce only close friends, and that the sorority hasn’t decided whether it will continue the slideshow tradition this year. But while Theta and Pi Phi both contend with highly restrictive national organizations, the rule regarding fundraising that Theta seems to have circumvented appears especially strict for Pi Phi, which has not established a scholarship program.

Some members argue that, even as campus at large has paid more attention to concerns of inclusivity and racial diversity, Pi Phi has remained predominantly white. Due to international organization rules about speaking with the press, the current executive board of Pi Phi and members contacted individually either declined to comment for this piece or did not respond to requests. A spokeswoman for the international organization also declined to comment.

Weston told me she was frustrated by how few women of color were in the sorority during her time at Yale. Out of forty-four members in her pledge class, Weston counted four black women, one of whom withdrew before graduating. Chapter President Miranda McKay declined to provide statistics about the number of their members who are women of color, but Weston, among several other women interviewed, perceived a decline in Pi Phi’s diversity during her time at Yale. “It’s been noticeable to the point that I’ve talked to other people about it,” Weston said.

Harris and Weston told me that the underrepresentation of women of color in Pi Phi isn’t the only problem. They say the culture of Greek life, and of fraternities in particular, is hostile to women of color. Weston stopped attending mixers with fraternities. “I did feel marginalized. Just in terms of feeling beautiful,” she told me. “What people are looking for, what is seen as hot in SAE [Sigma Alpha Epsilon] and Sig Ep. And obviously it sucks to wonder what the guys are going to want, but you want to be talked to, and when your friend next to you is chatting and you’re just standing there, you notice these things. It’s one of those unspoken truths with women of color.”

Olivia, the self-described “ambassador for Pi Phi” to the Af-Am House, deactivated from the sorority after a brother from SAE—which disassociated from its national organization in May and is now called Leo—addressed her using a racial slur at Spring Fling. She told me she didn’t feel comfortable turning to her Pi Phi sisters for support.

“I knew nothing would come of it and there wouldn’t be a response from my sisters,” Olivia explained. “They would have found a way to excuse it.” (Leo President Grant Mueller said he was unaware of the incident Olivia described and “would definitely not condone that in any sort of fashion.”)

Olivia said it wasn’t until she heard about the protests this fall that she realized her problem with Pi Phi had been with the frats they associated with. Like Weston, she said that “racialized dating preferences” often caused her to be left out of conversations at mixers. Sometimes the brothers made her feel invisible. “I always felt kind of flabbergasted at the fact that every time they would meet me, it was like ‘oh who are you again?’ You know very well who I am.”

Last fall, at a Pi Phi–specific discussion about race, members of color voiced that they felt the sorority should not mix with SAE again. It was a serious proposal—Pi Phi had long been unofficially “paired” with SAE for many campus mixers and events. Jenny Allen, an Asian-American former member who resigned from Pi Phi in 2015, recounted a similar discussion in the spring of 2015. After SAE was accused of violating Yale’s code of sexual misconduct, Allen went to the Pi Phi executive board to propose that they cancel an upcoming mixer, an incident Harris and Olivia also remember. The Executive Board agreed to cancel, but it didn’t cut ties between the two groups.

When tensions bubbled up again last fall, the outcome was less reassuring. Women of color insisted that Pi Phi stop mixing with SAE, but Harris told me she wasn’t sure what conclusion the Pi Phi board had eventually come to. She said she was dissatisfied with what she perceived as an initial lack of action.

Leo President Mueller says that Pi Phi ultimately decided to stop mixing with SAE last fall, and they gave SAE tips on how they could improve. Mueller says the organization is trying to listen. “They wanted to see more overt efforts to make our house as safe as possible,” he said. He explained that Leo is “really taking it over the top now” with female bartenders and increased sober monitors, but he did not mention any changes outside of party environments.

At the end of each of my interviews, I asked my subject to recommend other sorority members I should speak with. Thetas, in particular, were excited to recommend friends. At the beginning of the interview process I was surprised by the names they easily rattled off: women of color, women from low-income backgrounds, women who are passionate about social justice.

At first, it seemed like there was an almost overwhelming number of sorority women from what I considered “non-traditional” backgrounds. However, as I continued my interviews, the names began to repeat: Celeste Dushime, Sophie Freeman, Jessica Leão, Nat Wyatt, Diana. It soon became clear that this group of Theta changemakers might be smaller and more insular than I had initially thought.

On several occasions, I mentioned in conversation with subjects that I had spoken to a queer woman of color in Theta. Almost everyone I spoke to guessed it was Dushime. I asked Dushime if she ever worries that Theta is tokenizing her. She laughed.

“I always wonder if my achievements that I’ve accomplished here are because I deserve to be admitted, or if I got admitted because I’m a Rwandan female student applying,” she said. Wyatt had similar qualms about the recruitment process. “Yeah, I look very different from everyone else in Theta, I really do,” they said. “But, that being said, I went to Exeter, I’m from New York City, I’m affluent, I’m white. I’m gender non-conforming, but to them I look like a combination of Ruby Rose and Justin Bieber.” Theta isn’t yet at a point where Wyatt feels comfortable encouraging trans or non-binary friends of color to join.

Increasingly, women seeking single-gender spaces at Yale have options beyond sororities. The Yale Black Women’s Coalition, founded in 2006, seeks to provide a network for Black women at Yale. Dara Huggins, YBWC President until this spring, described the group’s mission as “to cultivate a space where Black women on campus could discuss various topics related to that community, have social events, and act as a network for professional and academic reasons.” Huggins says that membership in the YBWC has increased in the past year, specifically during the events of the fall.

The YBWC doesn’t require their members to pay dues, or choose between their group and sorority life. They have several members who are also a part of sororities. Huggins was quick to explain that the YBWC is not a sorority in any way, and “isn’t akin to the Divine Nine,” the national historically Black sororities and fraternities. “However, I don’t think it’s coincidental that we don’t have that and we happen to only have this,” Huggins said of the absence of Black Greek life.

Yale’s multicultural sorority, Omega Phi Beta, has grown slowly since its Yale chapter was founded in March 2014 after five Yale students petitioned for its establishment. Olivia mentioned the income diversity in multicultural and historically Black and Latino sororities, adding, “I think that’s something that more predominantly white sororities can learn from.”

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much communication between the Panhellenic sororities and Omega Phi Beta, or even the YBWC. “There is a very minimal relationship, and that relationship is mostly fueled by the fact that some of our members are part of the Panhellenic groups,” Huggins explained. “But there hasn’t been any kind of active reach-out that I can recall from sororities.” Some members told me Theta and Pi Phi don’t communicate much with each other, either.

Many people I spoke with were quick to explain that the diversity problems sororities are facing are not unique to those groups at Yale. Dushime said Yale “equips you early” to feel marginalized by class or income. Wyatt expressed that they think we “live in a society that has these issues,” and that “Greek life is a microcosm.” Weston’s early claim that she didn’t expect her sorority to go out of the way to support her as a marginalized person reflects a general sentiment that the problems of Theta and Pi Phi are the problems of Yale, and perhaps society more broadly.

Olivia was originally pessimistic about the institutional potential of Yale sororities—until the end of our call, when she asked me what I’d learned throughout my research process. I mentioned Theta’s new initiatives, and she laughed in surprise. “Theta?” she nearly yelled, incredulously. She began describing the “old Theta” she’d witnessed at Yale: the huge group of mostly white wealthy women who were exclusive in their friendships.

Almost every Theta member I talked to wanted to show me a picture of the new rush class. Like new parents, they proudly scrolled through their Facebook accounts and iPhone camera rolls. The diversity shows, they say.

It was not my first time seeing numerous photos of sorority women. Like most Yalies with a Facebook, I’d been privy to the several-hundred-photo filled albums Yale sororities upload after mixers.

“We’re notorious for our love of photos,” Olivia had said to me. She had also said that she felt the photos from sorority mixers often used lighting effects to make the women look more tan, thus washing out the sisters of color.  According to Olivia, amid the glamorous flashing lights, she and the “handful” of Black members had been erased. After our call, I revisited old photos of Theta and Pi Phi mixers from Facebook. I could see what she was talking about.

In the photos I was shown on Theta iPhones, this was not the case. The glossy veneer was gone, replaced by an occasional awkward Instagram filter. While the women weren’t all white, the racial diversity did not strike me as exceptional. Then again, I wasn’t shown a before and after picture.

It struck me that all the photos still depicted a select group. Even with slight improvements from Theta, Pi Phi, or other sororities at Yale and elsewhere, organizations such as Greek groups still operate on a foundation of exclusivity. While that tradition was born as a response to a more stark set of boundaries—one that blocked women from mostly male, already elite institutions—it now runs into problems of opening itself up to groups even more historically excluded. There’s no question that sororities are changing. The question is how much spaces like these can push against boundaries they had a hand in creating.

As I looked at more photos, a before and after did begin to form in my head. Before were the near-professional photos from events like the ones Olivia attended, and after were the more casual iPhone snaps which were shown to me as tokens of success. The Theta members who brandished them seemed to be almost urging me to notice the women of color. From background to foreground, I wondered how much had changed.