Reinstatement of sororities at Swarthmore College sparks controversy
At an institution known for its academic intensity and Quaker roots, it should come as no surprise that a move to bring sororities to Swarthmore College has faced resistance.
Most of that resistance, however, has not come from administrators or the Board of Managers; it has come from students.
Sororities have been absent from Swarthmore’s social scene since 1933, when students voted to ban sororities because they were found to discriminate based on race and religion. But last fall, four students decided there was a gap in Swarthmore’s offerings for women. The solution, they decided, was to bring back sororities.
“I never thought of myself as someone who wanted to join a sorority,” said Julia Melin, a senior majoring in comparative religion and gender studies. “But when I saw that men on campus had an option to join two frats and they had this immediate friend group to connect with and do community service with and even help out in terms of searching for jobs I realized women at Swarthmore were at a disadvantage.”
The four women formed a group called Not Yet Sisters (NYS). The group discussed the possibility of forming an unaffiliated, non-Greek, organization, but ultimately decided that a national sorority had the most to offer in terms of funding, scholarships, leadership opportunities and training, and an alumni network.
The interested students approached the administration last year about how to begin the process of establishing a sorority. After some research, it was determined that the original vote to ban sororities had been purely a student decision, not an administrative decision, and as such the reinstatement of sororities could also be purely a student decision.
So, the students moved ahead with the planning process and in late January held open interest meetings to find potential members and to address any student concerns.
Not long after these interest meetings began, the Swarthmore Student Council discussed holding a referendum on the issue of creating a sorority. The referendum, however, was voted down, and the students of Not Yet Sisters continued moving forward, inviting potential sororities to campus and ultimately selecting Kappa Alpha Theta.
The controversy won’t die down, though. Now that the academic year has started and news of the sorority selection has spread, students are pressing harder for a collegewide discussion and vote on the issue. In late August, some students started an online petition – the original version was titled “No Sorority at Swarthmore College,” but the latest iteration is called “Call for Referendum on Sorority at Swarthmore College."
The introduction to the petition says that because the creation of a sorority would affect all students on campus, students should have a chance to vote. One signee wrote, “The decision to abolish the sororities in the thirties was a multi-year process involving two student body-wide referendums. The conversations around the sorority have taken place largely behind closed doors, or in ‘interest meetings’ posed as opportunities for dialogue. Establishing a sorority – and opening the door to others – would represent a shift in campus culture at least as big as abolishing them did in the thirties. The dialogue around it should be at least as rigorous."
In response, Paige Grand Pre, a senior political science major and a member of the extension committee working to bring the sorority to campus, said she thinks it is “inappropriate” for students to be able to vote on whether or not other students can form clubs.
“There are groups people don’t agree with on campus, but I support them existing,” she said. “It’s like Voltaire, ‘I disagree with what you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it.’ ”
The other argument against a referendum might be even more convincing. Though sororities have been absent from Swarthmore’s campus for 80 years, there are two fraternities available for Swarthmore men, which means barring sororities would violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
“It isn’t a decision that the college can make,” said Satya Nelms, Swarthmore’s Student Wellness Coordinator and the campus adviser to the sorority.
Though sorority and fraternity membership policies are exempt from Title IX – fraternities are not required to admit women and sororities are not required to admit men – colleges are required to provide women and men with equal opportunities on campus.
“Just like any other school club or other educational opportunity, if that benefit is provided to males on campus, the school cannot block females from doing a similar activity,” said Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center. “If there hasn’t been interest, that’s one thing, but if they are going to allow fraternities, there’s no reason not to allow sororities.”
Some students have argued that neither fraternities nor sororities should be allowed on campus, citing Swarthmore’s Quaker values. One student who signed the petition for a referendum wrote, "Quaker colleges have a history of disallowing Greek life on campus because of their exclusionary (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist) histories. I am extremely disappointed that Swarthmore decided to implement such a controversial group on campus without even having a campus wide discussion or referendum."
The members of NYS emphasize that they’ve placed a lot of value on not being exclusive. In choosing which sorority to bring to campus, Nelms said, one of the deciding factors was the sororities’ answers to the students’ question about whether or not they would admit a student who identified as female, even if she wasn't biologically female.
“The sorority they did choose, Kappa Alpha Theta, said, ‘We would be completely accepting of that,’ ” Nelms said.
Grand Pre notes that the fraternities on campus have a reputation for being very diverse both racially and socioeconomically, so she is not sure why people are concerned about a sorority being exclusive. And Melin added that the idea for a sorority began to combat exclusivity. Essentially, she and the other founders felt there were a lot of interest groups around campus available to women, but nothing to bridge those different interest and cultural groups.
“I saw a hole on campus for girls to come together from different niches and from different backgrounds,” she said.
Though the controversy among students is ongoing, the Swarthmore chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta is currently scheduled to admit its newest class this spring.