It is an experience quite unlike anything else: becoming part of the sorority/fraternity system, those ubiquitous institutions embedded in university campuses throughout the United States.
How did I get myself into a sorority? It was the late 1960s. Many American universities were home to widespread student dissent, ranging from protests over rather parochial issues, such as the lack of student representation in university decision-making, to more global concerns such as the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement.
The level of dissent at my university was relatively low, until my particular year came along. Some of our academic courses, especially in politics and sociology, began to feed into the culture of protest. I also happened to take a course in Judaism, led by a rabbi who made explicit links between traditional Jewish values and social involvement. The prevailing Zeitgeist held out the possibility that both individual and collective action could refashion the world.
But our optimism was cut short with a series of devastating events which would disfigure the political landscape. If political innocence had been dealt a blow by the death of John Kennedy, it was to be shaken to its roots by the events of 1968: the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, followed by rioting in several major cities; the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June; and, in August, the student anti war demonstration during the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which turned into a x-day battle between the protestors and Mayor Daly’s riot police armed with clubs, tanks and tear gas.
If I look back to this period, it is defined by two great spectres: a growing awareness of the horror of America’s involvement in Vietnam; and the sense, born of’ the civil rights movement, that most of the black population was disenfranchised from the American dream. So after 1968 America was for me a place of violence — both individual and institutional — as a place of unfettered optimism.
When I first arrived at university I did the usual freshman rounds, and came across the sorority system. What I knew about them was that they were largely WASP, politically conservative, stuck-up and competitive, full of blue-eyed, blonde-haired, perfectly-groomed girls with all American smiles (or the equivalent in their male counterparts), who lived together in large houses. Many fraternities and sororities in 1960’s America were indeed bastions of white, middle class Protestantism, unreceptive (as were golf clubs and other organizations) to outsiders such as Jews claiming their part in the American dream. This discrimination led to the founding of parallel Jewish clubs, which nevertheless aped the original.
Armed with a naïve curiosity, an almost anthropological desire to see at first hand this anachronistic institution, I came across one sorority which seemed friendlier than the others. The members were mainly Jewish, with few pretensions but very worth-while ambitions -- to become teachers, social workers and other ‘caring’ professionals. A number were simply nice and funny and could giggle, talking about boys and politics with ease commitment and humour. Whether it was the flattery of being asked to join this sorority, or an undefined need for a haven in the midst of all the political upheaval, it is hard to say. In any event, not having intended to, I and my great buddy (and political soul-mate) found ourselves joining.
There was a certain amount of group humiliation you had to go through before you finally made it (though not nearly as dangerous as the male initiation rites), like having flour thrown over us and eggs broken over our heads. We put up with the puerile games so wonderfully described in Joyce Carol Oates’ “I will take you there” (ref) and became accomplices in a system we were deeply uncomfortable with.
My friend and I were politically non-conformist. We were heavily involved in organising student demos (pretty mild affairs. in retrospect, even for the 1960’s) and refused to try out for a quasimilitary Training Corps. Our activities were initially met with tolerance or deliberately ignored. On one occasion, a few of us joined a predominantly black student demo against the university’s “double standards” in refusing to punish some black students who had thrown their drinking glasses against the wall of the cafeteria in a toast to the memory of Malcolm X. The black students saw this as yet another example of being treated differently and organised a demo to vent their feelings. At the end of the long line of black demonstrators were a few white people who had joined to show solidarity, including myself and a couple of friends. Some of our sorority sisters passed by, saw us, and quickly looked the other way. I don remember the incident ever being referred to by those who witnessed it.
It was almost like thing two lives: on one hand, the cosy sorority and on the other, an increasingly politically involved life. The sorority was able to accommodate people from two different worlds: those who were very much part of the sorority system, and those — a minority — who were able to take the best of the system but were committed to the political and social movements of the time. And for time we accepted each other.
But this accommodation was to be short-lived, and foundered on the racial tensions which characterised so much of America. They were also a part of life in this particular city, and inevitably affected campus life. For me, this manifested itself in two separate ways. At the time of the Black Power movement a number of the black students on campus stopped speaking to the white students as a political gesture. There was nothing we could do about this, and many of us felt betrayed as friends and co-activists. At the same time, there were incidents of casual racism — for example, when a fraternity boy called one of the black cooks a nigger, the incident went largely unchallenged.
Nevertheless my friends and I wanted to do something about the situation, and volunteered to help with the Black Panthers breakfast programme — a scheme to provide supplementary food for black children, as one of the results of racism was the endemic poverty within the black community. It made us feel we were doing something worthy, but some of it was also quite frightening. At the time the Black Panthers were (certainly verbally) a very aggressive organisation and seeing a number of guns lying around the place, even if they weren’t being used, heightened the tension. It was not easy for us, as relatively politically naïve eighteen year-olds, to cope with the Black Panthers on the one hand and black fellow students refusing to speak to us on the other. Our political idealism and the political reality around us came into conflict. Meanwhile federal Government was intervening more to ensure that institutions, including universities, adhered to civil rights legislation (passed in 1964 in the wake of Kennedy’s death), thus fostering a climate of social Justice. All of this came together inside the sorority.
Several times a year the system rejuvenated itself by taking in new members to replace those who graduated. This process, called Rush, took place over a one or two week period when would-be Greeks* would be judged by being interviewed over a series of parties. After each party a number of girls would be eliminated (black-balled) and thus not invited to the next round. Each party was pretty much the same. The newcomers sat in chairs, while the ‘sisters’ progressed round the room conducting brief interviews on their knees, breaking off at a prearranged cue to sing a sorority song, during which they never lost their smiles nor their eye contact with the nervous participant. I remember being questioned about my interests and background -- having a lorry driver for a father would not have got me many brownie points.
After each party all the sisters met to dissect each individual to see if she should be invited back. In addition to a general feeling as to whether the individual would ‘fit in’, there were two other criteria: 1) would you fix her up with your brother? and 2) would you be happy to brush your teeth next to her?
The procedure for my particular sorority was carried out with minimum fuss and ceremony, but one spring afternoon it took a different, disturbing turn. On this particular occasion, there was a black candidate. She impressed people sufficiently to go through to the next round. At this point, an unprecedented thing occurred — we were asked to reassemble and vote again. Stirrings, mutterings reverberated throughout the house; someone had convinced the leaders of the sorority that a second vote was necessary. So another vote was taken and this time the black student received two black balls (three were needed to exclude the person from the next round). Some time after this unprecedented second vote, we were asked to reconvene for a third time and vote again. On this occasion we did not merely cast our votes but were asked to say exactly how we felt about the prospect of living with a black person. Some people said that even though they wanted to be social workers in black neighbourhoods, their parents would not be very keen if a black woman came to live in the sorority. The black candidate then received five black balls, which meant she would not he asked back to the next round.
Along with some of my other sisters, I was quite devastated by this experience. We felt profoundly betrayed by our friends and close housemates. Two of my sisters resigned and left the house soon after, but along with a couple of others I decided to stay and try to educate the sorority. I wanted an opportunity to show them they were wrong, to see that what they had done was not only illegal, but also counter to the spirit of the times and counter to Jewish values. One thing I did not want was to see them punished.
At first some of the women in the house supported us while others were quite hostile. At the time there were civil rights investigators on campus monitoring the effect of the 1964-5 legislation. The sorority panicked and brought in first a local, and then a national, organiser to persuade us to back off. A meeting was called of all the sisters and I was told to stop protesting: if I persisted I would damage my reputation and limit my life opportunities (e.g. I would not he allowed to join the armed forces).
A second, hastily-convened meeting was held to persuade the other women that they had done nothing wrong-- we were the bad people, they were the good ones. I can still hear one of these sorority organisers saying to us ‘Do you hear me, you’ve done nothing wrong? Do you understand what I’m saying?” I knew then there would he no attempt to understand the incident and also that my own personal and political position had therefore become untenable. That night I left the house and had to find alternative accommodation.
At this point the incident began to escalate. I had tried to act as arbitrator inside the sorority, and between the sorority and the outside world. But the sorority now hired a lawyer to defend themselves, even before any case had been brought against them and, in response, my two friends and I also obtained the services of a lawyer. The end result was a six-hour hearing in front of the university authorities. My friends and I had to give evidence at this hearing, and I remember feeling physically a bit weak but sure I was doing the right thing. We were not after revenge but reeducation: we warned the sorority to understand they had done something wrong.
In their defence, the sorority members claimed they had simply not liked the woman in question (who. by the way, sat in the back throughout and observed the proceedings with a wry smile). They submitted a photograph of another branch of the sorority, in a college 500 miles away, which included one black member; therefore, the logic went, this particular sorority could not he guilty of discrimination. They also resorted to personal attacks on our characters, sometimes rather silly ones, such as criticising us for the way we dressed or the fact we lacked boyfriends. Though a number of women supported us in private, when it came to standing up in public against the sorority they could not do it. They either refused to testify or were economical with the truth. I felt profoundly sad that the power of this relatively insignificant institution was greater than their own morality.
In the end, the authorities ruled that discrimination had been one of several factors in this woman’s exclusion from the sorority selection process. The ‘punishment’ was to be some sort of educational programme. This all took place at the end of the academic year, after which I went off to England, while one of my friends changed universities and the other stayed on.
It is ironic that, out of all the university’s sororities and fraternities, ours was in fact the most liberal and accepting of change; the others were probably far more guilty of discrimination. Because our sorority allowed in the kind of people who were prepared to take action against them, like me, they paid a price for their tolerance. We left a somewhat bitter legacy: I heard that someone compared our actions against the sorority to Hitler’s, and that another said she never wanted to hear our names mentioned again.
What did we actually achieve? I returned to the campus a year later and avoided the sorority altogether, so I don’t know what long-tcrm impact we had. A shot across the bows of the entire system, perhaps, which was unsettled by our action (we sometimes received verbal abuse as we walked around the campus). We bad brought out into the open their discriminatory customs and these now became slightly vulnerable. Their WASP hegemony was challenged. This as reinforced by social and political stirrings in the outside world, particularly in the area of civil rights where morality had been overtaken by the law.
For me, there was a personal disappointment. I had arrived at university knowing relatively little about Judaism, and was so excited to find a rabbi who brought together Jewish ethics and our political ideals and made it all make sense. With this incident my idealism took a severe knock. There was my political involvement, and my new- found understanding of how Jewishness connected with it, but when a test case came along it all seemed to fall apart. Interestingly, it was my Jewish values which were compromised, not any ethical principles which emanated from being an American.
Perhaps the one good thing that did come out of the episode was that the three of us felt we had done the right thing. We had to be content with that. I also learned some salutary lessons. I saw that you can espouse a sort of liberalism-- in this case about wanting to help black people — but only go so far. That the political and the personal don’t always go together. And that institutions can make you behave against your own convictions and that you should always be on guard against that danger.