How far have we come? In consideration of “Women of Discriminating Taste: White Sororities and the Making of American Ladyhood”

Published in 2020, Margaret L. Freeman’s text Women of Discriminating Taste: White Sororities and the Making of American Ladyhood is a comprehensive historical perspective of white national sororities within the twentieth century. Arranged both thematically and chronologically, the book begins with a deeply detailed description of the early and middle decades of the 1900s, moving forward through approximately 1975. Primarily derived from extensive analysis of national fraternity and sorority archival material, Freeman (2020) judiciously depicts the white sorority experience, carefully critiquing sorority social education, heterosocial dating and relationships, the rush process, and sororities’ propensities to further conservative political ideology. The author frames her analysis in the sororities’ use, perpetuation, and adherence to a very specific form of femininity, which she deems a “southern aesthetic” (Freeman, 2020). Freeman (2020) specifically centers NPC sororities, not simply because of the use of their archival files, but in support of her argument that while white women sororities “may have served as a valuable role as spaces of women’s friendships during the early years of coeducation, they have always been conservative in nature and inherently discriminatory” (p. 4). This text is rich in detail, and there is much to unpack.

“The southern aesthetic”

Gender does not exist on its own, rather it is something individuals perform – in other words, gender is a construct one enacts, not something one possesses (McCready & Radimer, 2020, p. 152). Freeman (2020) frames her analysis in gender performativity (Butler, 1990), and throughout, equates very specific, stereotypical characteristics of southern white women as essentially a form of hyper- or hegemonic femininity – the notion there is one idealized, dominant archetype of womanhood with specific characteristics – selected to comprise the sororities’ memberships (Walter, 2020). What Freeman (2020) depicts is what she continually refers to as “the southern aesthetic,” a non-threatening, superficially polite, traditionally-minded white woman. The sororities themselves are also described as placing heavy emphasis on a very specific physical appearance as a “requirement” for membership.  Freeman (2020) details the “southern aesthetic” as

… the picture of the playful southern belle, not too serious about studies and ready to woo the men of her social class…[t]he southern lady ideal combined sororities’ ideal of true womanhood …  moral purity, social grace, and intellect, with the image of an ultrafeminine, sexually non-threatening, and subordinated, middle to upper-class white woman. She could provide the model to train the conservative, twentieth-century sorority woman who would be the new epitome of white American womanhood (p. 31).

From where does this “southern aesthetic” originate? Freeman (2020) outlines that the “southern aesthetic” construct is borne from the Lost Cause ideology, a mythological, sanitized, reimaging of the antebellum South, wherein “all whites lived on plantations, all enslaved persons were happy, and racial harmony reigned” (p. 6). In other words, a “feel-good,” pre-Civil War “utopia” (p. 6). Through the Lost Cause lens, southern white women in particular were viewed as fragile, modest, and virtuous, and sororities were seen as a perfect environment where those characteristics could be further cultivated. This notion of white southern womanhood, also known as the “southern belle” or “southern lady,” was transposed onto NPC sororities of the twentieth century, and not solely in the south. The “southern aesthetic” ideal of white womanhood was utilized by sororities in the north as well; non-southern women seemingly preferred the “manufactured image of the genteel, charming southern woman” (Freeman, 2020, p. 59).

This notion of white southern womanhood, also known as the “southern belle” or “southern lady,” was transposed onto NPC sororities of the twentieth century, and not solely in the south.

Sorority social education and preparation for heterosocial dating

Sororities originally began as a “home away from home” for young women on newly co-educational campuses in the mid-1800s, but by the 1900s, sororities began to shift their emphasis, “from the sorority chapter as a self-contained women’s support network to a launching pad for social improvement” (p. 31). The idea was that sorority member social education programs in the early-to-mid 1900s were a “useful tool” and “inventive marketing ploy” (p. 32) when making the case for why sororities should continue to exist on college campuses. Sororities advertised membership education to college administrators as a supplement to the social training a young woman could (or should) learn from her own mother. In fact, deans of women were sold – sororities offered firm guidance through social education programs, codified in standards guidelines (the 1920s saw the introduction of standards and codes of conduct), and heavily managed operations by highly-involved alumnae who “were better at shaping campus social standards than were the universities’ administrative rules” (Freeman, 2020, p. 35). However, sorority social education also became the mechanism through which the sorority (alumnae) could monitor, maintain, and perpetuate its own image. Freeman (2020) researched a variety of early sorority manuals and membership handbooks and shares at length that members were instructed about “working and living with others, good hygiene and appearance, healthy interpersonal relationships,” but that educational sessions were also designed to reinforce “conventional notions of women’s behavior – particularly in regard to women’s sexuality – as well as patterns of class and racial stratification” (p. 34). But what was of more interest was the use of sorority as essentially a space of control, where under the watchful eye of alumnae advisors, members were encouraged to refrain from challenging male authority of the time (as it was viewed as unladylike to do so), and therefore maintaining the important reputation and popularity of the campus.

Rush

Sorority membership practices (“rush”) and social education in the early 1900s were collectively engineered to ensure that members only had “appropriate” relationships, both in who was permitted to join, and whom the sorority women could date. Rush was the primary means of perpetuating sororities. Through it, the national sorority chapters used “rush” as a mechanism to design a specific membership composition, placing a high premium on attracting women who actively displayed the southern aesthetic characteristics.

Freeman (2020) describes rush events as “highly choreographed,” wherein both the sorority women and the PNMs were on display. Rush events “taught women to judge and criticize one another based on superficial characteristics” (Freeman, 2020, p. 109). From the decorations to the conversations, PNMs are provided “cues” as to what is “acceptable” to the chapter. Goffman’s (1959) “presentation of self” framework is just one lens to understand the choreographed nature of sorority recruitment. Noted sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) regarded social life and social interactions as similar to a staged play, where one inhabits and enacts socially constructed roles like that of an actor performing on the stage. Each individual assumes a “character” (or role) and engages in a “performance.” Goffman (1959) postulated that the activity of individuals which occurs during a specific period of time is marked by their continuous presence before a particular set of observers, (i.e., an audience), in which case, the characters have some degree of influence over those observers (Goffman, 1959, p. 22). In this scenario, the PNMs are the audience, the sorority women are the stage performers, and the setting for the performance is the recruitment event. (One could go deeper and add in the sorority recruitment counselors as “shills,” or the individuals who know what happens both in front of the audience and backstage, but I refer you to another work for additional details.) Each recruitment event is essentially a “front,” the part of the individual’s performance that regularly functions as a means to define the situation to the audience (Carnell, 2017; Goffman, 1959).

Sorority rush was viewed as a largely discriminatory practice, with white sorority recruitment seen as a performance to perpetuate privilege. The faux familial nature and selective membership criteria of sororities provided just the right conditions to limit those seen as “undesirable” from participation, which in turn, limited the ability to make vital connections for post-graduation life to those few who made the cut.

Perpetuation of conservative values

Fraternity and sorority members can reflect the political environment of a college campus, much like a campus population can reflect that of the general population. However, in the early 1900s, white sororities as collective organizations often refrained from expressing any political belief publically, so as not to upset any member or alumnae. From her research, Freeman (2020) describes that during this period, while individual sorority members were encouraged to know and be informed about the political climate of the day, as a chapter or national organization, the opinion on such was that of no opinion.

The issue of discriminatory membership practices made sororities (and fraternities alike) very visible on campus and in the 1940s, sororities faced anti-sorority agitators who heavily questioned exactly “what kind of democracy” sororities were pushing. (Sororities have a history of sharing members with American heritage organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion Auxiliary.) Criticism of sororities was centered specifically on rush practices – not simply over “hurt feelings of those rejected,” but the commonalities of class, religious, and racial characteristics those who were not selected seemed to share. Freeman (2020) details how the organizations held firm to the notion that as private organizations, they had the right to restrict membership in whatever way they saw fit. The political position of no opinion then became a heavy advocacy for the freedom of association clause. The freedom of assembly clause in the United States Constitution (and subsequent exemption from Title IX) allowed organizations to limit or restrict membership to those “deserving few” (Freeman, 2020).

After 1975

Freeman’s (2020) work is primarily focused on the white sorority experience between 1900-1975, however, she concludes the text in 2015. Closing out the book, Freeman (2020) provides a contextual analysis of the University of Alabama’s Alpha Phi chapter’s viral (and heavily criticized) promotional video, as well as “other peculiar institutions,” again, situated within the “southern aesthetic” (p. 187). Described as “featuring a bevy of thin, white, scantily-yet-designer-clad young women with flowing tresses frolicking around their professionally decorated sorority mansion… if you fit this limited image from the spectrum of womanhood, you too could aspire to become [a sorority] woman” (p. 187), the video’s content seemingly provides outsiders with “cues” of what is “acceptable” in what an ideal member looks like, specifically with the continued use of physical beauty as a major factor in new member selection. The video is an example that also reasserts Freeman’s (2020) argument that national sororities across the country, regardless of region, utilize the display of physical attractiveness and seemingly high socioeconomically inclined white women to “sell” the sorority experience. Concurrently, Beaird, Mobley, and Lawrence (2021) assert that sororities’ promotional videos send signals to audiences about how gender, race, and social class are valued. While this specific sorority chapter’s video was largely criticized for its “blatant objectification and sexualizing of women,” “lack of diversity” (as well as the rather problematic use of specific subpopulations in promotion of the chapter), evidence of much the same is present in other sororities’ videos and social media, regardless of region. Sorority recruitment and promotional videos are, “in essence, selling a particular experience” (Beaird, et al, 2021, p. 11). They are the modern form of the 1930s sorority handbook; designed to preserve the organization’s popularity on campus with both men and women alike.

So what?

The interest in reading Women of Discriminating Taste in the first place was to understand the historical context and originating purposes of sororities. Maybe through reading the historical context of sorority life, from sororities’ own historical records, one could better contextualize current events. Think of it as drawing a “throughline” (NPR, 2019) – looking at the past to better understand the present. Please note that there is much more to gain from reading this 192-page text (with an additional 18 pages of footnotes and 13 pages of references) that wouldn’t fit in this review, so it is worth one’s time to read the entire book.

One thing of note is although social media as a means of communication began in the early 2000s, and platforms and methods seem to crop up, gain popularity (i.e., “go viral”) and evolve, the NPC’s Manual of Information makes no mention of electronic means of communication until its twentieth edition in 2015 (NPC, 2015). While the individual national organizations likely have guidelines surrounding social media, video production, etc., prior to this date, it still seems reactionary, especially when one considers both the trend of sorority recruitment videos and the use of platforms like TikTok (Kirchner & Hampton, 2021). In a relatively recent podcast, hosts Kirchner and Hampton (2021) dedicated an entire episode to the TikToks of sorority women from one specific southern campus, where they felt all the “-isms” were on full display. One host summed up the southern aesthetic like this – “[t]here’s a gawking element of looking at [campus] rush and saying, ‘look at all these women. Look at these accents. Look at these various [sic] specific kind[s] of femininity. Look how toxic it is. This is white feminism.’” (Kirchner & Hampton, 2021).

Sorority is a singular experience for campus involvement and engagement, even with a membership selection process and educational programs rooted in exclusion, classism, racism, and the performance of a very specific form of femininity, of which there is evidence these behaviors pervasively persist today. An organization’s success hinges on its ability to evolve, but even with significantly revised and expanded program offerings, ample policy revisions, and an abundance of necessary initiatives surrounding diversity and the various identities members bring with them to their membership, the question still remains – how far have we really come?

 

 

 

About the author

Katherine Carnell recently transitioned to the role of Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement at Goucher College, however, prior to doing so, served as a fraternity and sorority professional on three different campuses. Carnell earned a PhD in higher education administration, where her research focused on sorority recruitment counselors and their transition through and experience of disassociation. She is a member of the Perspectives Editorial Board and is a peer reviewer for the Oracle. A member of an NPC sorority, fall 2022 was the first time since 1997 she hasn’t participated in sorority recruitment in some capacity.

References

Abdelfatah, R. & Arablouei, R. (2019). Throughline. [Audio podcast]. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510333/throughline

Beaird, K., Mobley, S. D., & Lawrence, S. Y. (2021 spring). “Selling Sisterhood”: (Re)Viewing white women’s self-portrayals in recruitment videos. Oracle: The research journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 16(1), 1-18.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: tenth anniversary edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Carnell, K. E. (2017). We gave up our letters so you can find yours: Recruitment counselors’ negotiation of voluntary disassociation from sorority membership [Doctoral dissertation, Kent State University]. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=kent1490999355922611

Freeman, M. L. (2020). Women of discriminating taste: white sororities and the making of American ladyhood. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York, NY: First Anchor Books.

Kirchner, M. M. & Hampton, R. (2021, August 14). It’s #BamaRush Week on Tik Tok – if you’re white, wealthy, and skinny. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from https://slate.com/culture/2021/08/alabama-rush-tiktok-videos-explained.html

McCready, A. & Radimer, S. (2020). Gender performativity in college. In Supporting fraternities and sororities in the contemporary era: advancements in practice, (P. A. Sasso, J. P. Biddix, & M. L. Miranda, Eds.) 151-160. Gorham, ME: Myers Educational Press.

Walter, C. (2020 February). Is this 1920 or 2020: The effects of hegemonic femininity on diversity & inclusion within the Panhellenic community. Essentials, Retrieved from https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.afa1976.org/resource/collection/BE790C86-9389-45C7-A4EC-85BC326E59F3/Walter_February2020.pdf

Additional reading for consideration

Freeman, M. L. (2022). Margaret L. Freeman – News. https://www.margaretlfreeman.com/news

Mathews, J. (2022). The benefits of friends: inside the complicated world of today’s sororities & fraternities. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Slate. (2021, August 14). How #BamaRush took over Tik Tok. [Audio podcast episode]. In ICYMI. Slate, https://slate.com/podcasts/icymi/2021/08/university-of-alabama-sorority-rush-week-took-over-tiktok

Turk, D. (2004). Bound by a mighty vow: sisterhood and women’s fraternities, 1870-1920. New York, NY: NYU Press.

 

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