How does single-sex Greek system fit with coeducation?

by Sabrina Peric | 11/6/02 6:00am

When Dartmouth began to admit women in the 1970s, sororities were formed to give female students an alternative to the long-existent fraternities, a space where women could share their experiences and build leadership skills.

In the 30 years since, questions about the role of single-sex Greek organizations within a coed student body have reflected the College's changing, and at times conflicting, gender politics.

The issue has been particularly relevant at Dartmouth, where roughly half of eligible students are members of single-sex Greek houses.

In 1973, the year after the first coed class matriculated, six fraternities--Alpha Theta, Foley House, Gamma Delta Chi, Parmington Foundation, Phi Tau and the Tabard--decided to include women in their membership.

In 1978, Casque and Gauntlet senior society also went coed.

Dartmouth's first sorority, Sigma Kappa, was founded in 1977 as a way to give women a greater hand in the College's social options. One year later, Kappa Kappa Gamma came to Dartmouth, followed by Alpha Chi Omega and Kappa Alpha Theta in 1981.

Not surprisingly, leaders of single-sex Greek houses argue that their organizations fit neatly with coeducation.

"In a school that began and thrived as an all-male inhabited environment, the infrastructure for female space and rights were not present when women were first admitted to the College," president of the Panhellenic Council Ann Chang '03 said.

But others disagree.

"Many women in sororities feel strongly that the leadership opportunities for them in those organizations have been essential to developing skills and gaining experience for other leadership roles," said Giavanna Munafo, head of the Center for Women and Gender. "This was more true in the first couple of decades of coeducation when women were less likely to gain presidencies and other positions in competition with men because of lingering gender biases."

When women's activism on campus reached a peak in the mid-1980s, Greek houses were accused of sexism because of their single-sex policy.

The now-defunct Women's Issues League considered, but ultimately rejected, a plan to sue Dartmouth fraternities for gender discrimination in their membership.

In April of 1986, a group of men responded by trying to participate in a sorority rush. The men, trying to prove that sororities were no different from fraternities, declared that the sororities had failed to provide a meaningful alternative to the fraternity system.

In an opinion piece for The Dartmouth that same year, Paul Hochman '86 wrote that "accusing fraternities of sexism is like accusing an alarm clock of waking you up: that's the whole idea. Of course fraternities and sororities are sexist, discriminating against members of the opposite sex by not allowing them admission. But dismantling this type of institution would simply replace one discriminatory practice with another: keeping people from making their own choices."

A long battle between coeducation and residential life culminated in 1987 with the elimination of single-sex residences. That year, the residents of Richardson, one of the last all-male dormitories on campus, protested and defended their all-male space. The Richardson residents referred to themselves repeatedly as the "GDIs" or the "God Damn Independents."

Currently, Greek houses are the only on-campus option for those who wish to live in a single-sex residence.

More recently, the controversy over the existence of single-sex organizations within a coeducational institution has resulted in administrators calling for the creation of more coed houses.

Coed houses, although not as popular during rush, continue to attract a steady stream of students looking for alternatives to the fraternity or sorority social scene.

"Some coed house members have told me that the sexualized nature of coeducation interaction that takes place in fraternities, for example, is neutralized in coed houses," Munafo said.

In 1993, then Dean of Students Lee Pelton and College President James Freedman predicted that the College's Greek system would be coeducational in ten years.

Pelton explained his reasons for the push towards coeducation by saying that "it has to do with...gender equity and the feeling of some undergraduates, male and female, that the current system of single-sex organizations do not contribute to what one might call gender equity."

And though the prediction never came true, students once again saw a similar push towards a more coed Greek system with the Student Life Initiative four years ago. At that time, the Trustees announced that they wanted to make the campus "substantially more coeducational."

The year following the announcement of the Initiative showed just how sensitive the question of a single-sex Greek system is.

After the administration appeared to be challenging the existing system, many Greek and some non-Greek students rallied passionately for the continuation of single-sex fraternities and sororities.

For a while, very few students publicly came out against Greek houses. And when they eventually did, they reported repeated harassment.

The Greek system has remained strong, and continues to be justified within the context of coeducation.

"Because Dartmouth only just recently became coeducational, the existence of a system that benefits both men and women is integral in the College's evolution away from the white male stereotype," Chang said.

Still, sororities argue that there are continuing inequities within the Greek system itself.

With only six sororities and 13 fraternities, many sorority leaders say that they continue to have less social space than men and are unable to cultivate the same small-group atmosphere as many fraternities.

With the advent of the Initiative, the administration has placed a moratorium on any new single-sex, exclusive residential organizations -- in effect precluding a seventh sorority and financial and institutional support of female Greek houses that would be equal to that of male Greek houses.

Even though rush numbers for the sexes are comparable, sorority infrastructure seriously lags behind the fraternities.

"I think the campus could definitely use a couple of more sororities," Sigma Phi Epsilon President Pat Granfield '03 said. "Certainly there is a demand which exceeds the supply."

Fraternity leaders, like their sorority counterparts, believe that single-sex institutions don't undermine coeducation.

"I definitely think that there is a place, a role for fraternities in creating a space where men can connect with other men," Granfield said.

Panhell's Chang added that the kind of collaboration between fraternities and sororities enhanced coeducation.

"When members of the Greek community come together to pull an event off, they are experiencing coeducation in the sense that their interpersonal and relational skills are being tested and challenged," Chang said. "The Greek system is already coed. Men and women work together across house lines for common goals and based on similar values."

Indeed, single-sex houses remain very popular with much of the student body.

Last winter, 279 men rushed fraternities while 210 women rushed the sororities.

Many Greeks emphasize the need for supportive single-sex spaces that work within this coeducational framework.

"I think there are some things that you can share with members of the same sex that you may find a lot more difficult to share with members of the opposite sex," Granfield said. "For women, it might be sometimes along the lines of eating disorders. For men, it might be something along the lines of sexuality."

However, many questions about the nature of these supportive environments remain.

"I continue to feel concerned about many women's claim that their sororities are important to them because they provide a safe place for women," Munafo said. "My question is: What are these same women doing to eliminate that which makes the campus unsafe, in addition to creating "safe" places?"

Eliminating unsafe places has often been equated with harassment that women experience at fraternity parties, which are a large part of the Dartmouth social scene.

"I hear, as much as I ever have, and I have been here since '94, that social space is dominated by fraternities and that this creates a male-dominated feeling for many women, and some men," Munafo explained. "Combine that with alcohol and drug use/abuse and there is a clear connection to safety issues -- for all students but with the particular issue of sexual abuse/violence for women."

Some also argue that Greek life merely provides students the environment they want in the first place.

"Some students feel more comfortable living with members of their own sex, particularly in an environment as close as a Greek house," said John Lawrence '03, the public relations manager of the Greek Leadership Council and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

Greek leaders also argued that fraternities and sororities are not unique in their single-sex status.

"There are many instances on this campus where groups are not necessarily coeducational, like athletics are single sex," Granfield said. "I don't think coeducation means to get rid of those. I think to give students a choice to live in a single sex environment is important. I think students should have that choice."

Granfield acknowledged that fraternities are a remnant of the old Dartmouth that resisted coeducation, but argued that they have changed along with the times.

"I think Greek houses are definitely a symbol of a certain misogyny and elitism but I think that's more of a vestige of the past than it is reality," Granfield said.

"I think, at least, my own fraternity is much more sensitive to issues of gender or sexuality," he added. "Having a couple of members who are homosexuals definitely changed the nature of peoples' thoughts on gender."

Munafo too acknowledged the changing attitude of men on campus. "In terms of men's organizations, I see more evidence today than I have on the past that some of the houses do encourage thoughtful exploration of gender issues, like sexual violence or sexist language. Many of the men who have responded enthusiastically to the Men's Project, for example, are fraternity members."

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