National No More
It’s 1976, and change is brewing in Hanover. A group of Dartmouth women feel that the College’s social scene does not fit their needs, so they contact the national sorority Sigma Kappa to discuss establishing a chapter on campus. That spring, the sorority’s first pledge class sees an immense turnout. Flash forward to 1988 and seven more national sororities have been established on campus. Still, some of them feel that the ideas and rituals of their national governing bodies do not match up with the social needs of women at Dartmouth. So what has happened when sororities decide to go local?
Following the establishment of campus’ first sororities, the College’s affiliated women began debating the possibility of localization for many years. Sigma Delta sorority was the first to follow through on this in 1988 when it disaffiliated from its national Sigma Kappa, and Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority followed suit four years later when it disaffiliated from its national Kappa Alpha Theta. Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority was established as a local sorority from the beginning in the place of Xi Kappa Chi, which disaffiliated from the national Alpha Chi Omega in 1990.
Going local, however, means a lot more than just swapping a Kappa for a Delta or an Alpha. After these women made the momentous decision to strike out on their own, they had to create a new identity for their organization.
Christen O’Connor ’87, the alumni advisor to EKT at the time of the sorority’s localization, remembers this process as a difficult one.
“I would say [the most difficult part was] just having to recreate themselves,” she said. “Everything from deciding on their name, their colors, their symbols, traditions and rituals. We wanted to fill in all those things we had as a national in a short period of time in order to create continuity.”
Despite the fact that the current members at Kappa Alpha Theta had decided to become their own organization, they were concerned that the alumni of the Dartmouth chapter may be disappointed in this decision. In reality, O’Connor said, the alumni reacted positively and continued to feel a strong connection to the College and the house, having known about that this debate had been happening for sometime at KAT and other houses on campus.
KAT had a rocky relationship with nationals for many years, and when the members announced their decision, a visiting chapter representative came to the house, took some of their furniture and insisted that anyone who affiliated with the new EKT would lose affiliation with KAT, including alumni.
O’Connor explained that this left many seniors and recent alumni with a difficult decision.
“That was something painful,” she said. “We did have some sisters who chose to keep national affiliation.”
Then-assistant dean for residential life and director of Greek Letter Organizations and Societies Deborah Carney remembers this as a distressing process.
“The emotional toll was painful,” she said. “If you have a group of women that are sisters, some sisters wanted to be KATs and others didn’t. Your organization gets splintered because of that. [Then-sorority president Karen Febeo ’93] did an excellent job of bringing the remaining people together. It was difficult for her, too, because she cared about all her sisters.”
Once these initial kinks were worked out, the EKT members had to navigate the process of forming the new organization. Having a mentor and an advocate in the administration was essential to making this process work, as very few sororities had tried it before. O’Connor remembered that Carney, also an alumna of KAT, made the success of the new organization possible.
Carney remembers that after going through a “divorce” process with the national, building the local sorority was just about figuring out the nuts and bolts of the constitution, insurance and other fundamental things.
Because the organization already had a house and many organizational structures left in place from their time affiliated with the national chapter, they were able to be successful in their transition to a local sorority.
“They just folded into scene as EKT,” Carney remembers. “There was an excitement for them because they were starting something new and fresh.”
The process for the formation of KDE from scratch did not involve the same problems of disaffiliation from a national organization, and their process required the sorority to construct a identity and traditions for the new house without any national history upon which to build.
Xi Kappa Chi, the local sorority that occupied the house where KDE is now, was struggling with finances and small numbers. The Panhellenic Council and Carney decided it was best to replace the organization with the new local sorority KDE. Then-Panhell president, Rachel Perri ’94, wrote an opinion column in The Dartmouth explaining that she wished to see more social options for women on campus. Because the college would not support expansion of the Greek system with the creation of another sorority, Panhell decided to replace Xi Kappa Chi, the member numbers of which were dwindling, with a new sorority.
All but one of the Xi Kappa Chi sisters was a senior, but a couple of them helped the new KDEs navigate the process of forming their own sorority. Panhell needed 40 sophomore women to commit to the new sorority and forgo the rush process, but interest went far beyond that once a strong group of women committed and more followed suit.
“The Xi Kappa Chi women were selfless,” Carney remembers. “They helped the local women become strong, they helped them with structure, they mentored them and I was so proud of them because it was hard for them.”
Carney also points to the group of women who decided to join KDE as a reason for its success.
“It just so happened that they got 50 women together who did not want to go through recruitment, it just worked and a group of senior and junior women who were willing to give up what they had fought so hard for so that another group could start,” she said.
The group of sophomore women who were now KDEs had to write their own constitution and establish new traditions for their house. The women who joined the new house knew they were taking a risk, as they would not have the certainty or community of an established organization, but it presented an opportunity to create an organization better suited to the needs of Dartmouth women. Sophomore summer was an excellent time for them to do this, and the house had already begun to establish an identity and a place for themselves on campus by the time classes began in the fall.
While discussions of localization have arisen for decades due to concerns about gender equality and female-dominated social spaces, O’Connor believes that these are not the primary reasons a sorority decides to go local. Debates about these issues have stimulated debate about other issues such as making sororities more inclusive both economically and socially. These are the reasons that sororities went local in the late 1980s and early 19w90s and continue to be dominant factors on campus to today.
Panhell vice president of policy and research Carly Schnitzler ’16 explained that current students can learn from the past.
“I think that everything we have learned from the past is that it is on a case-by-case basis and different by house,” she said. “It’s been important to mediate the relationship with the house and national and the administration.”
Even now, if sororities attempt to go local, they must be careful to let their potential new members know of the intention. Danielle Kimball ’17 explained how the recruitment process could be difficult for sororities in the transition stage between going local from national.
“During rush people make a big deal about the differences between local and national,” she said. “If it were ambiguous as to whether or not a house was going to be national or local, girls who want one or the other may feel more comfortable somewhere else.”
Evidentially, it is difficult for organizations to go through the divorce process with their national and then forming a new organization on campus. But the women who took the risk to do this reaped the rewards of having organizations better suited to their needs as Dartmouth women.