Matthews: Systemic Sexism

Dartmouth must financially support its sororities through these trying times.

by Susan Matthews | 5/25/20 2:00am

When I was a junior in college, the issue of the day on campus was an innovative new technique that the Hanover Police were threatening to deploy to crack down on underage drinking. The police department had announced that if underage students were found to be drinking in college Greek houses, the students themselves would not be the only ones held responsible — the Greek houses that supplied the alcohol would be held responsible as well. In this case, “held responsible” meant that they would be fined. The fine could be as high as six figures. 

Whether or not this policy is a reasonable way to deal with underage drinking on a college campus aside — though it’s not — what I remember from that time was a conversation I had with a friend of mine. I was in a local sorority — Sigma Delta — and he was the treasurer of his fraternity. I was upset because our house execs had told us that if we got hit with this fine, we wouldn’t be able to pay it. It might be the end of the house. When I told this to my friend, he confessed that his frat would be able to pay the fine, no problem. 

I was not ignorant of Dartmouth’s extremely problematic gender politics at that point in my Dartmouth career — I was the editor-in-chief of this newspaper, which required me to cover all kinds of manifestations of this specific problem. But this realization — that a fraternity would be able to weather a six-figure fine, no problem, while the same cost would probably destroy my sorority — hit me in a completely different way. When we talk about “systemic sexism” at Dartmouth — or anywhere — it can feel abstract. But this story, this situation, was the real, tangible end result of years of unfairness that affects women disproportionately. As institutions, fraternities at Dartmouth simply have an enormous advantage. They mainly own their physical plants because they have been here long enough to make that possible. By the time sororities got to campus, they were only allowed to go into college-owned spaces. Fraternities also have decades, and indeed centuries, of alumni who serve as a donation base. Sororities have existed for less than one-fifth of the College’s history, with a much smaller and younger alumni pool. 

I’ve been thinking about this situation since getting a few emails from my sorority asking if I can donate some money to help them pay the insurance bill on the house this term. Students aren’t on campus, which means that most sororities aren’t collecting dues, which would normally cover the insurance costs. The Dartmouth has covered the problem — a May 4 article notes that all four of Dartmouth’s local sororities are struggling to pay their insurance bills this term. Local sororities don’t have the financial support that comes from being part of a national, it points out. It doesn’t mention this, but they also lack the financial safety net that fraternities have by sheer virtue of having been allowed to exist for longer. 

In communications from my sorority, I’ve been told that it’s unlikely that the College, with its $5.73 billion endowment, would be able to help us with the $17,000 insurance bill. Like everyone, Dartmouth is facing an unprecedented, uncertain financial future right now as we all wonder whether students will be able to come back to campus this fall. Apparently, this means that it would be unreasonable for us to ask the College to assist us in paying this insurance bill that they require as the owners of our house. 

I will be honest — I have not been on campus as a student in almost a decade. I don’t have a great sense of how the current administration feels about Greek life. My sense from afar is that they would like it to play a lesser role, and they are working on that transition. This seems likely to be another set of reasons why the College would feel that it is not their responsibility to foot this bill. 

But this dynamic goes much deeper than the current relationship between the current president and the Greek system. As long as Greek life is a large factor in social life on campus, the disparity that exists between how women’s houses can work and how men’s houses can work will continue to make the experience women can have at Dartmouth less than their male peers. The national sororities, which will receive help with their insurance, face rules that prohibit women from hosting parties and controlling their own spaces. Local sororities offer women-led social spaces that offer alternatives to the much more numerous male-dominated Greek spaces. The College has tacitly recognized that to avoid a situation where only men are empowered, to be hosts and to control a social space, local sororities and co-ed organizations are critical and must be permitted. In order to be true to its own ethos and the principles of equality that guide Dartmouth, the College must acknowledge that due to its own decision-making, local sororities face structural inequalities and have not been allowed to amass financial resources or equity — like physical plants.  

Dartmouth has never made up for the structural problems inherent to its long history as a college that struggled to welcome women. It still appears clueless when it comes to ensuring that women’s experiences on campus are equal — or even safe. In order to be true to its own ideals, Dartmouth has to help local sororities exist, particularly in this time of crisis. And in this case, it means putting their money where their mouth is.

Matthews is a member of the Class of 2011, a former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth and a member of The Dartmouth’s Board of Proprietors.

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