Monday, February 21, 2005

It's All Greek To These Harvard Girls

No, not the fainting tenured scientists, the undergrads:

...sororities of the traditional state-college variety have taken root at Harvard, a place where for years the biggest social event for women was the annual Take Back the Night rally. Kappa Alpha Theta, the sorority of Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney, was the first to arrive on campus, in 1992. Delta Gamma followed in 1994, and Kappa Kappa Gamma opened its chapter in 2003. ....And far from being catty and exclusive, they strive to welcome any woman who might hope to join.

The fact that Harvard students - in legend among the most intellectual and sophisticated in the country - are embracing the traditionally middlebrow values of sororities might seem jarring. To the undergraduates involved, however - many of whom refer to each other as "girls" - the new groups are a key to their Harvard experience. Membership seems driven by a renewed interest in the potential benefits of deeply rooted social networks....

The rise of sororities coincides with a boom in women-only private clubs in general at Harvard. In recent years four new private clubs for women have been founded - so-called finals clubs named the Bee, the Isis, the Sabliere Society and the Pleiades - which are less self-consciously wholesome than the sororities and emphasize partying (and exclusivity) over field trips and charity work.

....Alexandra Robbins, a Yale graduate and the author of "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities," said the rise of women's clubs at Harvard was a reflection of a trend on Ivy League campuses in which "secret groups and Greek groups are experiencing a huge comeback."

Ms. Robbins attributed that comeback to the current political landscape, which on the surface suggests that membership in secret societies can pay dividends in status and distinction down the road.

"If you think about it, three of the presidential candidates were members of Yale secret societies - Bush, Kerry and Lieberman - and Dean was in a fraternity," she said. "If you're an ambitious Ivy League woman, it's probably not surprising that you'd want to counter what's clearly a thriving, successful old-boys network. The future is always in the back of an Ivy League student's head."

....Many sorority members are Southerners or Texans whose mothers and grandmothers were members at Southern schools. Mindful of the reputation of sororities for cattiness, they go out of their way to emphasize their welcoming nature. The Kappas bill themselves as fun-loving and responsible, the Thetas as warm and friendly.

The women's finals clubs are more overtly exclusive, and their members tend to come from big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

....Harvard has marginalized the men's finals clubs, and this is hampering growth of the women's clubs and sororities. In 1986 the university ended its ties with single-sex clubs, going so far as to cut off heat to the finals clubs buildings from the university's steam system, and decreed that except for sports teams and choral groups, no same-sex groups could meet or advertise on campus.

Because the sororities cannot advertise their rush season on campus, recruiting is done by e-mail, with upperclass members scrounging for e-mail addresses for entering women each school year. In fall 2004, one sorority was chided after it held a meeting at a residential hall.

"The policy was put in place to protect women," Miss High said. "I would argue we don't need that protection anymore."

Yeah, it's not like they can't add 2 + 2, and get 4.

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