How Sororities' Founders Envisioned Sisterhood

What might they think of modern-day Rush Week?

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As an outsider, to me Rush Week sounds like a mild version of the Hunger Games, an extended parade of exaggerated female theater wherein queen sorority sister is a nightmare mom, brushing out my hair aggressively and rubbing shimmer on my legs as I walk out the door. And although owning a product that effectively "airbrushes" my legs sounds exhausting, I can understand the appeal of belonging to a sorority. A built-in social network, people to go to the dining hall with, a group of girls who remind you daily about how pretty you are. It sounds nice.

But recently, Jezebel posted a series of leaked documents; that reveal the complex requirements of a sorority sister during and prior to Rush. According to one sister’s email, girls should always wear Spanx even if they are "very thin," because they make "a better line." Failing to properly groom her eyebrows will make a girl look "less beautiful than [she] actually is." There are 25 shades of turquoise, nine of which are Sigma Delta Tau acceptable.

The Internet also provides quasi-survival guides and tips on how to win a bid. On YouTube, Sarah Beth shares her insider tips for 38 minutes: don’t wear too tight of jeans, don’t ask too many questions, smile. Beth’s account of Rush has close to 24,000 views.

Buried beneath all the survival guides and YouTube videos, though, lies a constitution of sorts: The Sorority Handbook by Ida Shaw Martin, published in 1907. Martin, the Grand President of Tri Delta from 1889-1893, labors over the history of sororities from their earliest existence. As it happens, when opportunities for women to study arose in the mid-1800s, it was natural that college girls would want to become members of the secret organizations in which men had been taking part since the early 1800s.

In Martin’s book, she explains sororities emerged as a "protective league" for women during a time when male students were often "openly hostile" to women newly admitted to college. "The few who were courageous enough to brave outspoken ridicule or veiled slur were sadly in need of the moral support that the sorority could give," Martin wrote. "From the close communion of heart and soul in those days of trial sprang the impulse to form a sisterhood."

Today, this is how joining the sisterhood works (though it may vary slightly depending on school): On the first day of Rush, girls visit a series of sorority houses and enter a process of speed dating, speaking with a few girls from each house for five minutes. After those five minutes are up, the sorority sister ranks the new girl on a scale of one to five, and those rankings are later tallied up to determine who will be eliminated.

How do you judge a girl in five minutes? I spoke with a sorority alumna, whom we’ll call Sarah, and asked her to be frank about the selection process. She asked to remain anonymous, because sorority sisters "never stop watching you."

According to Sarah, you judge your PNM’s (Potential New Members) from the top down. "None of those girls are listening to anything anyone is saying the first day," she says. "There’s so many people coming through, and it’s always the same conversation: ‘I want to study X, I’m from X," etc. In the end it’s all about how she looks. It’s not necessarily just how beautiful she is—it’s how well kept she is, what shoes she has on, all that stuff."

In many cases, Rush is competitive enough that girls seek guidance outside of Internet lists. For example, Rushbiddies is a Rush consulting company that equips women with the "tools" they’ll need to approach Rush. In a series of "pro tips" published by Business Insider, the co-founder of Rushbiddies writes that it’s important to keep an open mind during Rush. "You don’t HAVE to be in the ‘pretty’ sorority," is tip number three. Samantha von Sperling, an image consultant in New York offers her own approach: an intensive weekend workshop for girls. Von Sperling’s version of Rush "prep" includes an entire day dedicated to getting "physically ready—hair, makeup and wardrobe," and outfits and accessories are "completely strategized."

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In Rushed, a short documentary about sororities at Northwestern, an anonymous former Rush Chair admits to the superficial decisions made during Rush. According to this girl, how males on campus will perceive their new sisters plays a role in who’s chosen. Every night of Rush, each sorority house gets together to discuss whom they will eliminate. The main discussion points are: "How hot are they? What’re the guys gonna say? Which sorority got the hottest pledge class?"

Where sororities were originally built to fuel the woman to be the best she could be in a man’s world, the criteria for sorority sisters is now not just a conventional idea of beauty, but also beauty from the perspective of men.

And if we flip back to Martin’s account of the early version of sisterhood, we see the sorority as a place for women to come together as human beings, without a stamp of "hot or not" on their foreheads. "Many a girl was rescued by her sorority. As one of a crowd she lost self-consciousness," Martin wrote. "Here with friends she need not be on parade…For the first generation of college girls the sorority was primarily a humanizing agency."

In her book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, Alexandra Robbins went undercover and closely integrated herself in the sorority system. Although Robbins maintained that her book was not anti-sorority, in an interview with Salon, Robbins claims the modern sorority encourages conformity: "Instead of enhancing a girl’s individuality, there’s a tendency to swallow a girl’s identity whole," she said. "That’s why I’ve heard countless stories of girls going into a sorority looking one way and after a year they look like everyone else."

Robbins notes body type as one reason girls are excluded from the system: "You’re not going to see a lot of obese girls in these sororities. They look for thinness." At the University of Alabama, girls have also been denied a place in the sorority of their choice because of race. It seems that where once sisterhood meant inclusion, now it means exclusion.

But as it turns out, Rush was considered a necessary evil from the start. In 1902 the Grand President of Alpha Phi called the first-ever Inter-Sorority Conference to discuss a "saner dealing with the problem of rushing" and potential reforms. "There was a general sentiment in favor of correcting these evils," Martin says of Rush. The conclusion they came to is not documented.

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