Feminism in Sororities

Sarah Mazer ’19, Senior Reporter

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A visiting professor stated at a recent panel discussion about sororities and intersectionality that modern sororities should “think about all women, not just their own members,” unlike early historically white sororities, which “pull[ed] themselves up ahead of other women.” 

New York University’s Diana Turk, with Deborah Waley, a visiting professor from the University of Iowa and Brontè Burleigh-Jones, Dickinson’s vice president for Finance and Administration, spoke at “Feminist Sorority Women: A Place for Intersectionality in Tradition?” on Thursday, Nov. 29. The panel was moderated by Director of the Women’s and Gender Resource Center Donna Bickford.

Waley said that intersectionality is especially important today because of “disparities regarding class, gender, sexualities and ability, glass ceiling, voter suppression, reproductive and healthcare rights, religious intolerance, class disenfranchisement and state sanctioned and vigilante violence.” 

She also advised sororities to “be a bit more risky in your activism.” 

Kiara Smith ’21, one of the seven newly initiated members of Delta Sigma Theta, which returned to campus Nov. 2018, described the program as “very informative” and said it inspired her to want to “collaborate with other organizations, especially predominately white organizations on this campus, so we can create a sense of unity and community.” 

Shayna Sheehan ’19, a member of Delta Nu sorority, who was also in attendance at the event, added that “all sororities have the responsibility to embrace intersectionality.”

Waley explained that the term “intersectionality” was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the oppression of African American women and has since been used as a framework to explain the interaction of racial, sexual and gender identities. 

Turk said historically white sororities created in the late 1900s were “support groups that would enable women to face collectively the challenges of… higher education” at a time when female students were banned from extracurricular activities, sat in a segregated area of classrooms and were “largely ignored.” She said sorority women had a “real sense of investment” in each other’s academic performance. 

Turk said these organizations “didn’t think of themselves as white or Christian, because that’s all that existed.” She said members were split on issues such as women’s suffrage and the role of women in the workplace. They had “both feminist and anti-feminist impulses, just as there are today,” Turk said, that are “impossible to split with a simple brush.”

Burleigh-Jones reflected on her “continuous and active involvement” as a member of Delta Sigma Theta and her role in reinstating Dickinson’s chapter. She said the sorority is important partly because according to the college’s 2015 and 2017 student engagement surveys, women of color are the least satisfied demographic on Dickinson’s campus. More information on these surveys can be found in a Dickinsonian article printed Feb. 11, 2016 entitled “Black, Latina Women Report Lowest Campus Comfort.”

Burleigh-Jones said that while her college degrees opened professional doors for her, her sorority “has given me the confidence to walk through those doors, manage myself appropriately on the other side of those doors… and to do my part in making the world a better place.”

Turk said that she “does not see them [fraternities and sororities] going away anytime soon.” She said that administrations “should be working on issues in men’s fraternities rather than eliminating women’s sororities.” 

Burleigh-Jones said that it is important to recognize that the “social issues that [sororities] were formed to address continue to exist.”

Turk is the director of Steinhardt Teacher Residency and associate professor at NYU-Steinhardt. Waley is an artist, curator, writer and professor of American studies and African American studies at the University of Iowa. 

The panel was held in ATS on Thursday, Nov. 29. The program was sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues, the departments of English, American studies, philosophy, sociology and women’s, gender & sexuality studies, the First Year Seminar Program, the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity, Kappa Delta Pi and the Churchill Fund.