Some '90s women abhor the giddy, girlish, deeply shallow '50s feel of sorority rush. Can they ‑should they‑ ruin a perfectly bad thing?
By Bob Ickes
Photo Editor: Michelle Allison Fuertes
On September 5, as Saddam Hussein marched 30,000 troops into Kurdistan, 445 young women ‑all of them smiling and all but two of them white‑ stormed Sorority Court at the College of William and Mary. Quivering amid the purity of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, they were about to begin the ten‑day contest known as sorority rush. Long a staple of American college life, rush is a grueling battery of parties, skits, and small talk. When it concludes, the houses will have decided which candidates fit their secret ideals of poise, kindness, and just plain old politically incorrect glamour.
By entering rush, this year's women had hoped to cement their social future ‑not just at the university but for their remaining days on the planet. "It's a well‑known fact that your sorority can influence your career and marriage options," announces a 17‑year‑old redhead we'll call Carla. She had positioned herself in the center of Sorority Court, sporting the same white shift her mother had worn here in 1966. "I'm wearing the dress for good luck," Carla says. "It helped my mother get into Kappa Kappa Gamma, and we're both hoping it'll help me."
Is Carla suggesting that a white Chanel shift will influence her career and marriage options? Isn't that so, like, 1966? "I'd never thought of that," she says.
After ten days of rush parties filled with small talk and big dreams, women who can barely know each other become sisters for life. Rosemary Peterson, Rebecca Williams, and Melissa Daly (left to right) are Kappa Alpha Thetas.
The university, meanwhile, had hoped to avoid the tragic cattiness of September 1995, when rushees complained of classism and cruelty. With an unfortunate nod to Charles Darwin, school officials reminded the women that rush is a process of "mutual selection." That the various parties are meant to help them make "informed decisions" about which sorority is right for them. These nervous young freshmen, who'd enrolled barely a week ago and knew practically no one, were now being asked to make a decision that would forever alter their college experience. After paying their $20 rush fee, they are permitted to trot from house to house. They tuck stray locks behind their ears. They smile on cue. They say, "How funny is that?" And they search for sisterhood in devastatingly selective organizations.
This year, for the first time, a president of the Inter‑Sorority Council tried to inject a dose of modernity into the proceedings. Danessa Carragher, 21 ‑a psychology and sociology major who once wrote a paper on the treatment of women in the novels of Frank Norris ("Basically, he hates them")‑ inherited the presidency by virtue of her sorority's place in the Greek alphabet. She was, therefore, elected only by her own sorority, not the larger campus population. An energetic woman with a rapid, high‑pitched voice and a talent for nervous laughter, Carragher is a member of Gamma Phi Beta, which often enrolls the fewest rushees and is known among linguistically playful fraternity men as "Jamma Vi‑Brator." In her quest to drag sorority rush into the '90s, Carragher faced great resistance. But to paraphrase Fatal Attraction and Glenn Close (a 1974 alumna of the college), she would not be ignored.
William and Mary's Sorority Court, flanked by ten identical houses stuffed with Jennifers and Michelles, Mary Beths and Mary Kates, evokes the safe, one‑dimensional domesticity of a '50s sitcom. It is this attention to surface and conformity (the William and Mary sorority houses are distinguishable only by the Greek letters on their porches; the members of each sorority tend toward a common physicality and, for lack of a better phrase, fashion sensibility) that has placed the college at the center of a growing national reexamination of sorority culture. The faculty at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, recently decided to disband all sororities and fraternities, citing their "racism, sexism, elitism, and anti‑intellectualism." Middlebury College in Vermont has declared single‑sex groups "antithetical to the mission of the college." At William and Mary, meanwhile, the president of the Delta Delta Delta chapter was removed last spring for having permitted beer in the house.
William and Mary is an ideal laboratory for this new scrutiny, if only because the school appears to confound the chief sorority stereotypes. You know: The women are (a) stupid, (b) vain, (c) frigid, (d) prepping for first‑wives clubs. William and Mary, however, was founded in 1693 and is, in fact, the oldest public university in the United States (only Harvard, a private school, predates it). The school, moreover, is one of the few institutions of higher learning to have educated three U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler. (It is also the only institution of higher learning to have educated Linda Lavin.) In 1776, William and Mary organized the first Greek letter fraternity in the United States‑the national honorary scholastic society Phi Beta Kappa. In 1996, the school recorded an astonishing fraternity‑sorority membership of 45 percent. Why? It is a commonly held notion among the student body that the town of Williamsburg (population 12,606), though a stirring reminder of our nation's heritage, is kind of a drag on a Saturday night. Even the tourist‑trap blacksmith and his kerchiefed hausfrau pack up the horseshoes and butter chum at 5 P.M. and head for Virginia Beach. "There's just not a whole heck of a lot to do," says Jen McCarthy, a '96 graduate and a past president of the Inter‑Sorority Council.
Williamsburg, Virginia, may be a stirring reminder of our nation’s past, but it’s kind of a drag on a Saturday night. For Kimberley Padgett, Jennifer Akers, and Kim GianFagna (left to right), Gamma Phi Beta is the remedy.
It is at William and Mary, then, that the idea of fraternity (and sorority) through scholarship first took shape. "We sure are proud of our sororities," says Kenneth E. Smith Jr., 50, the school's associate vice president for student affairs. "We'd like to think they offer a little something for everyone. Some of the houses are more athletic, some are more artistic. And our general sorority grade‑point average is 3.11, which is above the all‑women's GPA of 3.09. Yes, we have had some troubles with selection procedures, but we're working those out. There really is a place for whoever wants to join. Maybe not the place they had their hearts set on. But, somewhere, a place." Feel a song coming on?
It's hardly news that sorority culture, especially southern sorority culture, can promote prehistoric standards of beauty and success. But at William and Mary ‑which recently changed the name of its football team from the politically incorrect "Indians" to the panethnic "Tribe"‑ the contradiction between the often sexist rituals that attend modern sorority living and the accomplished, forward‑thinking students who embrace them verges on the Gothic.
The September 5 assembly was set for 5 P.M. The women had spent the better part of the afternoon jockeying for room at the lavatory mirror. They had lacquered their cheeks with Clinique and Elizabeth Arden, doused themselves with Lauren, Shalimar, and (perhaps playing over their heads) Calèche (by Hermès!). They had teased their hair into gravity‑defying formations‑pillars and cones and cascading flips, beribboned towers with all the drama and majesty of Abu Simbel or Angkor Wat. How tragic, then, that nature should mock them so pitilessly‑with a Tidewater humidity made excruciating by three hurricanes brewing simultaneously in the Atlantic. Fifteen minutes into the ceremonies, bangs began to tumble and tendrils came unmoored, glued to foreheads glistening with sweat.
Other calamities awaited the contestants. In a heroic attempt to broadcast their physical charms and brand‑name awareness, many had experimented with footwear that was, apparently, new to them ‑pumps and slingbacks of cruel and unusual height. So the women doddered and bobbled, navigating the cobblestones as best they could. Imagine the sad spectacle of Gina (not her real name), 18, who, not unlike Icarus, climbed a bit too close to the sun with Maude Frizon stilettos. When the assembly concluded, and the throng dispersed to the opening parties, Gina fell flat on her face, mining her Laura Ashley sundress and scraping both knees.
Last year, when rush concluded, 45 women (each of them friendly, kindly, and attractive) had been rejected by every single house. "It was so hurtful to me," says Cindy (not her real name), 20, now a sophomore majoring in French who refuses to try again. "I mean, I went to all the stupid parties. I thought we really got along. One of the sisters had even invited me out for a milk shake." But on Bid Day, the last day of rush, she received not one formal bid, or invitation. "My rush counselor told me that the sororities that hadn't made their quota would offer me a 'snap bid.' But they were the loser sororities, with the hideous girls. It's a terrible consolation prize."
This September one woman wore the white Chanel shift her mother had worn during rush here in 1966: “It helped my mother get in Kappa Kappa Gamma, and we’re both hoping it’ll help me.” Here, the sisters let the circle be unbroken.
True, some had severely limited their options by "suiciding," or applying to only one house -usually the perky, quasi‑supremacist Delta Delta Deltas (whom rivals taunted with the slogan "Delta Delta Delta, do ya wanna, wanna, wanna?") or the luscious Chi Omegas (whose high standing was once regularly assailed in a popular campus ditty: "Chi O, Chi O, it's off to bed we go. We've paid our buck, so now let's..." Well, you can see where this is going). Other girls, cabled "legacies," meaning they are the daughters of sorority alumnae, pushed their way in. But most, sadly, were left to find their own "sisters," perhaps in the library or cafeteria.
But just as the Miss America pageant asks finalists to list a platform, William and Mary sororities must now declare a specific "national philanthropy." And make no mistake: They have raised, over the past five years, as much as $250,000 for a variety of worthy causes.
When the Flat Hat, the student newspaper, makes its annual call for rush reform, the ten primary sororities (two other, smaller groups are exclusively African‑American and, for reasons that not even the dean understands, do not participate in rush) claim that their secret induction standards are constitutionally protected.
"Face it, we're talking about a closed society here ‑kind of a beauty‑caste thing," reports former Flat Hat editor Mike Hadley, who graduated last year. "They'll tell you they don't pick based on looks, but of course they do. They want to keep up the prestige, they want women who will be able to pay the monthly dues, and they want women who have parents who can maybe buy new furniture for the house."
Jennifer Carter, a '96 alumna who was president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the African‑American sororities, adds, "Danessa's got an uphill battle, believe me. I'm not saying that the main sororities deliberately exclude black people. And some black women do go through rush. But it's a culture based on partying, on drinking, and on looking good while you're doing it. Just look at the women of a certain sorority. Each house's members look the same. True, they look good. But good in a similar way. And it's all so secret."
How could their hymns and handshakes remain sacred, one national sorority officer argued, "if any old Allure reader could perform them?" So the national governing bodies of nearby every William and Mary sorority forbade members from cooperating. Which is unfortunate, because the women themselves were, on the whole, bright and well‑wishing, ideal advertisements for the sorority experience. But the punishment, should they be caught, was clear: expulsion from the sisterhood‑a fate worse than leprosy.
"The friends I make at William and Mary, through whatever sorority picks me, will stay with me till I die, I'm sure," says a six‑foot rushee we'll call Celia, 18. It's worth noting that Celia -on paper, at least‑ is a rather brilliant independent thinker. She scored 1580 (out of a possible 1600) on her SATs; at the age of 16, she established a home for battered women in Milwaukee; she was captain of her high school basketball team, insisting that her players perform four hours of community service each week; and she intends to go to medical school.
In July, though, Celia received her sorority handbook, with montage after montage of lithe, beaming sisters. "I got the impression that this is something I should be doing," Celia says. "That if I didn't, I'd be some kind of loser. But it seems fun so far."
Like most of the '96 rushees, Celia was born in 1978, when National Lampoon's Animal House cast sorority women as prissy and manipulative, brainless ice queens who don rubber gloves at the slightest provocation. These ladies, you may recall, were of the toga‑party variety, and the film, in the person of John Belushi, made a persuasive case for spitting mashed potatoes in their faces.
Karen Schoemer, the well‑regarded pop‑music critic of Newsweek, graduated from William and Mary in 1987. "I remember my freshman year back at the dorm," she says. "My roommate and I would watch the other girls go off to rush parties. They would come back in tears, hysterical, because the rejection was so cruel and devastating. And we'd look at them and think, Then why would you want to belong in the first place?"
To those who attend the parties, however, they're deceptively low‑key. Rushees are introduced to the active members for refreshments and chitchat. The salutations and patter are made to seem spontaneous, casual. But they've been precisely choreographed to allow as many members as possible to meet as many rushees as possible. Simple requests, like "Tell me about yourself," are often the most deadly.
Hearing this, Carragher smiles. "When I went through rush, one of the sisters asked me, 'What did you do last night?' I think I had done something really dumb, like rented a video, the night before. And I looked at this pretty woman and thought, Wow, you probably did something really interesting last night, like get married."
Carragher, whose parents are diplomats and have moved her around the world, revamped the quota system and party schedule. She patrolled the rush parties. She tried to eavesdrop for any aggressive courting of a candidate, especially promises of free meals or cute boys or early bids. She was, in essence, a pain in the neck.
"I can see what she was trying to prevent, and I wouldn't be so dumb as to say it's not worth preventing," offers the president of a popular William and Mary chapter. "But she really ran the risk of taking what is essentially a harmless ritual and removing the flair and style from it. She needs to smile more. Or maybe she needs a boyfriend." (Carragher does have a boyfriend, and he's "most definitely not" in a fraternity.)
At the end of the '96 rush, every woman received at least one bid. There were only three infractions, minor offenses involving rush counselors who mistakenly revealed their sorority affiliations to rushees. But was it still fun?
"It was OK," says one rush counselor, a senior, who'd endured four consecutive rushes. "There was a lot of pressure not to have any girls crying on Bid Day. Danessa achieved that. But we also felt that we couldn't be ourselves. These are our organizations."
Beth Comstock, a Chi Omega alumna from 1982 and now a senior vice president of communications at NBC, says, "I'm actually encouraged that someone is trying to improve the process. When we were voting on the new girls, we would mention a name, ask for opinions, and all the sisters would say something like, 'Oh, she's nice.' Finally, the president said, 'From now on, no one can use the word "nice." But that's sometimes all you can say when you've met someone for only 20 minutes."
The rush counselor disagrees. "You know, I'm sorry, but some ways of life aren't for everyone. We're ruining a prestigious system by trying to pretend that they are. What's wrong with dressing up and talking girl talk?"
Says Carragher, pulling at one of her tiny gold‑stud earrings and then at the collar of her white Gap turtleneck, "I've done my job. And I'm happy. Whatever."