The Single-Sex Greek System

The Tabard. a coeducational fraternity

The Tabard. a coeducational fraternity

Over Homecoming, the Class Connections program hosted social events between current students and alumni. At one such event, an alumnus read a list of defunct traditions as part of an effort to provoke dialogue about the dynamic nature of changing customs. After he had finished, another alumnus, clad head-to-toe in Dartmouth Green, interjected with one former tradition he had not heard mentioned: single-sex education.

After the initial silence his remark brought over the room, it became apparent his intention was not to lament the demise of “the good old days,” but to start a dialogue on an issue that is rarely discussed at all, let alone openly. Though there is little to no disagreement among today’s students that the move to coeducation has ultimately proved beneficial, a growing number of undergraduates are actively questioning the role of single-sex fraternities and sororities in our coeducational College. As the Administration and the Presidential Steering Committee prepare to change the Greek system in ways unknown, it is essential that students who value some of the only remaining single-sex organizations on campus voice their opinions on why such spaces are not only important but essential to campus life.

When the students propose to turn all Greek houses coeducational, they neglect one of the primary reasons why many decide to rush in the first place. While 297 women received bids from sororities and at least 241 men pledged fraternities this fall, just over thirty students decided to join coed houses. The mass appeal of single-sex houses cannot simply be attributed to the current nature of coed Greek houses or arbitrary decisions made by students.

Same-sex houses offer a safe place on campus where members feel comfortable discussing issues unique to males or females. People can be more honest and open in these environments, which is critical to forming bonds and being one’s self. One Dartmouth student familiar with Princeton’s eating clubs described their coeducational environment as “adding unsavory layers of formality” that inevitably lead to more superficial relationships among members. Part of what makes Dartmouth so special and what engenders such dedication to the College after graduation are the strong bonds amongst a brotherhood or sisterhood. Many students find that single-sex communities can boost one’s confidence more than a coed environment. One sister of Kappa Delta Epsilon says of her sorority: “Being part of a female-dominated social space has been one of the most formative experiences I have had while at Dartmouth. I feel directly responsible for maintaining an inclusive and safe social space, and take that responsibility seriously. I know that every other member of my house feels that same sense of responsibility and autonomy, and I don’t think it would be the same if we were forced to go co-ed.”

Another charge levied at single-sex houses is that a brotherhood’s or sisterhood’s loyalty can be blind to transgressions in standards, and that members fail to hold each other accountable for their actions due to pressure from his loyalty. In fact, the opposite holds true for Greek houses at Dartmouth. Each house expects its members to act according to their bylaws. Members investigated for sexual assault, for example, are suspended from membership.

Perhaps what is most salient about this self-policing are the reasons for which it occurs. New members in these houses look up to the older members for guidance and take cues from them about how to act. In this way, same-sex houses can be vehicles for social change. People are more likely to embrace social values from those similar to them, rather than being told what to do by others. A nineteen-year-old fraternity brother is much more likely to improve his behavior when his brotherhood holds him accountable for his actions rather than an administrator or older female students.

While many athletes are afforded the opportunity to bond in single-sex environments, non-athletes are often unable to benefit from the single-sex community that varsity sports teams provide, unless they are inclined to join a club team or an à capella group. Although the relatively new First-Year Peer Mentorship Program has received positive reviews in recent years, it is only aimed at freshmen students, leaving a gap in mentorship for students in their sophomore and junior years at the college. The Greek system fills this role for many students, providing an appealing option for those who seek advice from older members on gender-specific social or health issues beyond their freshmen year. The Greek system also provides its members with valuable career advice during senior year, and a life-long network of professional support and opportunity.

Some have attacked single-sex fraternities and sororities for their de facto exclusion of half of the student body. This seems to apply a double standard, as other single-sex groups exist on campus, such as sports teams and à cappella groups, and organizations such as the Men’s Forum, Men’s Project, Women’s Forum, and Women’s Leadership Council are heralded as progressive and promoting a safer and better Dartmouth. This argument often relies on the idea that fraternities in particular are somehow more oppressive and often accuses them of misogyny. While it is seemingly obvious that sororities are equally as gender-exclusive, some argue that male “power structures” eliminate the need for fraternities or even require their demise, all while simultaneously necessitating the existence of sororities as a safe place for women. Regardless of dubious nature of these “power structures,” the idea that the existence of fraternities is preclusive to empowering women is not only sexist and hypocritical, but also driven by emotion as opposed to logic.

Those that say fraternities oppress women often say that fraternities and sororities are inhospitable to homosexual and transgender members. While the College does not collect statistics on the number of homosexual or transgender affiliated persons, experiential evidence shows that there a significant number of affiliated homosexual men and women and (a proportionally lesser amount) of transgendered affiliated persons. While The Review does not wish to speak for these individuals’ personal experiences, Dartmouth Greek culture strives to accept them, and their presence in the Greek system has the added effect of educating affiliated men and women on issues they may not have previously been aware of.

While some may have noble intentions for the drive to make fraternities and sororities coeducational, they have often neglected these arguments in favor of single-sex Greek institutions. Other single-sex spaces on campus prove that this effort is not about the value of single-sex spaces, but about the some students’ distaste for the Greek system and what they believe it represents. Attacks on single-sex spaces often come from a position of ignorance as to their true nature or an anger at the “patriarchy” that has been misdirected towards these extremely valuable spaces that constitute a significant force for good and wellness at the College. Though coeducational Greek houses have a definite value, they cannot completely replace their single-sex Greek brothers and sisters. Those who have actually experienced the benefits of single-sex spaces, both at Dartmouth and in high school must be ignored no longer: an image problem and politically-motivated arguments are not enough of a reason to abolish what for some is their only safe space at Dartmouth.

Julie A. McConville also contributed to this report.