Widgets Magazine


Bessen wrong on dynamics within and value of Greek life

As I was reading Mark Bessen’s column in The Stanford Daily last week, I was struck by his fundamental misrepresentation of the existing dynamics between Stanford sororities and fraternities. Though I recognize that both Mr. Bessen and I are approaching this issue with bias, as I am a member of an unhoused sorority and he has not participated in Greek life, I felt his comments deserved a response from someone within the Greek system. My largest frustration with his argument lay in his characterization of sororities as “physical objects” of male Greeks and “inherently deferential” to fraternities. Mr. Bessen implies sororities are incapable of dictating their own social lives and preferences. On the contrary, however, we are not at the beck and call of fraternity men, but rather make our own choices about which organizations to have events with and how those events are conducted.

Mr. Bessen argues that “fraternities largely determine the social atmosphere on campus ‒ they host the parties, they supply the booze, they choose the themes… Males are dominant and control the party scene, putting women in an inherently deferential position.” As the former event chair of Kappa Kappa Gamma, I can attest to the fact that this is simply untrue. Sororities host formals, date events and special dinners, just like fraternities do. Often, sororities host events with other Greek organizations, like mega-formals, and they can determine which fraternities they ask to co-host.

Even when Greek men are hosting an event at their house, the girls decide the themes just as often, if not more, than the boys. Again, sororities are able to determine which fraternities to have events with; in fact, last spring, Greek women came together and chose to suspend social events with a particular organization due to its inappropriate and disrespectful conduct. Therefore, contrary to his assertion that Stanford Greek females are simply “competing with one another for fraternities” affections, our sororities have power and choice in the Stanford social scene. It is wrong and demeaning to suggest otherwise.

While I certainly appreciate Mr. Bessen’s point that Greek organizations are not as socioeconomically or gender diverse as Stanford overall, that does not justify abolishing their housing. Socioeconomic diversity should be far more vigorously pursued in Greek organizations, but it is not the only type of diversity we should consider valuable. In a separate column in The Stanford Daily, Mr. Bessen himself argued for the importance of ideological variety. He criticized the political and philosophical homogeneity in co-ops and explained that a small minority’s criticism was too often silenced in them.

In contrast, there is ideological diversity in Greek organizations. I would argue that there is a broad range of interests and experiences in many fraternities and sororities, whose members come from a wide variety of majors, teams, extracurriculars and hometowns. Dissenting voices in Greek organizations are considered and debated, not oppressed. Decisions are largely made democratically, and I have heard of some fraternity meetings lasting hours as members discussed differing views on a certain group action.

Finally, Mr. Bessen suggests that unhoused organizations are an inherent disadvantage, so the school should eliminate all Greek houses in the interest of fairness. There are, however, benefits to both options, and preserving a choice between the two for future members of the Greek community is important. While I understand that houses offer certain advantages, I believe unhoused options do as well. Having a staff, kitchen, and space to host events certainly makes Greek houses attractive, but the opportunity to live with other Stanford students and increase camaraderie through other means attracts many to unhoused groups.

During recruitment, students are able to consider which option works better for them, just as they weigh a variety of other factors that distinguish different organizations from one another. The fact that Stanford has both housed and unhoused fraternities and sororities contributes to the unique nature of Stanford Greek life. Because this choice exists, a wider variety of students who are looking for varying experiences in Greek life are interested in joining the Greek community. Therefore, there is value to housed fraternities and sororities at Stanford, just as there is value in unhoused groups. We are lucky that Stanford has both.

Abby Fanlo ’16

Contact Abby Fanlo at afanlo@stanford.edu.

  • Thank You

    Well said. As a member of a Greek organization, I was incredibly appreciative that I was given the choice between housed and unhoused, a very rare option.

  • Anon

    Does your Greek organization deserve that choice over another organization on campus?

  • anon

    I do think, however, that we should recognize that not all Greeks got to choose whether or not to be in a house. Some people don’t get a choice, especially since housed Greek organizations are more difficult to get into.

  • Anonymous

    Housed sororities are not necessarily “more difficult to get into.” Each sorority must take around the same amount of new members after rush, limiting spots for both housed and unhoused sororities. And, as Abby and others have mentioned, housed vs. unhoused is an appreciated choice.

  • Ok but

    I think you make some empirical points that invalidate Mark’s description of how the power dynamics work in practice. But you did not address the rules that say that sororities can’t have men in their houses and can’t buy booze (even if this is not followed in practice, the fact that there are women that actually come to the house and enforce this and the girls in the house don’t protest it is problematic). You did not address the culture of questionable consent and unhealthy drinking habits. You did not address the fact that 7 fraternities are housed and on the Row whereas only 3 sororities are housed and are geographically marginalized. Finally, I think the lack of diversity of “majors, teams, extracurriculars and hometown” is not what was initially criticized. So I don’t think you have successfully responded to the other article’s main points.

  • ISC alumna

    I am an alum of a Stanford unhoused sorority (stating my outright bias). Here is my attempt to thoroughly address all of your concerns. tl;dr

    1) You are right that these policies made by the sororities’ national headquarters (policies that I may add are dubiously enforced at Stanford, so I would argue slightly out of place in an article that is purely about Stanford Greek Life) do create a double standard for women. However, the way to change this is not to say, “Let’s not have sororities!” Our national organizations are not going to care if Stanford closes its Greek chapters. The way to affect change is to work within our organizations by talking to our national representatives when they visit and voicing our opinions as alumna of our organizations. They care much more about the opinions of due-paying members than they do about some random students at Stanford that are unaffiliated. I also want to add that sororities have amazing feminist histories. Sororities allowed women to have leadership roles at a time when women would not have been allowed to have leadership roles in co-ed institutions. While sororities may have fallen behind in the interim in terms of feminist national policies, sororities still are a place where leadership skills are fostered among members. There is still plenty of data that show that women are less likely to be selected for leadership positions (in clubs, organizations, and in the workforce). While there are other women-only organizations at Stanford(SWIB, Cap and Gown), sororities do also serve as an opportunity for women to hold leadership positions and gain experience balancing large budgets (over $70,000) and leading large organizations (100+ members). I would argue that the leadership skills that sororities impart upon members advantage members more than bad national policies disadvantage them.

    2) In terms of consent, as other readers have pointed out, there have been no studies conducted around the number of sexual assaults committed within the Greek community as compared to the number of sexual assaults committed by non-Greek members that make similar lifestyle choices. Furthermore, I would argue that studies about Greek life nationally and Greek life at Stanford are very different (I can’t tell you how many people I know within the Greek system at Stanford that say they wouldn’t have rushed at most other schools). In terms of unhealthy drinking habits, I don’t think Greek life encourages unhealthy drinking habits. I do think that students that are already engaging in unhealthy drinking habits are more likely to join Greek institutions as they are social organizations. I do not think that abolishing Greek life would get rid of or even drastically reduce risky drinking on campus. This is a problem with American culture and how we teach young people about alcohol. I do also want to acknowledge that Greek life is aware of this cultural problem. I know my organization makes every member go through a program that surrounds making appropriate drinking decisions and emphasizes safety (it also addresses consent and harassment) ANNUALLY. I will also point out that other organizations on campus (a capella groups, sports teams, co-ops etc.) also engage in social activities that may/may not encourage unhealthy habits surrounding drugs/alcohol. I doubt they go through a yearly program surrounding drug/alcohol safety.

    3) In terms of the housing inequity, this is a result of Stanford policy, not Greek policies, (only 10 Greek orgs can be housed) and history. At the time sororities were allowed to re-colonize at Stanford, 7 fraternities were housed. This gave the remaining 3 spots to the first 3 sororities to re-colonize. This could be remedied by either getting rid of the 10 Greek org rule or attempting to redistribute housing so that it would be 5 and 5 (I will add that there are more fraternities than sororities to begin with so perhaps 6 and 4 would be a more equitable allotment). I would also argue that Mark’s point that we should get rid of Greek houses because they essentially make life unfair for the unhoused organizations is just a plain silly one. Nothing will ever be exactly equal (Is it fair that one senior drawing Tier 1 gets Casa/French House/whatever and another gets a less desirable living location? No, but that’s life). There will always be social stratification. I have yet to learn about a human community in which this doesn’t exist. Getting rid of housing won’t change that. Furthermore, I do think Abby has a point that there are individuals who CHOOSE an unhoused organization and LIKE that aspect of their organization. Being unhoused benefits those organizations with those individuals.

    4) In terms of diversity, this is something that Greek life is aware of and striving to be better about. There have been a string of events created by Greek organizations for members to come together and talk about the value of diversity within our organizations and how to increase that diversity. I will say that there were members of all socio-economic ranges, sexual orientations, and skin colors in my Greek organization. While we could do better on this front, so could Stanford, so could the tech industry, and so could many, many more organizations. Disbanding them is not the solution.

  • Captain Obvious


  • ISC alumna

    Organizations that are more desirable get to be more exclusive. That is how the world works. See the recruitment process for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs or Google or STANFORD ADMISSIONS. But unlike real life, while not everyone will get to be a (insert popular sorority here), 99% of women that stick through the recruitment process will get to be in a sorority. Very few women are cut from the process entirely. In fact sorority pledge class sizes are dependent on the number of women going through the recruitment process. The algorithms used ensure that most everyone gets matched. Women just decide to drop out when XYZ sorority drops them, even though they still have other options. While it is disappointing to be dropped by an organization that you liked, if more women kept an open mind, they might find out that the organizations they had left were better fits to begin with. My favorite women I met during rush were not the prettiest (in fact I had some pretty awful conversations with some very pretty girls). My favorites were ones that had mutual passions. Those were by far the best conversations. I’m not going to pretend that recruitment is looks-blind (Life isn’t either. Studies have been done show that attractive people are more likely to make more money, etc), but we never discussed how attractive a women was during our decision sessions.

  • basiclife

    Let basics be basics.

  • anon

    Um, I didn’t say anything about attractiveness. But yeah, of course the more desirable organizations get to be more exclusive. That is exactly what this comment is saying. The housed sororities are in general more exclusive so a lot of girls, while able to get a bid, do not have the option of living in a house.

  • Ok but

    Thanks for the thoughtful response! I think you made a lot of good points. Would love to see sororities at Stanford do more to change their national organizations (I encourage you to push that). I agree that although I see problems, disbanding them is not the solution.

    Honestly though, I also kind of think that gender-specific societies like these are a little incompatible with the 21st century. I think it’s fine that sororities and fraternities exist and cultivate a given culture, but in order to be progressive they would need to accept people of both genders (e.g. guys that identify with sorority culture)

  • Malena

    These obvious discussions only come up when feminazi extremist feminists are encouraged to write their nonsense on newspapers. What a waste of virtual ink. It’s good that you at least come out to show how insane these conservative anti-sex feminists are. Thanks for the article!