Fraternities and sororities are social organizations at colleges and universities. A form of the social fraternity, they are prominent in the United States, Canada, and the Philippines, with smaller numbers existing in France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Similar organizations exist in other countries as well, including the Studentenverbindungen of German-speaking countries.
- Establishment and early history
- Gender exclusivity
- Rushing and pledging recruitment and new member periods
- Secrecy and ritual
- Symbols and naming conventions
- Notable fraternity and sorority members
- Homogeneous membership
- Academic performance
- Professional advancement
- Nepotism and networking
- Personal fulfillment
- Sexism and sexual assault
- In popular culture
Similar, but much less common, organizations also exist for secondary school students. In modern usage, the term "Greek letter organization" ("GLO") is often synonymous with the terms "fraternity" and "sorority". Two additional types of fraternities, professional fraternities and honor societies, incorporate some limited elements of traditional fraternity organization but are generally considered a different type of association. Traditional fraternities of the type described in this article are often called "social fraternities".
Generally, membership in a fraternity or sorority is obtained while an undergraduate student but continues, thereafter, for life. Some of these organizations can accept graduate students as well as undergraduates, per constitutional provisions.
While individual fraternities and sororities vary in exact organization and purpose, most share five common elements:
- single-sex membership;
- selection of new members on the basis of a two-part vetting and probationary process known as rushing and pledging;
- ownership and occupancy of a residential property at which the undergraduate members of the fraternity or sorority live; and
- use of a set of complex identification symbols including Greek letters, armorial achievements, ciphers, badges, grips, handsigns, passwords, flowers, and colors.
Fraternities and sororities sometimes engage in philanthropic activities; often host parties; provide "finishing" training for new members, such as instruction on etiquette, dress, and manners; and create networking opportunities for their newly graduated members.
Establishment and early history
The first fraternity in North America to incorporate most of the elements of modern fraternities was Phi Beta Kappa, founded at the College of William and Mary in 1775. The founding of Phi Beta Kappa followed the earlier establishment of two other secret student societies that had existed at that campus as early as 1750. In 1779 Phi Beta Kappa expanded to include chapters at Harvard and Yale. By the early 19th century, the organization transformed itself into a scholastic honor society and abandoned secrecy. In 1825 Kappa Alpha Society, the oldest extant fraternity to retain its social characteristic, was established at Union College. In 1827, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi were also founded at the same institution. The foundation of this triad established Union College as the Mother of Fraternities.
Fraternities represented the intersection between dining clubs, literary societies, and secret initiatory orders such as Freemasonry. Their early growth was widely opposed by university administrators, though the increasing influence of fraternity alumni, as well as several high-profile court cases, succeeded in largely muting opposition by the 1880s. The first fraternity meeting hall or lodge seems to have been that of the Alpha Epsilon chapter of Chi Psi at the University of Michigan in 1845, leading to a tradition in that fraternity to name its buildings "lodges." As fraternity membership was punishable by expulsion at many colleges at this time, the house was located deep in the woods. The first residential chapter home to be built by a fraternity is believed to have been Alpha Delta Phi's chapter at Cornell, with groundbreaking dated to 1878. Alpha Tau Omega became the first fraternity to own a residential house in the South when, in 1880, its chapter at the University of the South acquired one. Chapters of many fraternities followed suit, purchasing and less often, building them with support of alumni. Phi Sigma Kappa's chapter home at Cornell, completed in 1902, is the oldest such house still occupied by its fraternal builders.
Sororities (originally termed "women's fraternities") began to develop in 1851 with the formation of the Adelphean Society Alpha Delta Pi, though fraternity-like organizations for women didn't take their current form until the establishment of Pi Beta Phi in 1867 and Kappa Alpha Theta in 1870. The term "sorority" was invented by a professor of Latin who felt the word "fraternity" was inappropriate for a group of ladies. The first organization to use the term "sorority" was Gamma Phi Beta, established in 1874.
The development of "fraternities for women" during this time was a major accomplishment in the way of women's rights and equality. By mere existence these organizations were defying the odds; the founding women were able to advance their organizations despite many factors working against them. The first "Women's Fraternities" not only had to overcome "restrictive social customs, unequal status under the law and the underlying presumption that they were less able than men" but at the same time had to deal with the same challenges as fraternities with college administrations. Today both social and multicultural sororities are present on more than 650 college campuses across the United States and Canada. The National Panhellenic Conference serves as the "umbrella organization" for 26 (inter)national sororities, representing over 4 million women at both the collegiate level and in alumni associations.
In 1867 the Chi Phi fraternity established its Theta chapter at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, marking the first foray of the American social fraternity outside the borders of the United States. At the time, many students from the American south were moving to Europe to study, due to the disrepair into which southern universities had fallen as a result of the American Civil War. One such group of Americans organized Chi Phi at Edinburgh, however, in the course of the Theta chapter's existence, it initiated no non-American members. With declining American enrollment at European universities, Chi Phi at Edinburgh shuttered in 1870.
Nine years following Chi Phi's abortive colonization of the University of Edinburgh, a second attempt was made to transplant the fraternity system outside the United States. In 1879 Zeta Psi established a chapter at the University of Toronto. Zeta Psi's success at Toronto prompted it to open a second Canadian chapter at McGill University, which it chartered in 1883. Other early foundations were Kappa Alpha Society at Toronto in 1892 and at McGill in 1899, and Alpha Delta Phi at Toronto in 1893 and at McGill in 1897. The first sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, was established at Toronto in 1887. By 1927 there were 42 fraternity and sorority chapters at the University of Toronto and of 23 at McGill University. A few chapters were also reported at the University of British Columbia, Carleton University, Dalhousie University, University of Manitoba, Queen's University, University of Western Ontario Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Waterloo and Brock University.
Numerous Greek organizations in the past have enacted formal and informal prohibitions on pledging individuals of different races and cultural backgrounds. While these limitations have since been abolished by both the Interfraternity Conference and the National Pan-Hellenic Council, students of various ethnicities have come together to form a council of multicultural Greek organizations. The Multicultural Greek Council, officially formed in 1998, is a coordinating body of 19 Greek organizations, including nine fraternities, and ten sororities with cultural affiliations.
The first multicultural sorority, Mu Sigma Upsilon Sorority, Inc was established in November 1981 at Rutgers University. The formation of this Greek organization allowed for the emergence of a multicultural fraternity and sorority movement, giving birth to a multicultural movement.
Fraternities and sororities traditionally have been single-sex organizations, with fraternities consisting exclusively of men and sororities consisting exclusively of women. In the United States, fraternities and sororities enjoy a statutory exemption from Title IX legislation prohibiting this type of gender exclusion within student groups, and organizations such as the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee work to maintain this status quo in federal law.
Since the mid 20th century a small number of fraternities, such as Alpha Theta and Lambda Lambda Lambda, have opted to become co-educational and admit female members. However, these generally represent a minority of Greek-letter organizations and no such fraternity is currently a member of the North American Interfraternity Conference, the largest international association of fraternities. The first coed fraternity was Pi Alpha Tau (1963-1991) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Much more commonly, coed fraternities exist in the form of "Service" fraternities such as Alpha Phi Omega, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, Alpha Tau Mu, and others. These organizations are similar to "Social" fraternities and sororities, with the exception of being coed and non-residential.
Individual chapters of fraternities and sororities are largely self-governed by their active (student) members; however, alumni members may retain legal ownership of the fraternity or sorority's property through an alumni chapter or alumni corporation. All of a single fraternity or sorority's chapters are generally grouped together in a national or international organization that sets standards, regulates insignia and ritual, publishes a journal or magazine for all of the chapters of the organization, and has the power to grant and revoke charters to chapters. These federal structures are largely governed by alumni members of the fraternity, though with some input from the active (student) members.
Rushing and pledging (recruitment and new member periods)
Most Greek letter organizations select potential members through a two-part process of vetting and probation, called rushing and pledging, respectively (the terms recruitment and new member period are more acceptable today). During rush (recruitment), students attend designated social events, and sometimes formal interviews, hosted by the chapters of fraternities and sororities in which they have particular interest. Usually, after a potential new member has attended several such events, officers or current members will meet privately to vote on whether or not to extend an invitation (known as a "bid") to the prospective applicant. Those applicants who receive a bid, and choose to accept it, are considered to have "pledged" the fraternity or sorority, thus beginning the pledge period (new member period). Students participating in rush are known as "rushees" (Potential New Members "PNM's") while students who have accepted a bid to a specific fraternity or sorority are known as "new members" or in some cases "pledges."
A new member period may last anywhere from one weekend to several months. During this time new members might participate in almost all aspects of the life of the fraternity or sorority, but most likely not be permitted to hold office in the organization. At the conclusion of the new member period a second vote of members may sometimes be taken, often, but not always, using a blackball system. New members who pass this second vote will be invited to participate in a formal and secret ritual of initiation into the organization, advancing them to full membership.
Many Greek-letter organizations give preferential consideration for pledging to candidates whose father or brother or, in the case of sororities, mother or sister was a member of the same fraternity or sorority. Such prospective candidates are known as "legacies."
Membership in more than one fraternity or sorority is almost always prohibited. Recently, some Greek-letter organizations have replaced the term "pledge" with that of "associate member" or "new member". Sigma Alpha Epsilon, in 2014, abolished pledging altogether. Potential members are now immediately initiated into the fraternity upon accepting a bid.
Unique among most campus organizations, members of social Greek letter organizations often live together in a large house (generally privately owned by the fraternity itself, or by the fraternity's alumni association) or a distinct part of the university dormitories. A single undergraduate fraternity chapter may be composed of anywhere between 20 and more than 100 students, though most have an average of about 35 to 45 members and pledges. Often fraternities and sorority houses (called lodges or chapter houses) will be located on the same street or in close quarters within the same neighborhood, which may be colloquially known as "Greek row" or "frat row." At some, often small, colleges, fraternities and sororities will occupy a specific section of university-owned housing provided to them. Some fraternities and sororities are un-housed, with members providing for their own accommodations. In many of these cases, the fraternity or sorority will own or rent a non-residential clubhouse to use for meetings and other activities.
Secrecy and ritual
With a few exceptions, most fraternities and sororities are secret societies. While the identity of members or officers is rarely concealed, fraternities and sororities initiate members following the pledge period through sometimes elaborate private rituals, frequently drawn or adopted from Masonic ritual practice or that of the Greek mysteries.
At the conclusion of an initiation ritual, the organization's secret motto, secret purpose, and secret identification signs, such as handshakes and passwords, are usually revealed to its new members. Some fraternities also teach initiates an identity search device used to confirm fellow fraternity members.
Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote (in his posthumously published Memoirs) of his initiation into Delta Kappa Epsilon:
I was initiated into a college secret society—a couple of hours of grotesque and good-humored rodomontade and horseplay, in which I cooperated as in a kind of pleasant nightmare, confident, even when branded with a red-hot iron or doused head-over heels in boiling oil, that it would come out all right. The neophyte is effectively blindfolded during the proceedings, and at last, still sightless, I was led down flights of steps into a silent crypt, and helped into a coffin, where I was to stay until the Resurrection...Thus it was that just as my father passed from this earth, I was lying in a coffin during my initiation into Delta Kappa Epsilon.
Meetings and rituals are sometimes conducted in what is known as a "chapter room" located inside the fraternity's house. Entry into chapter rooms is often prohibited to all but the initiated. In one extreme case, the response of firefighters to a blaze signaled by an automated alarm at the Sigma Phi chapter house at the University of Wisconsin in 2003 was hampered in part because fraternity members refused to disclose the location of the hidden chapter room, where the conflagration had erupted, to emergency responders.
According to Assistant Professor Caroline Rolland-Diamond of the Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, in one ritual popular in the 1960s, born out of frustration to the ubiquitous nascent counterculture, "The men were stripped to their underpants, tied up to a tree, and covered in a nasty mix of food and leaves, remaining there until their fiancées came to free them with a kiss."
Symbols and naming conventions
The fraternity or sorority badge is an enduring symbol of membership in a Greek letter organization. Most fraternities also have assumed heraldic achievements. Members of fraternities and sororities address members of the same organization as "brother" (in the case of fraternities) or "sister" (in the case of sororities). The names of almost all fraternities and sororities consist of a sequence of two or three Greek letters, for instance, Delta Delta Delta, Sigma Chi, Chi Omega, or Psi Upsilon. There are a few exceptions to this general rule, as in the case of the fraternities Triangle, Acacia, and Seal and Serpent.
In addition to organizational and associative activities, fraternities (and, less often, sororities) frequently host parties that place them at the epicenter of social life on a university campus. Fraternities and sororities also organize "brotherhoods" (in the case of fraternities) and "sisterhoods" (in the case of sororities), which are social events limited to the active members of a chapter, such as camping trips, formal dinners, and sporting events.
Many universities which are host to fraternities and sororities have an annual event called "Greek Week" which is a series of athletic and cultural competition between all of the fraternities and sororities present on that campus.
Furthermore, many Greek letter societies participate actively in various philanthropic endeavors. Each chapter has an organization which they support, either by raising funding or by allocating volunteer time towards various events.
Alumni members of fraternities, often organized into alumni chapters or alumni clubs, also host social events for their own members, including dinners, golf tournaments, and lectures. Alumni and active members of a fraternity will often come together one or more times each year for joint events such as Homecoming receptions or formal banquets on the anniversary of the founding of the fraternity or sorority.
There are approximately 9 million student and alumni members of fraternities and sororities in North America, or about 3 percent of the total population. Roughly 750,000 of the current fraternity and sorority members are students who belong to an undergraduate chapter.
A 2007 survey conducted by Princeton University showed that white and higher income students are much more likely than other students to be in fraternities and sororities. Senior surveys from the classes of 2009 and 2010 showed that 77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members were white.
Notable fraternity and sorority members
Since 1900, 63-percent of members of the United States cabinet have been members of fraternities and sororities, and the current chief executive officers of five of the ten largest Fortune 500 companies are members of fraternities and sororities. In addition, 85-percent of all justices of U.S. Supreme Court since 1910 have been members of fraternities. U.S. presidents since World War II who have been initiated into fraternities are George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt. Three Prime Ministers of Canada have been members of fraternities.
Currently about 25-percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 40-percent of members of the U.S. Senate are members of Greek-letter organizations.
Actress Sophia Bush was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Southern California and has since gone on to further her career in television and receive the Human Rights Campaign's Ally for Equality Award. Other notable sorority women include Mariska Hargitay, who is an actress and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation.
Greek letter organizations have often been characterized as elitist or exclusionary associations, organized for the benefit of a largely white, upper-class membership base. Members of fraternities and sororities disproportionately come from certain socio-economic demographics, which perpetuates an unhealthy divisiveness within the student body based on ethnicity and income and a perpetuation of patterns of exclusivity and privilege. Fraternities specifically have been criticized for what is perceived as their promotion of an excessively alcohol-fueled, party-focused lifestyle.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni questioned the existence of exclusive clubs on campuses that are meant to facilitate independence, writing: "[Colleges] should be cultivating the kind of sensibility that makes you a better citizen of a diverse and distressingly fractious society. How is that served by retreating into an exclusionary clique of people just like you?"
Studies have found that university graduation rates are 20% higher among members of Greek-letter organizations than among non-members and students who are members of fraternities and sororities typically have higher-than-average grade point averages. One reason for this is many chapters require their members to maintain a certain academic standard.
Fraternity members are "much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than their non-Greek affiliated peers." One Harvard University study found that "4 out of 5 fraternity and sorority members are binge drinkers. In comparison, other research suggests 2 out of 5 college students overall are regular binge drinkers."
Some colleges and universities have banned Greek letter organizations with the justification that they are, by their very nature and structure, set up to be elitist and exclusionary. The most famous and oldest ban was at Princeton (Leitch 1978), though Princeton has now had fraternities since the 1980s. Oberlin College banned "secret societies" (fraternities and sororities) in 1847, and the prohibition continues to the present. Quaker universities such as Guilford College and Earlham College often ban fraternities and sororities because they are seen as a violation of the Quaker principle of equality. Brandeis University has never permitted fraternities or sororities as it maintains a policy that all student organizations have membership open to all.
There is a high representation of former Greek Life members among certain elites in the United States. 43 of the nation's 50 largest corporation heads are Greek members along with 40 of the last 47 Supreme Court justices. Greek members "are more likely to be thriving in their well-being and engaged at work than college graduates who did not go Greek." according to a study done by Gallup and Purdue University.
Fraternities, and to a much lesser extent sororities, have been criticized for hazing sometimes committed by active undergraduate members against their chapter's pledges. Hazing during the pledge period can sometimes culminate in an event commonly known as "Hell Week" in which a week-long series of physical and mental torments are inflicted on pledges. Common hazing practices include sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, paddling and other types of spanking, use of stress positions, forced runs, busy work, and mind games. Rarer incidents involving branding, enemas, urination on pledges, and the forced consumption of spoiled food have been reported. Hazing in many cases has been reported and has led to the permanent disposal of particular chapters of fraternities and sororities across the country.
Supporters of fraternities note that hazing is almost universally prohibited by national fraternity organizations, and the occurrence of hazing in undergraduate fraternity chapters goes against official policy. Supporters of fraternities also note that hazing is not unique to Greek-letter organizations and is often reported in other student organizations, such as athletic teams.
In 2007, an anti-hazing hotline was set up to report incidents of hazing on college campuses. Currently 46 national fraternity and sorority organizations support the toll-free number which generates automatic email messages regarding hazing and sends them to the national headquarters directly from the National Anti-Hazing Hotline. Every year during the last week of September is considered to be National Hazing Prevention Week (NHPW). From hazingprevention.org, "NHPW is an opportunity for campuses, schools, communities, organizations and individuals to raise awareness about the problem of hazing, educating others about hazing, and promoting the prevention of hazing. HazingPrevention.Org™ is the organizer of National Hazing Prevention Week (NHPW)."
Nepotism and networking
Critics of Greek-letter organizations assert that they create a culture of nepotism in later life, while supporters have applauded them for creating networking opportunities for members after graduation. A 2013 report by Bloomberg found that fraternity connections are influential in obtaining lucrative employment positions at top Wall Street brokerages. According to the report, recent graduates have been known to exchange the secret handshakes of their fraternities with executives whom they know to be fraters as a means of obtaining access to competitive appointments.
A 2014 Gallup survey of 30,000 university alumni found that persons who said they had been members of Greek-letter organizations while undergraduates reported having a greater sense of purpose, as well as better social and physical well-being, than those who had not.
Sexism and sexual assault
Studies show that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than other men on college campuses. Fraternities have often been accused of fostering rape-supportive attitudes by promoting male dominance and brotherhood, and fraternity affiliation has been found to be a significant predictor of sexually predatory behavior in retrospective research. Furthermore, studies show that women in sororities are almost twice as likely to experience rape than other college women.
Nicholas Syrett, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, has been a vocal critic of the evolution of fraternities in the 20th century. Syrett has stated that "fraternal masculinity has, for at least 80 years, valorized athletics, alcohol abuse and sex with women." Time magazine columnist Jessica Bennett has denounced fraternities as breeding "sexism and misogyny that lasts long after college." In her column, Bennett recounts that, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, doormen at fraternity parties "often ranked women on a scale of one to 10, with only 'sixes' and up granted entry to a party."