Sisterhood Studies: 5 Lessons Learned From Sorority Life

March 29, 2019

{This was the best photo I could find pf me in my sorority letters and I don't understand why I was posing like a giraffe in it) 

 

Apparently this week is Global Sisterhood Day on March 30 and I wanted to write my own ode to my greatest lessons learned in sisterhood...being in a sorority and having a sister growing up.

 

Sister is one of the oldest words in the English language, and comes from Proto-Indo-European--the root language of most European languages and Sanskrit--and comes from swesor a possible derivation of the words swe meaning "one's own" and ser meaning "woman." It's also a word I don't take lightly.  I was in a sorority for four years in college and at one point lived with 30 women, I often feel I received a four-year degree in Sisterhood Studies rather than a B.A. in Journalism. 

 

Sororities tend to get a bad rep, and rightfully so, as they often perpetuate outdated versions of femininity and perpetuate many patriarchal, privilege structures such as classism and racism, just to name a few. It’s hard to deny the facts about the high rate of binge drinking in Greek Life. However for many, including myself, the promise of sisterhood and connection seems to outweigh its many flaws, for better or for worse.

 

In many ways, I loved the idea of a sorority more than being in one. I enjoyed group dinners and the sounds of women laughing and eating. I loved the secret rituals and handshakes we did for initiations and meetings. I craved women uniting for a joint cause and the opportunity for leadership positions. Though in reality, I often felt like a black sheep and loner. However, fifteen years since joining a sorority, I have a new appreciation and deeper understanding for the many difficult and amazing lessons I learned about female group dynamics during that time.

 

Very few people would guess I was in a sorority as I certainly don’t fit the stereotype. I’m an astrologer with a Master’s degree in Philosophy who doesn’t drink. I spend very little time thinking or caring about fashion or makeup, and if I am honest I barely think about showering most days. For me, joining was a family affair as my mom, grandmother, and aunts were all in sororities. Even though their sorority wasn’t on my campus, I felt a duty to carry on the tradition of sisterhood and women who valued connections with other women.

 

But the truth is that I was sometimes a terrible sister. I slut shamed and gossiped, I felt superior and judgmental a lot of the time (in my defense I was stressed and depressed with my own ideals of perfection in college). I disliked certain sisters because I didn’t want them in the house in the first place. I was hyper-competitive with other women who wanted the same leadership positions. Despite how much I craved close connection with women, I was often cruel and dismissive to hide how hurt about being excluded or not valued.

 

“We don't have to be like one another to enjoy sisterhood.” -Barbara W. Winder

 

My time in a sorority may have been brutal on occasion, but it was an important phase of my life and the older I get the more grateful I am for it. In those four years, I faced many aspects of my own internal misogynistic beliefs and shadow side with relating to women whom I had to relate to often even if we didn't like each other.  

 

Here are some of the most important lessons I learned from them and my birth sister about connection and sisterhood:

  1. Competition among women is natural and healthy. While many authors such as Naomi Wolf discuss the female dynamics and attribute it to the Beauty Myth as women in the patriarchy are programmed to compete as a way of keeping us separated. If we are valued for our looks then other women are enemies. Where media pits women against each other for beauty, I found a sorority a refreshing way to perhaps work through some of my dynamics with other women sooner rather than later. However, my biggest competitor was always my younger sister. We played several of the same sports in high school and she was better at them than I was. For a while I kept trying and then realized that the more I focused on my strengths, the less I cared that she made the Varsity soccer team before I did or beat my personal record in cross country.  So I played tennis instead and loved it much more, and went to her games and felt so much pride. Noticing similar dynamics among adult women at work and in the media and I cringe and feel grateful that some of the most formative years of my adult life were spent struggling with these issues early on.

 

2. In close relationships we are often both the perpetrator and victim of cruelty at different times. Growing up with a sister I became aware early on the ways we would nitpick and fight with each other. Living with 30 women in one house, we truly were sisters in every sense of the word including being mean. Sometimes people talked about me behind my back, sometimes I talked about others. Built into close relating is the possibility of disagreement and facing the not so pretty sides of ourselves and way we treat others. I found out early on that the fear of being mean has us fear meanness in ourselves and others. I’ve come to realize that we can all be unkind and my ability to value myself while still forgiving others has to do with my own relationship to my shadow sides.

 

3. Long-lasting connection and sisterhood takes time and consistency. After one event or community gathering, does not a sister make. It's easy to like people after only knowing them a few hours, weeks, or months...it takes years to build strength in a relationship. Because of this, I don't throw around the word sister as it is long process. We may feel connection instantly, but that doesn't mean we actually connected. Until I have seen all of the yucky, insecure, or accusatory aspects of someone, I can't know if we are just friends, or actual sisters. The way we handle conflict and flee, just like a romantic relationship, or not, helps me understand if sisterhood is in our path or not. And of course the more often I see a certain sister, the more often we are to get into arguments or disagree...as that is the nature of connection itself.

 

4. Every community has both good and bad sides, not just groups of women. Groups of women are notoriously accused for gossiping and creating cliques, though I’ve noticed them in every community I’ve ever been in. Both behaviors serve a purpose for bonding in relationships and large groups. While yes, it can be taken to unhealthy extremes, according to studies at the University of California at Berkeley, it also cultivates a sense of trust and relieves stress.  Creating intimacy with 100 women at once would be impossible, cliques form as a way of being closer to those with more shared interests as well as help establishes aspects of identity and belonging. No group in the world will be without its shadow sides, no matter the gender, and these two aspects illustrate that even negative aspects have their positive side.

 

5. Tradition, container, and ritual weave soul ties. One of the first things we learned after joining were the founding members of the sorority and the many rules they set forth for its operation. I appreciated the sometimes-strict structure of meetings and that everyone wore the same thing for chapter picture day. When there was a new class being initiated, I loved reliving the rituals and singing the same songs women had been doing together for a hundred years. No matter how frustrated I was with other sisters in the sorority or how much they annoyed me, when we would have a meeting or be in ritual together, I often felt softer afterwards. The ways making things sacred together over and over again, through ceremony allow a clearing to reconnect. 

One of the strangest aspects to me of being in a sorority is that you both simultaneously choose and don’t choose your sisters. You choose the house you join, but you don’t approve or choose everyone in it. In this way, sorority sisters are simultaneously siblings and preferred friends.  With that, comes issues with both. Sisterhood  is a complex, dynamic relationship that doesn't happen overnight, nor a word that simply means connection. To me, being in a sorority was worth it, I struggled, I didn’t fit in and in the end, I learned a lot about myself and many things that have served me since. Like birth sisters, sorority sisters fight, gossip, and hurt each other and I don’t think that makes a group of women bad. Women being messy together, learning and growing together over time…this is what I think of when I think of sisterhood, and I'm forever grateful to those who taught me.

 

 

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© 2015-2019 by Rebecca M. Farrar ​

Rebecca@wildwitchwest.com

San Francisco, CA

(415) 322-7030