Serious sisters—Kappa Alpha Theta makes a comeback
When future feminist firebrand Molly Yard ’33, led the charge to abolish sororities on campus, she did so mainly because Greek organizations during that era often excluded Jews.
Now, 80 years later, the sorority of which Yard was a member—and which she helped remove from campus—is being reactivated, mainly due to the energies of Julia Melin ’13, who happens to be Jewish and a double major in comparative religion and gender and sexuality studies.
Intense, with long dark hair and dark-framed glasses, Melin bounds into a campus office in early October, excited not only about advances made in her move to bring back Kappa Alpha Theta (known as Theta) but from learning she’d just been nominated for Rhodes and Mitchell scholarships. Winning either scholarship would be “a long shot,” she concedes.
Returning a sorority to campus in the face of student opposition—including an online petition against reintroduction of the sorority early this fall—may have seemed equally daunting a year ago.
That’s when Melin and three Class of ’12 members, Callie Feingold, Christina Obiajulu, and Olivia Ensign, asked the College administration to consider their request to pursue a charter with a national sorority.
Calling themselves Not Yet Sisters (NYS), the women were approved as a student organization by the student-run Student Activities Committee. The dean of students’ office assisted the women as they narrowed their options, ultimately choosing Theta, whose Alpha Beta chapter was chartered at the College in 1891.
This summer, Dean of Students Liz Braun and sorority adviser Satya Nelms, wellness coordinator and member of a historically black sorority, worked with NYS to craft an agreement with Theta that would uphold the College’s values.
Among the concerns of students opposing the sorority were racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist behaviors they believe can occur in Greek organizations. They also feared the introduction of a party culture in which hazing, sexual violence, and excessive drinking can run rampant.
Mindful of these concerns, the advocates chose a sorority with a nonhazing and nondrinking policy, a strong commitment to community service, and that accepts “anyone who identifies as a woman,” according to Melin.
“A lot of students at the outset of last year opposed it,” says Nelms. “But a lot have gone on to change their minds. I hope everyone will come to realize this will enhance the community, not take away from it. This isn’t going to be something that acts in a divisive manner but rather is a product of Swarthmore College’s culture of diversity and inclusivity.”
Nelms also points out that because two fraternities—Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi—are active on campus, the College cannot prevent a sorority from forming. Doing so would be a violation of Title IX, a federal statute that bars discrimination on the basis of sex. Violators face a range of sanctions, including “revocation of federal financial assistance for students,” according to Sharmaine LaMar, assistant vice president for risk management and legal affairs and director of equal opportunity and Title IX coordinator.
“We’re not required to have a sorority, but if there is interest, we are required to allow it to proceed,” LaMar says. “On our campus we haven’t seen evidence that students who associate with Greek organizations are exclusionary. Having a sorority will provide a greater opportunity to partner with one another, Greek and non-Greek, and enhance the overall educational experience.”
The group, which has grown from about 30 interested women to about 50, is the “most diverse group on campus, religiously, socioeconomically, racially, and in their majors,” according to Melin. Besides Melin, this year’s leaders are Dina Zingaro ’13, Paige Grand Pré ’13, and Ashley Gochoco ’14.
Before helping to push for a sorority, Melin had been a member of the women’s cross-country team but missed mixing with women who had diverse interests.
“I never thought I would be the kind of person who would join a sorority,” she admits. “But it can be hard to find a support group unless you join a team or an activity like debate or singing. By my second year here, I saw what the brothers had—an immediate mentorship when they got onto campus.” Networking opportunities that come with being a part of a large organization—Theta has 130 chapters—also held appeal.
Rather than fomenting contention with students opposing her efforts, Melin says she has arranged meetings to talk with them and responded to emails addressing their concerns. She also has assured alumnae who questioned the wisdom of bringing back a sorority that the reactivated sorority would be a model of tolerance.
College leadership has created a welcoming atmosphere for the new group, says Melin, even while challenging them to think critically and carefully about its formation.
As the academic year progressed, so did plans for the sorority. In late October, Theta representatives met with interested students. Aspiring sisters may apply for membership and interview in February, says Nelms.
“Anyone who wants to be a member can join unless there is a judicial or academic issue” that would make them ineligible, she says. The new sisters will have an initiation ceremony March 23, which Nelms expects will be attended by local Theta members, who are delighted that the chapter is re-forming.
Although Melin graduates in May, Nelms feels student interest in the sorority will persist, particularly since Theta will assign liaisons between the sorority and the College chapter to live in the Swarthmore community for up to two years to help the reinvigorated chapter develop and thrive. Says Nelms, “I’m hoping the leadership elected this spring will step up and continue to light that fire.”