Sorority sisters at the University of Virginia were ordered by their national chapters to avoid fraternity events this weekend – a mandate that many of the women said was irrational, sexist and contrary to the school’s culture.
It’s not about one night of parties, several students said, but about their ability to make their own choices.
And they’re not taking that lightly.
The rule came after a traumatic fall semester in Charlottesville, including the violent death of a student and now-discredited allegations of a gang rape at a U-Va. fraternity. Both forced a thorough examination of campus safety, drinking culture and Greek life.
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The university administration just days ago lifted a suspension of fraternity and sorority activities that came in the wake of the sexual assault allegations, a break that the university community used to have a broad discussion about student safety in the Greek system. In order to have the ban lifted – immediately ahead of spring rush, when students join fraternities – the school’s Greek houses agreed to new rules amid new student-led initiatives to increase safety.
Many students had been looking forward to celebrating with old friends and new members during the fraternities’ bid night, scheduled for January 31.
There are 16 sororities on U-Va.’s campus that are part of the National Panhellenic Conference, with more than 2,000 members, according to the campus Inter-Sorority Council. The NPC can come to “unanimous agreements” among its national presidents that are binding on local chapters and their members.
At some U-Va. chapters in recent days, students described mandatory emergency meetings with representatives from their national chapter telling them they risked suspension, fines and other penalties if any of them attended bid night parties. Boys’ Bid Night is typically a night when sorority sisters go from house to house sharing drinks with friends.
Now some sororities are planning mandatory in-house retreats that night, to avoid any risk of inadvertently violating the rule.
At some chapters, women were told not only to avoid going to fraternity parties on Boys’ Bid Night, but to avoid any social gathering with fraternity members, said Ben Gorman, president of the Inter-Fraternity Council at U-Va. That would mean a ban on attending off-campus parties or gatherings at bars that night after a hotly anticipated basketball game on campus, which pits the undefeated No. 2 Cavaliers against No. 4 Duke. “People are very agitated and very upset, and see this as an obstacle to larger cultural change a violation of free rights and student free will.”
A university spokesman deferred questions to the National Panhellenic Conference, as did the incoming president of the Inter-Sorority Council at U-Va.
A spokeswoman for the National Panhellenic Conference said the mandate comes not from the umbrella group but from each national chapter president. “Of course, NPC supports the safety of their women, so they do support those national presidents making that decision and encouraging sorority women to plan sisterhood events and other ‘safer' options,” Michelle Bower said.
An emergency Student Council bill aimed at addressing the issue passed 14-0-3 on Tuesday night, urging the national chapter leaders to join students on campus to talk about the issue Friday. “This was entirely top-down – an edict,” said Abraham Axler, a second-year student who is chair of the representative body. “That is not how things operate at U-Va.”
A petition, started online on Monday, had almost 2,000 signatures by midday Tuesday. It reads, in part:
“Instead of addressing rape and sexual assault at UVa, this mandate perpetuates the idea that women are inferior, sexual objects. It is degrading to Greek women, as it appears that the 1 / 8National Panhellenic Conference 3 / 8 views us as defenseless and UVa’s new fraternal policies as invalid. Allowing the NPC to prevent us from celebrating (what used to be) a tight-knit community, sends the message that we are weak.”
And another widely-circulated letter, directed to the National Panhellenic Conference, reads, in part:
“Our concerns lie in the way sorority women are being used as leverage to change the actions and behaviors of fraternity men. This resolution has misconstrued us as a passive aggregate rather than active agents for change. It has also had the unintended consequence of subjugating women. . . . Women have historically been the targets of sexual violence, and forbidding us to exercise our agency plays dangerously into gender stereotypes surrounding the issue.” The mandate is diametrically opposed to the central values of the sororities in fostering and supporting women’s strength, the letter continues, and, “This solution is not long-term, realistic, or sustainable.”