About a year ago, when my daughter — a white girl from New England — announced that she would be participating in her Southern university’s sorority rush, two thoughts sprang to my mind: (1) Why? and (2) See (1). Weren’t sororities, like fraternities, built on the premise of social exclusion, especially of people of color? When I asked her why she wanted to join up, the gist of her reply was, “It’s a Southern thing.”

Cover courtesy of University of Georgia Press

She should know; I wouldn’t. Some decades back I attended an urban college here in the Northeast, and I don’t think it even occurred to me that my school harbored sororities. I knew so little about them that until I started touring colleges with my daughter, I thought “Greek life” referred to a club where people made moussaka and spanakopita. I wish I were kidding.

So it was with particular interest that I picked up Margaret L. Freeman’s “Women of Discriminating Taste: White Sororities and the Making of American Ladyhood,” a cogent, scrupulously researched, squinty-eyed look at how conservative Southern values have shaped sororities throughout the United States. Freeman, an independent scholar who lives in Portland, reports that the early 20th century ushered in “sorority houses styled after Southern plantation homes, carefully calculated stories of aristocratic Southern sorority founders, and sorority chapter events that drew on Southern belle imagery and often included white sorority sisters in blackface.” Implicitly, Southern belles’ chief virtue, and one that it was believed all sorority sisters would do well to embody, was their “strength of character in the face of their losses”— political losses, that is.

Not exactly qualifying as news is that America has had a hard time letting go of its Confederate-flag-waving racist past. (Recent events at the U.S. Capitol bear this out.) Yes, it’s queasy-making to learn from Freeman’s book that sororities held plantation-themed rush parties through the 1960s, and it’s stomach-churning to read of sororities’ past efforts to keep out anyone who didn’t suit their white, Christian, middle-class-and-up image. But newsworthy? Alas, no.

The revelation, at least for this reader, in “Women of Discriminating Taste” is the extent to which sorority higher-ups, determined to maintain the club’s spiffy white image, co-opted the rhetoric of patriotism and relied on postwar anti-communist hysteria to serve the cause of exclusion. When it came to choosing rushees, discriminatory selection processes were justified by the “freedom of association” defense of private membership, as put forth in the U.S. Bill of Rights. And the Red Scare of the mid–20th century afforded reactionary thinkers the opportunity to equate anything “liberal” (read: desegregationist) with “soft on communism.”

Although “Women of Discriminating Taste” is a scholarly work, it’s rife with excerpts from drolly antiquated sorority literature. One almost perversely specific guide from 1937 admonished young women to “hold the head high (a good hairdo looks better that way), throw out the chest, and, by all means, pull in the abdomen,” presumably especially while approaching the stage to pick up that MRS degree.

Dishearteningly, Freeman, a former sorority girl of the not too distant past, writes that she “can attest to the continuation of the discriminatory practices I uncovered in NPC (National Panhellenic Conference) sororities’ histories – both in selecting members for physical beauty or social connections and for prizing whiteness, all-Americanness, and Southern belledom.” I can’t refute Freeman’s conclusion, but I wanted to get my daughter’s take one year into her sorority experience. “Greek life in general is very white,” she admitted, although she believes that her sorority “is one of the most (if not the most) diverse” on her campus. And her sorority is not passive on the matter of social justice: “We have had several diversity and inclusivity trainings specifically revolving around the racial injustices coming to light” in the spring of 2020, she told me. May she hold her head high, throw out her chest, and take to the streets.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic staff editor and coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.” Her work has appeared recently in Bright Lights Film Journal, Salon, and Shelf Awareness.

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