Frat Culture's Woman Problem

College fraternities have been at the center of a number of recent gender scandals, including last month’s highly publicized Title IX complaint against Yale. Samantha Wishman, a recent graduate of Penn, argues that the problem with inequality on campus begins with the Greek system. PLUS: Inside the Title IX Complaint Against Yale.

04.22.11 11:27 PM ET

On March 15, 16 Yale students filed a complaint against the university for violating Title IX—alleging that Yale had failed to curb a “ hostile sexual environment” for women on campus. Among the incidents of such hostility: a 2007 petition by women in the medical school charging sexual harassment; a lewd email ranking dozens of freshmen by "how many beers it would take to have sex with them"; and, most widely known, a fraternity pledge prank that involved dozens of men gathered on Yale's Old Campus, shouting that women were "f--king sluts!," followed by "No means yes! Yes means anal!"

These accusations have shed light on a campus culture in which as many as one out of five women are sexually assaulted before graduation. They also follow similar incidents at other universities, including a recent uproar at the University of Southern California, where a widely circulated email from a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity referred to women as "targets," explaining that "they aren't actual people like us men." While the U.S. Department of Education recently released new guidelines for how to deal with assault on campus—Vice President Biden announced them in a press conference at the University of New Hampshire on April 4—there is one place universities should start now: the Greek system. While these fraternity brothers must be held accountable for their actions, the Greek system as a whole must also be held accountable for what it teaches college students about women—that women are weaker and less capable than men.

At the University of Pennsylvania, where I graduated with a degree in English last May, I was part of a sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, that was founded more than a century ago to give women a foothold on campuses that had once been all-male bastions. But somehow, over the years, sororities have come to infantilize the women they once sought to empower.

As vice president of Theta, I was tasked with figuring out how to get members more involved. We began fall recruitment, only to be told that the fall was only for the boys—we had to wait until the second semester. We planned a social event, only to learn that we had to get permission from our national headquarters to do so—and that we didn’t have access to the funds created by our annual dues, despite our brother fraternities having the ability to plan (and pay) for events at their discretion. Later, when we planned a homecoming party, complete with Bloody Marys, we were told that sororities were bound by a “no-alcohol policy"—something that, again, didn’t apply to the boys. “Why don’t you have a tea party?” our adviser offered, as if we were living in the 1950s.

The Greek system as a whole must also be held accountable for what it teaches college students about women—that women are weaker and less capable than men.

The upshot was this: For trying to play by the boys’ rules, our sorority chapter was put on probation. Meanwhile, some of our male counterparts were on probation for serious, even criminal offenses like date rape, drug abuse, and hazing, yet they proceeded to party. When I asked our national office why we’d been punished, they spoke in euphemisms, but I understood the message: “Sorry, but you must abide by a different set of rules. This is how it’s always been.”

I sent a letter of complaint, and tried to organize a protest. But while many of my sisters shook their heads at the injustice, few were angry enough to leave the system and go rogue. All of which has led me here—to speak out about a system that gives millions of men and women in this country a backward education. While only 8.5 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. are involved in fraternity and sorority life, fraternities have produced 120 current Forbes 500 CEOs, 48 percent of all presidents, and similar numbers of senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices. I wonder what the Greek system has taught some of the most influential people in our country about the differences between men and women? But then I realize I know: Despite all the strides young women have made, we’re not so equal after all.

If a university-approved system present on hundreds of campuses nationwide continues to treat women as second-class citizens, then we should not be surprised when men call women “f--king sluts.” I am not advocating the end of fraternities—Greek life is fun and valuable if done correctly. But if we’re going to change the testosterone-dominated college culture, the Greek system must empower women to take part in campus life with full and equal rights.

Samantha Wishman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's in English and will be attending law school in the fall. She is the co-founder and editor in chief of Susie B. Magazine, a website for young women by young women.