Fraternities and sororities in North America
Fraternities and sororities in North America are social organizations at universities in the United States and Canada. There are also fraternities and sororities in the Philippines structured along the lines of the North American tradition, as well as a small number in the United Kingdom. Similar, but much less common, organizations also exist for secondary school students. In modern usage, the term "Greek letter organization" ("GLO") is often synonymous with the terms "fraternity" and "sorority." Two additional types of fraternities, professional fraternities and honor societies, incorporate some limited elements of traditional fraternity organization but are generally considered a different type of association. Traditional fraternities of the type described in this article are often called “social fraternities.”
Generally, membership in a fraternity or sorority is obtained while an undergraduate student but continues, thereafter, for life. While individual fraternities and sororities vary in exact organization and purpose, most share five common elements: (1) secrecy, (2) single-sex membership, (3) selection of new members on the basis of a two-part vetting and probationary process known as rushing and pledging, (4) ownership and occupancy of a residential property at which the undergraduate members of the fraternity or sorority live, (5) use of a set of complex identification symbols including Greek letters, armorial achievements, ciphers, badges, grips, handsigns, passwords, flowers, and colors.
Fraternities and sororities engage in philanthropic activities, often host parties and other events that place them at the social epicenter of life on a university campus, sometimes provide “finishing” training for new members, such as instruction on etiquette, dress, and manners, and create networking and career opportunities for their newly graduated members.
- 1 History
- 2 Structure and organization
- 3 Value and criticism
- 4 In popular culture
- 5 References
Establishment and early history
The first fraternity in North America to incorporate most of the elements of modern fraternities was Phi Beta Kappa, founded at the College of William and Mary in 1775. The founding of Phi Beta Kappa followed the earlier establishment of two other secret student societies that had existed at that campus as early as 1750. In 1779 Phi Beta Kappa expanded to include chapters at Harvard and Yale, however, by the early 19th century the organization transformed itself into a scholastic honor society and abandoned secrecy. In 1827 Kappa Alpha Society, the oldest extant fraternity to retain its social characteristic, was established at Union College. The following year Sigma Phi and Delta Phi were also founded at the same institution.
Fraternities represented the intersection between dining clubs, literary societies, and secret initiatory orders such as Freemasonry. Their early growth was widely opposed by university administrators, though the increasing influence of fraternity alumni, as well as several high-profile court cases, succeeded in largely muting opposition by the 1880s.  The first fraternity house seems to have been that of the Alpha Epsilon chapter of Chi Psi at the University of Michigan in 1845. As fraternity membership was punishable by expulsion at many colleges at this time, the house was located deep in the woods. Alpha Tau Omega became the first fraternity to own a house in the South when, in 1880, its chapter at the University of the South acquired one.
Sororities (usually officially termed "women's fraternities") began to develop in 1851 with the formation of the Adelphean Society, though fraternity-like organizations for women didn't take their current form until the establishment of Pi Beta Phi in 1867, which was followed closely by Kappa Alpha Theta in 1870. The term "sorority" was invented by a professor of Latin who felt the word "fraternity" was inappropriate for a group of ladies.
In 1867 the Chi Phi fraternity established its Theta chapter at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, marking the first foray of the American social fraternity outside the borders of the United States. At the time, many students from the American south were moving to Europe to study, due to the disrepair into which southern universities had fallen as a result of the American Civil War. One such group of Americans organized Chi Phi at Edinburgh, however, in the course of the Theta chapter's existence, it initiated no non-American members. With declining American enrollment at European universities, Chi Phi at Edinburgh shuttered in 1870.
Nine years following Chi Phi's abortive colonization of the University of Edinburgh, a second attempt was made to transplant the fraternity system outside the United States. In 1879 Zeta Psi established a chapter at the University of Toronto. Zeta Psi's success at Toronto prompted it to open a second Canadian chapter at McGill University, which it chartered in 1883. Other early foundations were Kappa Alpha Society at Toronto in 1892 and at McGill in 1899, and Alpha Delta Phi at Toronto in 1893 and at McGill in 1897. The first sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, was established at Toronto in 1887. By 1927 there were 42 fraternity and sorority chapters at the University of Toronto and of 23 at McGill University. A few chapters were also reported at the University of British Columbia, Carleton University, Dalhousie University, University of Manitoba, Queen's University, University of Western Ontario Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Waterloo and Brock University.
Structure and organization
Fraternities and sororities traditionally have been single-sex organizations, with fraternities consisting exclusively of men and sororities consisting exclusively of women. In the United States, fraternities and sororities enjoy a statutory exemption from Title IX legislation prohibiting this type of gender exclusion within student groups, and organizations such as the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee work to maintain this status quo in federal law.
Since the mid 20th century a small number of fraternities, such as Alpha Theta and Lambda Lambda Lambda, have opted to become co-educational and admit female members. However, these generally represent a minority of Greek-letter organizations and no such fraternity is currently a member of the North American Interfraternity Conference, the largest international association of fraternities.
Pledging and rushing
Most Greek letter organizations select potential members through a two-part process of vetting and probation, called rushing and pledging, respectively. During rush, students attend designated social events, and sometimes formal interviews, hosted by the chapters of fraternities and sororities in which they have particular interest. Usually, after a potential member has attended several such events, officers or current members will meet privately to vote on whether or not to extend an invitation (known as a “bid”) to the prospective applicant. Those applicants who receive a bid, and choose to accept it, are considered to have “pledged” the fraternity or sorority, thus beginning the pledge period. Students participating in rush are known as "rushees" while students who have accepted a bid to a specific fraternity or sorority are known as "pledges."
A pledge period may last anywhere from one weekend to several months. During this time pledges will participate in almost all aspects of the life of the fraternity or sorority, but will not be permitted to hold office, or to vote in the organization’s affairs. At the conclusion of the pledge period a second vote of members may be taken, often using a blackball system. Pledges who pass this second vote will be invited to participate in a formal and secret ritual of initiation into the organization, advancing them to full membership.
Many Greek-letter organizations give preferential consideration for pledging to candidates whose father or brother or, in the case of sororities, mother or sister was a member of the same fraternity or sorority. Such prospective candidates are known as "legacies."
As a general rule, fraternities and sororities require members to take an oath of lifetime loyalty to their organization, sometimes on nominal threat of death for violation. Membership in more than one fraternity or sorority is almost always prohibited. Recently, some Greek-letter organizations have replaced the term “pledge” with that of “associate member.” Sigma Alpha Epsilon, in 2012, abolished pledging altogether. Potential members are now immediately initiated into the fraternity upon accepting a bid. 
Unique among most campus organizations, members of social Greek letter organizations often live together in a large house (generally privately owned by the fraternity itself, or by the fraternity's alumni association) or a distinct part of the university dormitories. A single undergraduate fraternity chapter may be composed of anywhere between 20 to more than 100 students, though most have an average of about 35 to 45 members and pledges. Often fraternities and sorority houses (called lodges or chapter houses) will be located on the same street or in close quarters within the same neighborhood, which may be colloquially known as “Greek row” or “frat row.” At some, often small, colleges, fraternities and sororities will occupy a specific section of university-owned housing provided to them. Some fraternities and sororities are un-housed with members providing for their own accommodations. In many of these cases, the fraternity or sorority will own or rent a non-residential clubhouse it will use for meetings and other activities.
Secrecy and ritual
With a few exceptions, most fraternities and sororities are secret societies. While the identity of members or officers is rarely concealed, fraternities and sororities initiate members following the pledge period through sometimes elaborate private rituals, frequently drawn or adopted from Masonic ritual practice or that of the Greek mysteries.
At the conclusion of an initiation ritual, the organization’s secret motto, secret purpose, and secret identification signs, such as handshakes and passwords, are usually revealed to its new members. Some fraternities also teach initiates an identity search device used to confirm fellow fraters.
I was initiated into a college secret society—a couple of hours of grotesque and good-humored rodomontade and horseplay, in which I cooperated as in a kind of pleasant nightmare, confident, even when branded with a red-hot iron or doused head-over heels in boiling oil, that it would come out all right. The neophyte is effectively blindfolded during the proceedings, and at last, still sightless, I was led down flights of steps into a silent crypt, and helped into a coffin, where I was to stay until the Resurrection...Thus it was that just as my father passed from this earth, I was lying in a coffin during my initiation into Delta Kappa Epsilon.
Meetings and rituals are sometimes conducted in what is known as a "chapter room" located inside the fraternity's house. Entry into chapter rooms is often prohibited to all but the initiated. In one extreme case, the response of firefighters to a blaze signaled by an automated alarm at the Sigma Phi chapter house at the University of Wisconsin in 2003 was hampered in part because fraternity members refused to disclose the location of the hidden chapter room, where the conflagration had erupted, to emergency responders.
Symbols and naming conventions
The fraternity or sorority badge is an enduring symbol of membership in a Greek letter organization. Most fraternities also have assumed heraldic achievements. Members of fraternities and sororities address members of the same organization as “brother” (in the case of fraternities) or “sister” (in the case of sororities). The names of almost all fraternities and sororities consist of a sequence of two or three Greek letters, for instance, Delta Delta Delta, Sigma Chi, Chi Omega, or Psi Upsilon. There are a few exceptions to this general rule, as in the case of the fraternities Acacia and Seal and Serpent.
There are approximately 9 million student and alumni members of fraternities and sororities in North America, or about 3 percent of the total population. Roughly 750,000 of the current fraternity and sorority members are students who belong to an undergraduate chapter.
A limited 2010 study of fraternity chapters at eight east coast schools conducted by the University of Connecticut found that about 96 percent of student members were Caucasian.
A 2010 survey conducted by Princeton University, however, found that only 77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members at that school were Caucasian, roughly equal to the population at large.
A detailed study the same year at the University of Arizona found 67.5 percent of GLO members at that school were Caucasian, relative to a campus population of 51.1 percent. That same study also found fraternity members at Arizona were twice as likely to identify with the Republican Party than non-members, and were about twice as likely to be involved in athletics or other campus activities as non-members. More than 4 percent of GLO members surveyed at Arizona participated in activities sponsored by the university’s LGBTQ club, compared to a general student involvement level of about 1 percent. Fraternity and sorority members at the University of Arizona were also more likely to be the children of university graduates than non-members, and generally reported higher family incomes.
A 2014 study undertaken by Beta Theta Pi about their membership, found it was largely “white, straight, American, wealthy and urban.”
Notable fraternity and sorority members
Since 1900, 63-percent of members of the United States cabinet have been members of fraternities and sororities, and the current chief executive officers of five of the ten largest Fortune 500 companies are members of fraternities and sororities. In addition, 85-percent of all justices of U.S. Supreme Court since 1910 have been members of fraternities. U.S. presidents since World War II who have been initiated into fraternities are George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt. Three Prime Ministers of Canada have been members of fraternities.
Value and criticism
Fraternities and sororities have been criticized by conservative religious groups and by progressive activist organizations. Greek letter organizations have often been characterized as elitist or exclusionary associations, organized for the benefit of a largely upper middle class to upper class, typically Caucasian, membership base. Fraternities specifically have been criticized for what is perceived as their promotion of an excessively alcohol-fueled, party-focused, and oversexed lifestyle.
Supporters of Greek letter organizations point to high academic and social indicators among members, and greater than normal community involvement by student and alumni of fraternities and sororities.
Studies have found that university graduation rates are 20-percent higher among members of Greek-letter organizations than among non-members and students who are members of fraternities and sororities typically have higher-than-average grade point averages.
Fraternity members are "much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than their non-Greek affiliated peers." One Harvard University study found that "4 out of 5 fraternity and sorority members are binge drinkers. In comparison, other research suggests 2 out of 5 college students overall are regular binge drinkers."
Some popular conspiracy theories allege fraternities represent a secret hand that undemocratically influences or controls public policy in the United States and Canada. Fritz Springmeier has alleged that "American college fraternities are a way that the Illuminati recruit and entrap university students" and that "through hell week, hazing, and ridicule the candidate is broken down into acts of submission to his fraternity or her sorority. Lifetime loyalty is put in place by vows and oaths, some on penalty of death." Springmeier believes Greek-letter organizations are part of the "whole fabric" of the "elite's control."
Some colleges and universities have banned Greek letter organizations with the justification that they are, by their very structure, set up to be elitist and exclusionary. The most famous, and oldest ban was at Princeton (Leitch 1978), though Princeton has now had fraternities since the 1980s. Oberlin College banned "secret societies" (fraternities and sororities) in 1847, and the prohibition continues to the present. Quaker universities such as Guilford College and Earlham College often ban fraternities and sororities because they are seen as a violation of the Quaker principle of equality. Brandeis University has never permitted fraternities or sororities as it maintains a policy that all student organizations have membership open to all.
Fraternities, and to a much lesser extent sororities, have been criticized for hazing sometimes committed by active undergraduate members against their chapter's pledges. Hazing during the pledge period can sometimes culminate in an event commonly known as "Hell Week" in which a week-long series of physical and mental torments are inflicted on pledges. Common hazing practices include sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, paddling, use of stress positions, forced runs, busy work, and mind games. Rarer incidents involving branding, enemas, urination on pledges, and the forced consumption of spoiled food have been reported.
Supporters of fraternities note that hazing is almost universally prohibited by national fraternity organizations, and the occurrence of hazing in undergraduate fraternity chapters goes against official policy. Supporters of fraternities also note that hazing is not unique to Greek-letter organizations and is often reported in other student organizations, such as athletic teams.
Nepotism and networking
Critics of Greek-letter organizations claim they create a culture of nepotism in later life, while supporters have applauded them for creating networking opportunities for members after graduation. A 2013 report by Bloomberg found that fraternity connections are influential in obtaining lucrative employment positions at top Wall Street brokerages. According to that story, recent graduates have been known to exchange the secret handshakes of their fraternities with executives whom they know to be fraters as a means of obtaining access to competitive appointments.
A 2014 Gallup survey of 30,000 university alumni found that persons who said they had been members of Greek-letter organizations while undergraduates reported having a greater sense of purpose, as well as better social and physical well-being, than those who had not.
Nicholas Syrett, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, has been a vocal critic of the evolution of fraternities in the 20th century. Syrett has stated that "fraternal masculinity has, for at least 80 years, valorized athletics, alcohol abuse and sex with women." TIME Magazine columnist Jessica Bennett has denounced fraternities as breeding "sexism and misogyny that lasts long after college." In her column, Bennett complains that, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California doormen at fraternity parties "often ranked women on a scale of one to 10, with only “sixes” and up granted entry to a party."
In popular culture
- The 1978 comedy movie National Lampoon's Animal House portrayed members of a fictitious fraternity (Delta Tau Chi) at a fictitious college.
- The 1984 comedy movie Revenge of the Nerds portrayed 'rejected' fraternity members taking revenge on popular fraternities (in part, by setting up their own chapter of the fictional black fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda) and the change in power from the jocks and cheerleaders to the nerds. The co-ed fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda takes their name from the fraternity in this movie.
- The 1994 comedy movie PCU also portrays members of a student group at a fictitious college where fraternities have been prohibited.
- The 2006 film Stomp the Yard depicts African American Greek life centered around the tradition of stepping, made popular by Black Greek Letter Organizations.
- The 2006 film Accepted includes a fictional fraternity (Beta Kappa Epsilon) which Sherman Schrader attempts to become a part of because his father is a member.
- The 2007–2011 ABC Family television series Greek depicts students of the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University (CRU) who participate in the school's Greek system.
- The 2007 film American Pie Presents: Beta House where new college freshman try to gain eligibility to the Beta House fraternity.
- The 2007 film Sydney White uses the sorority system and how it affects social dynamics to tell the classic fairy tale of Snow White in the modern day.
- The 2009 slasher film Sorority Row features the sorority 'Theta Pi' in which Audrina Patridge's character was one of their members.
- The 2009 movie Sorority Wars revolves around sorority experience in college.
- The 2010 television series Glory Daze depicts students of the fictional Hayes University who participate in the school's Greek system.
- The 2010 film Brotherhood directed by Will Canon depicts hazing which gets out of hand.
- The main plot point of the 2013 movie Monsters University is a competition between fictitious fraternities and sororities to determine the best scarers.
- The 2014 film Neighbors pitches a fraternity house against a young family in a battle of hearts and minds.
- Whalen, Richard (1967). Handbook of Secret Organizations. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company. p. 43-45.
- Birdseye, Clarence Frank (1907), Individual Training in Our Colleges, New York: The McMillan Company, p. 211, retrieved 2008-06-20
- "ATO Facts & Firsts". Retrieved 21 August 2012.
- Anson, Jack (1991). Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities (20th Edition). Bairds Manual Foundation. p. III-32. ISBN 0963715909.
- "Fraternities in Canada". The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II. University Associates of Canada. 1948. Retrieved 2010-08-19.
- "Why One School Decided To Make All Of Its Fraternities And Sororities Co-Ed". Business Insider. 9 October 2014.
- "Fraternities Lobby Against Campus Rape Investigations". Bloomberg. 24 March 2015.
- "Rush and Pledging Problems". The Fraternity Advisor. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
- "Glossary of Greek Life Terms". gmu.edu. George Mason University Interfraternity Council. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- "Fraternity Legacies". thefraternityadvisor.com. The Fraternity Advisor. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- "Deadliest U.S. Fraternity Abolishes Pledging for New Members". Bloomberg (7 March 2014).
- Dundes, Allan (1993). Folklore Matters. University of Tennessee Press. p. 31. ISBN 0870497766.
- "Books: Hawthorne's Line". Time. April 25, 1938. Retrieved 2010-08-17.
- Matthews, Jack (August 15, 2010). "Nathaniel Hawthorne's Untold Tale". Excerpts from Julian Hawthorne's Memoirs. The Chronicle Review. Retrieved 2010-08-17.
- Matthews, Jack (August 15, 2010). "Nathaniel Hawthorne's Untold Tale". The Chronicle Review. Retrieved 2010-08-17.
This was, of course, all very collegiate for that long-ago time, and—with the exception of the "red-hot iron" and "boiling oil" references, if taken too literally—quite typical.
- "Bizarre fire burns frat house; blaze startedin secret room". Journal Times. 27 September 2003. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
- Konnikova, Maria (21 February 2014). "18 U.S. Presidents Were in College Fraternities". The Atlantic. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
- "Fraternity Statistics". nicindy.org. North American Interfraternity Conference. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Kingkade, Tyler (25 July 2013). "FratPAC Lobbies Congress For Tax Breaks, To Stop Anti-Hazing Law". Huffington Post. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
- Jacobs, Peter (8 January 2014). "Don't Ban Fraternities". Business Insider. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- "Binge Drinking in Greek Organizations". addictioncenter.com. Addiction Center. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
- Springmeier, Fritz. "College Fraternities Linked to Freemasonry". henrymakow.com. Henry Makow. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- "Princeton's Fraternities Growing". New York Times. November 28, 1993. pp. Section 1 Page 56. Retrieved May 31, 2009.
- Fletcher, Robert Samuel (1943). A History of Oberlin College from Its Foundation Through the Civil War. Oberlin College. "Revised codes were issued every few years, but not many important changes were made in them. Provisions with regard to the hours of 'athletic exercises and sport' were added in 1847. In the same revision there appeared for the first time the 'peculiar' Oberlin rule against secret societies. 'No student,' it runs, 'is permitted to join any secret society, or military company.'"
- Student Regulations, Policies, and Procedures, Oberlin College 2011–2012 (PDF). Oberlin College. 2011. p. 34. D. Secret Societies: "No secret society is allowed at Oberlin, and no other societies or self-perpetuating organizations are allowed among students, except by permission of the faculty. This is to be understood to include social and rooming-house clubs."
- Earlham College - A national liberal arts college in the Midwest
- "2007-2008 Rights & Responsibilities Handbook, Appendix B: University Policy on Fraternities and Sororities". Brandeis University. Retrieved 2008-03-17.
- Abelson, Max (22 December 2014). "Secret Handshakes Greet Frat Brothers on Wall Street". Bloomberg. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Nelson, Libby (28 May 2014). "Sorry, nerds: Fraternity brothers have more fulfilling lives later on". Vox. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Syrett, Nicholas (6 May 2011). "Colleges Condone Fraternities’ Sexist Behavior". New York Times. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
- Bennett, Jessica (3 December 2014). "The Problem With Frats Isn’t Just Rape. It’s Power.". TIME Magazine. Retrieved 30 December 2014.