It's the sorority holiday party, and sorority holiday things are happening. "Secret sister" gifts are exchanged amid giggles, hugs and -- in the case of the sex toys and the bottle of Bacardi -- delighted whoops. One sister receives a mini-rugby ball and a bottle of beer. "I said I like rugby men and men who drink beer," she confesses, referring to wish lists circulated to help the sisters with their shopping. "I told her to get you stuff you didn't have!" teases another. Ooh, snap! Hoots and hollers all around.
This might sound, in some ways, like a "typical" sorority scene. But what if I told you that the gift that provoked one of the most vocal responses -- mostly pro-, I think -- was a copy of Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary"? Or that a sister's mention that she'd like Teach for America to place her in Hawaii prompted the response "Wow, just think about all the Polynesian cultural issues"?
Yes, there is something different about Zeta Omega Eta at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.: This sorority calls itself "feminist."
A "feminist sorority"? At Trinity, known affectionately (or not) as "Camp Trin Trin"? Yes. And yes, I'm sure I didn't mean Wesleyan (Trinity's far crunchier neighbor to the south).
"Feminist sorority" does indeed sound like an oxymoron, and to a certain extent it is. As far as anyone is aware, it's the only such group on any U.S. campus. (Zeta's only known counterpart, at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock -- also not exactly Wesleyan -- is said to have recently folded.)
But sororities in general seem to be changing -- very, very slowly. "There is a movement to make these groups more progressive and relevant in the 21st century because they understand that if they don't progress they might get wiped out," says Alexandra Robbins, author of "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities." The primary obstacle: "The sense of tradition in these organizations is so strong that any movement toward change is inevitably going to encounter a backlash." Still, Robbins recently worked as a consultant with the national leadership of one sorority whose highest-ups "were thinking about more revolutionary changes than even I suggested," she says. "It was very encouraging. The day might not be so far away when a 'feminist sorority' no longer has to be just a 'local.'" (Single-chapter fraternities and sororities that do not have national parent organizations, like Zeta, are known as "locals.")
Zeta Omega Eta, which spells a Greek word for "life," was founded in 2003 by current seniors Anne-Louise Marquis and Meghan Boone as a place for like-minded women at Trinity -- who, they say, sometimes feel excluded from a certain preppy/party culture -- to come together socially and, broadly speaking, politically. "Greek life dominates the social scene; basically, if you're not going to a Greek party you're not going to any party," says Boone, who is from Royal Palm Beach, Fla. "The two sororities are pretty sorority-ish in the classic sense," says Boone. "It seemed like there was a whole group of girls who were being left out of the scene. We thought the word 'sorority,' much like the word 'feminist,' should be reclaimed."
Marquis and Boone, roommates at the time, set out about 10 chairs for Zeta's first organizational meeting. Nearly 50 students showed up. One of them was current senior Sarah Carter, 21, of Durham, N.H., who'd come to Trinity for the full financial aid she was offered, and who had strongly considered transferring. Trinity's "reputation for elitism, you know, pop the collar, loafers without socks," had, in her experience, proved true to a large degree. "It was kind of disappointing being a feminist and walking into the Women's Center and" -- she whistles and mimes tumbleweeds rolling across a road -- "finding no one around."
Zeta's first meeting was therefore a welcome surprise. "I fully expected no one to show up. I thought no one else was like me," she says. "But I walked in and the room was wall-to-wall people. Men and women." (It should be noted that Carter now speaks highly of the Women's Center.)
New Zeta sister Gwen Hopkins, 19, a sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., who gladly calls herself a feminist, had been "pretty put off by the homogeneity of what seemed like the only social options -- frat parties -- and of the people who went to them," she says. Hopkins saw Zeta's potential to "change Greek life from the inside instead of reacting from the outside like I normally do." Still, she hesitated: "It was hard for me to handle the idea of being a 'sorority girl.' That stigma is a lot harder for me to handle than that of 'feminist!'" she says. "So pledging was kind of a mental struggle. But I'm so happy to be getting to know the sisters, and it took me a while to be able to throw around words like 'pledging' and 'sisters.'"
Many members are drawn to Zeta because of the word "feminist," some in spite of it. While the campus has several women's organizations, including one called Feminists United, along with gay and other social justice groups, this is a campus where sparse attendance at an April "Take Back the Night" event was described in the campus newspaper as indicative of "the apathy and disengagement of the student body." The matter of the word "feminist" is an ongoing conversation within Zeta, says Marquis, who is from San Jose, Calif. "Some sisters don't want themselves or Zeta to feel defined or limited by such a powerful word. Others join with stigmatized views of it, which we try and discuss as often as possible. Try as we might, there are still stereotypes that go along with the word that some people have trouble identifying with. I think it's Zeta's job on this campus and everywhere to help give this word a positive image."
Zeta currently has 54 members, which makes it roughly the same size as the campus' other Greek organizations. It's in the process of seeking formal recognition as a student organization; it is not part of Trinity's Inter-Greek Council, nor does it have a national "mother" organization. Being on financial aid is common among the sisters. Members who can't afford the $75 annual dues can work out a payment plan or use the "Support a Sister" program, whereby other sisters chip in. Zeta's "rush," such as it is, is more Outward Bound bonding than dessert socials and Bid Night; they haven't turned down a prospective member yet. "We've got captains of sports teams, people who sit on the bench for sports teams, cheerleaders, feminists who stand out and protest," says Mo Masterson. "And men! That's pretty special!" Indeed, three Zeta members are men, though two are on "inactive" status this year because of other commitments. As the group frowns on exclusivity in all forms, male Zetas are referred to as "sisters."
Why be a "sister" instead of a "brother"? "For us, in a way, Zeta is just an extension of a group of friends," says Lucas Dunlap, 21, a senior from outside Portland, Maine, who sought out the group as a social home base after returning from a year in London. "We do consider ourselves feminists," he says of the male Zetas. While reluctant at first to generalize about Trinity's predominant culture, Dunlap does admit, "This can be a hard place to be if you're, like, an 'alternative' person and you don't fit into other people's expectations. And there are very few groups like this that try and bring alternative worlds together."
While some mainstream sororities do make philanthropic efforts, good -- or at least consciousness-raising -- deeds are Zeta's hallmark. Since its inception, the group has participated in AIDS walks, "adopted" a Hartford nursing home, hosted a campus discussion inspired by Harvard president Lawrence Summers' indelicate remarks about women in science, helped organize a production of "The Vagina Monologues" and, most recently, gathered clothing, school supplies and supportive notes for a teen in crisis in a sister's hometown.
Not lacking a sense of irony, Zeta -- many of whose members do have friends in other Greek organizations -- has also held a "mixer" with Alpha Chi Ro, which is basically considered the social arm of the football team.
"The general impression is that Zeta is a nerdy girl organization," says current Alpha Chi Ro president Ben Leong, a 21-year-old senior. He's describing their reputation as opposed to his own opinion; he'd been friendly with many Zeta members. "They'd been coming to our frat to party for a while" before the group formed. "In the initial discussions about having a party with them, people in that cocky Trinity way were worried about how people would perceive us for having a party with the 'Zeta girls,'" he says. "'Are we going to be laughed at?' 'We're the jocks on campus -- how does this make us look?' But once people got that out of their systems, we sat there and said, 'Are we really debating about having a party? It's a no-brainer! We don't say no to parties!' So we made it happen."
And bridges were built. 'The guys were like, 'You're not sluts like the Kappas!'" recounts Sarah Carter, mostly kidding. "We were like, "Thanks?"
In all seriousness, says Boone, the mixer "turned out to be fun. It proved to both us and them that the other group was made up of real people. They figured out that we're regular girls; we just happen to believe in some good stuff and want more than to be drunk all the time."
About Zeta, Leong is more polite than others have been. When the group was founded, Zeta got it from all sides. Anonymous posters on the campus online bulletin board were reliably quick to respond, hypothesizing that Zeta's members just "couldn't get into Kappa" or were "fat chicks" whose only dates were with Ben & Jerry. Some sorority members were miffed at the implication -- one that Zeta has tried hard to correct -- that Zeta was critical of or "better" than them. The anti-sorority ranks had their opinion, too. Says Marquis: "At first, people looked at me twice, like, 'You? Now we might not be able to be friends.'" Zeta even rankled a fraternity or two for "stealing" their prospective pledges. "They got over it," says Marquis.
If anyone's a fan of Zeta, though, it's Trinity's administration. Frederick Alford, the dean of students, is well aware of the dominant role Trinity's eight long-standing Greek organizations -- four fraternities, two sororities, two co-ed groups -- appear to play in the college's culture. Trinity was, for one thing, ranked fifth on Princeton Review's 1997 list of top party schools. "There is a portion of students -- and it's generally a minority -- who are living this kind of lavish social life," says Alford. "But as with 'glitterati' anywhere, they occupy a larger place in campus lore than they do in reality." (About 17 percent of students belong to a Greek organization.)
Still, Trinity is changing -- and it's "groups like Zeta that are helping," he says. "They're students whose values you admire. They're interested in intellectual life, they're socially conspicuous, they're concerned about one another. They believe in the place and they want to leave their mark on it. They represent the emerging Trinity, what it's becoming."
Sure enough, Trinity has dropped off Princeton's party school list, though it still ranks among "Alternative Lifestyles Not an Alternative" and "Lots of Hard Liquor." (No word on boxed wine, the beverage of choice at Zeta's holiday party.) Over the past 10 years, Alford says, Trinity has made a "concerted effort" to raise the level of diversity, intellectual discourse and community service within the troubled city of Hartford. Zeta's seniors confirm that they have seen things start to change.
And they take a bit of credit for it, too. "I feel like with my liberal views I wouldn't have made a difference at Wesleyan," says Zeta co-founder Boone. "But I feel like here, I have."