campus life

The Sorority That Tried to Abolish Itself

How the anti-Greek life movement upended Zeta Tau Alpha at Northwestern.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

In late July, not long after the protests over George Floyd’s death sparked a national conversation on abolishing the police, an Instagram account called @abolishnugreeklife was created. “This is a call to dismantle Greek Life at Northwestern University,” read its first post, not dissimilar to other pages popping up at schools like Vanderbilt, Tufts, and Duke. “We must abolish these organizations which are embedded with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism.” Soon the account had published hundreds of posts from students alleging exactly those things. They wrote in with stories about feeling excluded by predominantly white chapters on campus (“I can’t emphasize enough that if you are a woman of color it will NOT be worth it to contribute to a system that wasn’t built for people like us.”) Others recounted everything from sexual assault, to struggling to pay expensive dues, and unsuccessfully rushing fraternities and sororities as nonbinary and trans students. One mentioned a sorority sister who bragged about her “Aryan” looks and her Mayflower-descended ancestors.

Some of the Instagram posts called out specific sororities or fraternities. Zeta Tau Alpha was one of them. “Zeta publicly prided itself on diversity and inclusion,” the post read, “but as a BIPOC in the chapter (and one of the few) there was a ton of subtle (or maybe not so subtle?) racism within the chapter.” It claimed that a white member had said they should rush “fewer minorities,” and that other members “proudly” stated that “Zetas are blonde.” The sorority’s “dehumanizing” recruitment practices paired up sisters of color with prospective new members based solely on race, according to the poster. “Right after rush ended, the white women all became friends only with each other and left out any BIPOC women unless it was an official event,” the post concluded.

Zeta went into a tailspin. No one doubted publicly that what the post said was true, or tried to pretend it didn’t happen — everyone started sharing it in their own Instagram Stories, one sister told me. Its members knew they needed to take immediate action. They called for an emergency Zoom call with the chapter’s executive board, where the conversation quickly turned to one question: should we abolish ourselves or not?

At Northwestern, the Greek system is the absolute authority on social life. Even if you aren’t in the roughly 40 percent of undergraduates who join a fraternity or sorority, their influence can be hard to escape, since they often dictate when the parties are, where the parties are, and exactly who’s invited. When I entered Northwestern as an undergrad in 2016, Greek life was the easiest way to find friends in a strange, new place as a confused, awkward freshman — whether you liked it or not. I never joined myself, but I spent more nights than I’d like to admit hanging out in their basements.

For Noelani Buonomo, a junior from a middle-class family in New Jersey, the sorority system was a welcoming place when she arrived at college. The cost of membership, she told me, was a “huge consideration” when deciding to rush, but luckily, the price of living at Zeta cost less than expensive on-campus housing. A graduate of an all-girls Catholic school, Buonomo felt it was important to have an all-female community in her life, especially while navigating campus party culture. “I came into college as someone who never really partied in high school. Once I got there it opened up that whole new scene for me,” she explains. “It was almost like every single person I knew was doing it, and I didn’t have a single friend who wasn’t. I felt like if I didn’t rush, it would just set me behind socially.” Another student told me they have maybe one friend who isn’t part of the system in some way.

Yes, Buonomo knew about some of the flaws and problems with Greek life, but Zeta seemed different. Northwestern seemed different. There’s a refrain commonly heard on Northwestern’s campus: “Greek life here is not like it is elsewhere.” It’s a not so subtle sign that Northwestern considers itself different from state schools, or Southern schools, or schools that aren’t “elite.” The sororities at Northwestern are housed in castle-like dorms surrounding a green grassy lawn, located a few blocks from sparkling blue Lake Michigan in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Wandering into one of the houses means you might find the face of a famous alum smiling off the wall, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Meghan Markle.

Zeta itself is usually considered to be a “middle tier” sorority where the sisters tend to care more about social issues than about forming cliques. This reputation was part of what drew Buonomo to the chapter, and helped her realize it was the kind of community she’d been looking for. Many of her sisters were like-minded students, passionate about social justice, and often involved in sexual health and feminist groups on campus. On a personal level, the sorority was also what helped Buonomo through the overwhelming first quarters of college, while getting treatment for an eating disorder, changing majors, and dealing with the academic workload. “There were definitely a lot of things tying me to the people,” she says.

Zeta was also incredibly white — like much of Northwestern. The undergraduate class of 2023 is about 54 percent white, but many of the university’s schools have over 70 percent white tenure-track faculty. One senior member said Zeta was actually one of the most diverse sororities at the school, but that, to her knowledge, there had only been two Black members during her three years in the chapter. Scrolling through the chapter’s Instagram, you won’t find any images suited for the university’s perfectly diverse advertising. But if you look at posts tagged “Zeta Tau Alpha at Northwestern University,” you will find a post of three, white, blonde sisters posing with a fake golden retriever. “We love Phil because he is a good dog and also because he is blonde,” the caption reads.

“Maybe Zeta was a little less diverse than Northwestern as a whole,” says Buonomo. Others were less generous: “No, Zeta is not diverse objectively, like, at all,” one member told me. “It’s primarily white, middle-class or wealthy people.”

As chapter leadership deliberated over what to do, a warning went out on Zeta’s Facebook page: “I want to remind everyone during this time that members of Zeta are not allowed to make statements on behalf of Zeta.”

Meanwhile, stories were still pouring into @abolishnugreeklife. “This shit is not just a trend on Instagram,” read one post. “If you truly want to abolish you will actively tell people not to join, you will actively stop people from going to frat parties … and you WILL deactivate and not wait until you graduate to post on your story about your shame.”

Buonomo decided there was no way she was staying in the sorority. She was particularly troubled by the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, known as the FratPAC: a group that had been invoked on the Instagram page to convince members of Greek life that their dues are political. The FratPAC, which receives funding from Greek national organizations, advocates for “Greek interests” in Washington, and disproportionately donates money to Republican candidates. They’ve also been especially critical of Title IX, arguing that universities should have less authority over campus sexual misconduct. “I’m realizing how wrong that was to place my personal benefit over how much harm [Greek life] does to students on campus,” Buonomo told me. “Now that is coming to light in a more obvious way. It really made me realize that I have to put my money where my mouth is.” In a note to members, Zeta at Northwestern claimed none of their dues went to the PAC, but that didn’t stop the students’ growing distrust in the people who control the Greek system.

Buonomo wasn’t alone in wanting to leave the chapter. In fact, it was not apparent that anyone wanted to stay in Zeta. According to several members, a majority of the chapter saw only one clear way to absolve it of any past wrongdoings: dissolve itself. “Anyone who was in the sorority would judge you if you didn’t [want to] leave,” says one recently graduated student who was part of the conversations.

“I think before a lot of us acknowledged ‘yeah this is problematic’ but still participated,” says Kathryn Augustine, another junior. “Now it’s come to the point where: If we say we’re feminists, if we say we’re anti-racist, then why are we still a part of this organization that is in direct contradiction with our values?”

This is where the national organization stepped in. Despite often being the public face of controversy in higher education, these national Greek organizations never seem to get that much pushback from universities. There are a number of reasons why, but “the short answer,” writes Terry Nguyen in Vox, “is money.” Zeta’s national organization scheduled a call to discuss options with the students, attempting to dissuade them from leaving the chapter. The members came armed with nearly three hours’ worth of concerns about racial bias, financial aid, and stories from the @abolishnugreeklife page (not all of them even about Zeta). Tensions were running high when one Zeta member brought up her struggle to afford the sorority’s dues, which can exceed $1,000 a year. According to one student, “The national representative’s response was basically, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help it if you’re below the poverty line.’” (Zeta Tau Alpha’s international office did not return a request for comment.)

Soon the conversation turned to the recruitment (or “rush”) process, in which potential new members are paired together for casual chatting with current members or other “PNMs” of the sorority. For Zeta, the chapter’s rush practices were the most significant thing they had to answer for. According to a former recruitment chair, Zeta had a history of pairing people up based on racial or ethnic stereotypes. Jewish girls were often paired only with other Jewish girls, international students paired only with other international students, and Asian girls paired only with other Asian girls. “Maybe our members aren’t meaning to but they’re profiling,” the student says. “You want to be talking to people that are similar to you and that’s how you end up joining a chapter: finding people that you relate to most. [But] you obviously don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or targeted or like they don’t belong. It was a whole clusterfuck really.”

This was a point the students kept coming back to: the rush process itself felt impossible to reform. “The fact that you’re making decisions on someone’s character based off a five-minute conversation,” says Buonomo, “I think inherently you’re going to be judging on appearance or socio-economic class.” Cassidy Wang, an Asian-American member, told me, “When you have an overwhelmingly white chapter like every chapter on this campus, it’s going to be hard for people of different races to break [through] that door. Chances are they’re going to be just recruiting people who are similar to them.”

In other words, though the chapter hadn’t been directly accused of anything beyond stereotyping during the recruitment process, the Abolish Greek Life movement had encouraged its members to rethink even the most basic facets of how a sorority worked. They weren’t necessarily being accused of being racists or bigots — they were accusing themselves of being a sorority. In oversimplified campus lingo, the sorority had decided to cancel herself.

“You could tell a lot of people were emotional and some were upset,” one former member of the sorority’s executive board says of the meeting. “[But] I felt like I was watching a bunch of white women nodding their heads, being like ‘Yes we need to fix this issue! Yes!’ At least part of the conversation I heard felt like very white savior stuff. It’s so interesting because six months ago none of them would have even thought of this.”

To this outgoing member, the problems identified by the @abolishgreeklifenu page were nothing new, and also not exclusive to Greek life. The Zoom call looked performative to her, just like the activism taking place on social media. “Those kinds of problems, like the ignorant statements people make, I don’t think exist just because Greek life exists,” she says. “I think without Greek life there’d still be a bit of social stratification, and it would probably still be along race and class lines.”

The very long call ended with no resolution. Regarding the problems with rush and @abolishgreeklifenu, the national organization promised vague new “diversity and inclusion initiatives,” but the students saw this as nothing more than lip service. Wang says she felt “They were willing to do whatever they could to get in our way of disbanding the chapter. Overall the meeting really showed me how Greek life, as it was designed, is meant to stay entrenched on this campus.” Zeta is a 122-year-old institution, which has grown into a sisterhood of over 270,000 women by upholding tradition. To nationals, the idea of even one chapter attempting to abolish itself must sound like a bad alarm for their future in a world with ever-evolving cultural norms.

Evaluating this “clusterfuck” of problems together — from the accusations in the Instagram post to the problems with recruitment and the frustration with “nationals” — members felt they were all endemic to Greek life. No new quotas or initiatives would fix what they viewed as ingrained racism. Diversity initiatives wouldn’t work because exclusivity and social tiering were kind of the point of the whole Greek thing.

Zeta tried to take a vote on whether to disband, but “nationals” and the university together intervened to cancel it, citing a shortage of beds and the need for housing provided by Zeta’s home in the sorority quad. So each member was left individually to decide if they’ll stay or go, presenting another opportunity for existential debate about the virtues of “abolition” versus “reform” — directly inspired by this summer’s protests.

None of the students I spoke with seemed uncomfortable with using the language of anti-racist organizing, or the way it was recycled to discuss the future of campus partying for mostly well-off white kids. To the contrary, they seem to have been energized by its “burn it down” mentality. It reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s term “radical chic” — the adoption of social causes for cultural cachet — but on campus.

If the students decide “abolition” is their preferred path and leave the sorority, their spots are likely to be filled during the next rush period, when the national organization is predicted by students to send in representatives to recruit a full chapter again. One senior member of color who is staying in Zeta is afraid of what kind of sorority it will become if this happens. “I don’t think change will happen if nationals are responsible for recruitment of our new pledge class,” she said. She also sees disaffiliation as the “lazy” way out. She cited an incident from her freshman year that resulted in the chapter allowing trans students to rush Zeta (though you must “consistenty live” and “self-identify” as a woman, excluding nonbinary individuals and trans men). Similar changes that fix current problems, in her mind, are completely possible.

But many members — including Buonomo, Augustine, and Wang — are disaffiliating anyway. Several members estimated there would only be 20 or so members out of around 100 left, leaving mostly executive members and champions of reform. “If I say I care about undoing gender-based violence, then why am I associating with fraternities that perpetuate that and do not have any accountability?” says Augustine. “Why am I participating in a system that purposefully puts females in different tiers based on attractiveness, wealth, and arbitrary factors? At the same time, I just feel stuck. Zeta’s not disappearing. We’re just being replaced.”

Zeta is not the only sorority at Northwestern encountering this catch-22 of trying to disband. Across the quad at Gamma Phi Beta, the members successfully voted to dissolve their chapter. Camille Garcia-Mendoza, a junior in GPhi, cited the chapter’s exclusion of nonbinary members as a leading reason for the action. Though GPhi is essentially dead, she is still worried “nationals” will reverse the decision in a few years when everyone has graduated and there are new students on campus. As anyone who’s been involved in campus activism knows, this is the main hurdle student movements face — everyone leaves in four years. “Because they suspended the charter rather than revoking it, they can reestablish the Northwestern Gamma Phi Beta chapter at any time,” she says.

Meanwhile, across campus at the school’s true nexus of campus social life, the frat boys have also begun to reconsider their ways. Earlier this summer, sororities were roiled by the anti-Greek life movement while frats seemed untouched. As one student told me then, “The fraternities have been almost completely silent.” But now, the student newspaper reports, about 75 percent of Sigma Nu’s members have disaffiliated. An Alpha Epsilon Pi member told me he predicted about 50 percent of his own brothers to disaffiliate. Sororities moved much more quickly, but they also struggled with leaving behind what felt to them like much-needed, all-female community in an environment where sexual assault is a frequent topic of concern. According to the AEPi member I spoke with, the boys didn’t agonize over the decision as much. For them, friendship isn’t the main draw of a fraternity. “A bunch of us are leaving,” he told me, “but if there were parties, we’d be staying.”

In reaction to this widespread support for the movement, the university’s student-run Panhellenic Association, which governs Greek life at the school, passed a motion to cancel all formal recruitment this school year. “Our houses sit on stolen land, and our members reap the benefits of white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex,” its executive board wrote in a statement. “PHA has failed its purpose of serving as an inclusive space meant to empower all women and nonbinary people, and has continuously reaffirmed the patriarchy, binary gender roles, and heteronormativity … It is our firm belief that the harm done by PHA, regardless of intent, is irreparable and no amount of apologies or reform can lead to restorative justice.”

I spent years on Northwestern’s campus attempting to start conversations about what it would look like to rid the campus of Greek life, only to be met with pushback. In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, I held forums for people to discuss Greek life on campus, met with fraternity presidents over coffee, and gave monthly presentations about sexual health and assault. I was usually met with blank stares and disinterest. Even the most progressive, feminist, anti-racist student groups were filled with sorority members resistant to change. It has been shocking to watch the same students who formerly resisted the idea begin a movement I had dreamed of for years.

But thanks to the political upheaval of 2020, students have come to realize the obvious — that exclusive clubs like sororities are exclusive. “I think that just because of the larger, national movement of Black Lives Matter,” says Garcia-Mendoza, “a lot of people who otherwise would have remained complicit in systems like Greek life are now realizing that it is a moral imperative to combat systemic and institutional racism on every level, in every crevice of society.” Perhaps Greek life isn’t the most pressing concern at the university, but it was a problem students were already familiar with, even if they weren’t speaking out about it. All they had to do was the simple work of reading the writing on the wall — or Instagram page.

Northwestern hasn’t yet resumed in-person classes. It remains to be seen if students will keep pushing this agenda when the fraternities and sororities begin throwing parties again and trendy abolitionist beliefs can be traded in for cheap liquor in a Solo cup. But like many things in quarantine, the break away from routine is encouraging many to evaluate what they want the new normal to actually be. “When else is a better time to have a social movement than when the norms have already been picked up and thrown around?” as one student told me. “Might as well try to change as much of the norm as possible if you can.”

The Sorority That Tried to Abolish Itself