It’s early September and my hands are shaking. I’m opening an email letting me know if I’m invited to a fashion show—Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Fenty—or whether instead I’ll be curled in a ball, on my bed, watching the whole thing on someone else’s Instagram. As I click on the message, the voice in my head chants some greatest hits: “You’re not good enough.” “They don’t want you.” “Why are you even still here?”
Even though this is literally my job as a fashion journalist—and even though the emails usually say, “Sure, come on down!”—my fingers tremble every time. I read the responses, grab a pen, and try to write down my schedule, but the word Dior smears until it looks just like Die.
If my life were prestige TV, this is when we’d hit the flashback scene—a close-up of the same shaking hands, the manicure morphing from khaki to glitter, the Prada turning to Pi Phi. I am barely 18, and until setting foot on my Southern college campus, I couldn’t have told you what a sorority was. Still, I pull on my Calvin Klein leather miniskirt (thank you, TJ Maxx) and my Urban Outfitters baby tee, and enter fluffy pillow sanctums that boast the glossiest girls I have ever seen. We chat about all the stuff the handbook says is “not allowed during recruitment” (read: sex and drugs. Rock ’n’ roll is wholly sanctioned, actually, but sadly, these girls don’t share my Zeppelin obsession). We trade tips on vintage jeans. We plan to get Starbucks. And then, “we” becomes “me,” because after hours of “Love you!” and, “Ohmigod,” zero Greek organizations want me in their club. My shaking hands open the email from Duke’s Panhellenic Association. It says that no sorority on campus has offered me a bid—at all. Cue the voices: “You’re not good enough.” “They don’t want you.” “Why are you even still here?”
Even as adults, women are ‘rushing’ all the time.
“That’s some white girl bullshit,” my friend Lordes, a banker who made me use her middle name for this story, laughs. She was not in a sorority—her New England school didn’t have many—but she was in a secret society, which she describes as “the same thing, but you don’t even get to rush—they tell you if you can apply.”
“It’s so dumb,” she says. “But it can fuck with your head. And it’s not just in college. Even as adults, women are ‘rushing’ all the time: business school interviews, internship placements, even preschool applications. Certainly your masochistic Fashion Week ritual … although, I think you should talk about that one with your therapist.” (Narrator: We have.)
It’s true, even if we don’t say it out loud. Whether it’s at a school drop-off or a networking event, women are constantly judged on how well we check invisible boxes. In a world where class mobility is slowly morphing into a dystopian death battle, name-dropping the right brands/bars/doula collectives can mean the difference between, “You’re hired,” and, “We’re going in a different direction.” Which means that a few weeks ago, when videos of sorority aspirants began flooding TikTok, it may have been hilarious and voyeuristic for some adult women, but it was frankly triggering to others.
“Watching #RushTok did make me feel sad for my younger self,” Cece Xie, a New York lawyer who “bombed” her freshman year rush at Yale University, says. “I came from a public school in California. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by all these East Coast girls who all go skiing together. When they asked me when I’d last been to Aspen, I thought they were talking about somewhere in the Alps. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never been to Europe!’ I felt so small in that moment, but I ended up learning quite a bit about how women use certain references to gate-keep their own social circles.”
Xie agrees that rush isn’t just for college. “When I was interviewing with firms after law school, there were conversations that I couldn’t be a part of because I didn’t know the shorthand of brands like Audemars Piguet,” she laughs. “Some law firms will talk about the benefits of diversity and inclusion. We need those things in every level of law. But some firms will say, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ and what they mean is, ‘Tell me what you have in common with me.’ It’s basically rush all over again.”
SATIRE | on-campus interviews in law school, #bamarush edition. ib @noorforsure
Last month, Xie made a TikTok spoof comparing law firm recruitment to sorority culture. It has nearly four million views. “And a bunch of comments [from anonymous lawyers] about how firms won’t hire me because my hair is messy!” she exclaims. “Which pretty much says it all.”
It’s hardly a surprise that Greek life contributes to bias in college and beyond, whether it’s through systemic racism, “pretty privilege,” or a muddier mixture of inequalities. In fact, American sororities were born in the 1850s, when slavery was still legal. Like the early women’s suffrage movement, they did enable white female career mobility—but Black women were left out.
By the 1920s, Greek life had become a way for wealthy Southern belles like Zelda Fitzgerald to escape the restraints (literally and figuratively) of cotillion corsetry. (The word rush itself comes from that time, when new students would get off the train at their college station and immediately get recruited for a house based on appearance alone.) By then, Ethel Hedgeman Lyle had created the first all-Black sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha) at Howard University; she went on to teach school in Philadelphia and lead the city’s first chapter of the League of Women Voters. It wasn’t until the ’90s that some women of color were pledging historically white houses (Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was a Kappa Kappa Gamma at Northwestern; Lucy Liu pledged Chi Omega at Michigan), but it wasn’t until 2013 that the biggest Greek system in America—you guessed it, University of Alabama—was formally integrated.
“I was getting recruited really hard when that happened,” says Marissa Lee, who became the first Black president of a National Panhellenic (read: old and historically white) sorority at Alabama in 2016; she was a Phi Mu, which is considered among the most selective. “In the beginning, it felt like everybody was in love with me!” she laughs. “It was only after I got a bid from Phi Mu that I realized, ‘Wait, I’m one of the only Black girls on this bus.’
“Most of the girls in my sorority really did have my back,” she says reflectively, “But, yes, I was scared. And it sheds light on how Black women still need to be even stronger and braver during a selection process, just to have the same opportunities.”
The music industry is full of social events that can feel a lot like #Bama recruitment.
Lee also cites the visible wealth gap between her Greek friends and the other collegiate women she met through classes and clubs. “My sophomore year, girls would come through during recruitment, and someone would tell me, ‘Oh, her dad owns Tito’s.’ A lot of my friends had BMWs, even though we were 18 years old! I live in Los Angeles now, and by nature, one path to success—definitely not the only way, but certainly a way—is by what important or famous people you know. Another way to succeed is being able to work with a wide variety of people. Can you go with the flow and keep people in check? And that I absolutely learned by being in a sorority. I’ve been working at a record label, and while it’s obviously a very different environment, the music industry is certainly full of social events that can feel a lot like #Bama recruitment.”
This sentiment—that rush never ends, at least when you’re female and ambitious—occurs over and over in my conversations with millennial and Gen Z women who once pledged sororities. “It reminds me of some of the day care collectives in San Francisco,” says Emily, who requests that I keep her identity first-name only, because “I’m an engineer at a start-up and the boys club is still very real.” She recalls bringing her toddler to a local playground only to be asked “where I went to school, what I did, what my husband did, and what my marriage was like, before we even made it to the slide!”
Jesse Berry, an ocular surgeon who was the president of Kappa Alpha Theta during her years at Harvard, has a similar take. “Medical school interviews and residencies can certainly feel like you’re being judged as much for this nebulous ‘cultural fit’ as you are for your skills,” she says. “Though [in my sorority], I also learned I didn’t need to wait for a group of men to create a social event, or a charity initiative, or a campus movement. I could mobilize and do it with my sisters instead, which was a very empowering lesson.”
Of course, there are myriad ways to learn how to, in Lee’s words, “stand in your own power” that don’t involve staring into the hypnotic gaze of a Tri Delt rush chair. And there are other college cliques just as razored as the most Heathers-like sorority coven. (“I definitely spent all of college freaking out about whether I was cool enough to impress a bunch of terrifying semiotics majors who all had amazing haircuts and liked to name-drop Foucault at parties,” one woman I talk to says. See also: anyone in art school or drama school, ever.) Plenty of women who pledged sororities in college regret their decision—one former sorority sister and current law student even sent me a copy of her college dissertation, which is literally called “Understanding Class Stratification and Inequality Through the Greek System.”
Do I regret my sorority flame-out? Not exactly.
As for me, do I regret my sorority flame-out? Not exactly. Being a “no bid” taught me that there were other outlets for my fashion obsessions, including a school newspaper column that ultimately led to my first magazine job. It refocused my academic priorities for the better. It forced me to admit that maybe dating a campus drug dealer who gets you blacklisted from the entire Greek system isn’t the greatest move. (Even if he did look exactly like Jim Morrison. Sigh.) And it made me swallow my pride and go back into rush as a sophomore, when I ended up pledging.
Here’s what I do regret: Once I was in a sorority myself, I engaged in the same “sorting hat” BS that had wounded me so badly. In an old college journal, I found some of my criteria: “Is she cool without being petty? Does she want friends or a clique? Does she know it’s okay to be single? Has she seen Almost Famous?” (In other news, I am going to Hell.) Sorority rush might not force us to judge other women for the rest of our lives, but it can be a conduit for girl-on-girl crime that never quite ends unless we actively choose—and keep choosing—to stop being scared of solidarity. (To quote my college soundtrack, Dar Williams, “I will not be afraid of women.” To quote myself, we need to keep growing the fuck up.)
And look, if you’re a glass-half-full type, you could argue that rush—or any social situation where you’re potentially going to be deemed unworthy because of unspoken rules—forces you to grow beyond those invisible little boxes. As Marissa Lee tells me, “If you go through sorority rush, you’re a fighter. If you go through it at Alabama, you’re a Navy Seal. It takes a lot of the fear out of meeting new people, or getting rejected, or standing in a room feeling like you’re the odd one out.”
She adds, “Once you put yourself through that kind of trial, you know you can really survive anyone else’s judgments about you.”
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