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‘Do they feel like equals?’: The history of sorority housing, dynamics with fraternities at Duke

<p>Duke dorms in 2017. &nbsp;</p>

Duke dorms in 2017.  

This is part two of a series on the history of selective housing at Duke. Part one, which focuses on fraternities, can be found here.

While fraternities saw living together as key to their group identity, sororities believed the opposite. Panhellenic Association organizations did not secure on-campus housing until 2011, in part because their predecessors did not believe living as a group was necessary to build sisterhood.

Over time, however, sororities became more amenable to the idea of having their own space, with the final push for housing being driven by a desire for gender equity on campus.

‘Who is willing to make the first effort’: Sororities lack consensus

Graduates of the Women’s College said strict rules fostered “an incredibly strong community of women’s leadership and support,” and its four-year housing system allowed each dorm to develop its own personality and traditions. 

“The women liked the house system so much they would not have separate [sorority] sections,” Professor Emeritus of History Robert Durden told The Chronicle in 1997.

Despite this, sororities made multiple efforts to secure housing throughout the years.

The Chronicle’s 1962-63 Year in Review noted that the Panhellenic Association’s major goal for the year was fundraising for sorority housing. A few years later, The Chronicle mentioned that the association was continuing its efforts “of the past several years.” A few women’s living groups formed after Trinity College and the Women’s College merged into the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, according to a residential housing timeline, but sorority-specific sections were not among them.

To some, the issue was not as pressing. In 1979, a survey by The Chronicle found that 35% of male students and 30% of female students thought sororities should have housing. The same year, after a new sorority was chartered at Duke, a national representative said that the lack of housing was “not seen as a problem,” and that “the cohesiveness of the group is brought about by social interaction, not geography.” 

The University’s official stance on sorority housing was that members had to ask for it. In 1977, the University briefly discussed offering part of Gilbert-Addoms to sororities but rejected the idea, according to a 1979 article. Instead, administrators thought sororities would approve of permanent organizational spaces as a “plausible alternative” to housing. 

Former Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek began working closely with Duke sororities in 1979, advising them until the Women’s Center opened in 1989, at which point then-director Martha Simmons took over.

“Their goal was to find space on campus,” Wasiolek said. “They wanted space together to meet and to call their own.”

Some sorority members outright preferred meeting spaces to housing.

“We don’t feel the absence of housing has hurt our cohesiveness,” Cindi Lund, then president of the Panhellenic Association, said in 1979. She also said that the strengths of Duke sororities lied in the fact that members didn’t live together.

However, acquiring organizational spaces remained a challenge. Lund noted later that year that securing spaces for sororities was a “never-ending circle of who is willing to make the first effort in funding.”

In 1982, the University allowed sororities to utilize the space at the Jordan Center on Oregon Street. It was formerly a space for Black and Asian social and religious life and now houses the Duke University Police Department.

“It had some large meeting spaces downstairs, some places where the sororities could actually have offices, and it also had spaces for storage,” Wasiolek said. “They were really looking for storage space for all their recruitment materials.”

Jean Donath, then president of the Panhellenic Association, called the space a “very big improvement” over a previously used location on Campus Drive. However, Panhel ultimately stayed in the building for about a year before giving it up, Wasiolek said. Central Campus was not frequented by undergraduates at the time and “getting to that building was not something that the sororities felt was doable,” she said.

As sororities continued to figure out where to establish their meeting spaces, the housing debate bubbled up again. In 1983, sororities polled their members on whether or not to pursue housing, with alumni being “very interested” in the groups forming residential communities. A few years later, the newly elected Panhellenic president Debbie Miller noted that housing was discussed “almost every year.”

In 1989, as sororities ramped up efforts to acquire a Panhellenic Association building, another University committee was examining residential life at Duke. William Griffith, then vice president of student affairs, commented that “should sororities request housing, now is the time.” Sororities voted on housing every two years, and the most recent vote had failed 6 to 5.

Interest in sorority housing continued to grow throughout the 1990s, but there was not yet full consensus. When students were first allowed to “block” with a group during the housing process in 1994, sorority blocks were given priority in getting common spaces for meetings and parties. A few years later, sororities proposed “bloctions,” a hall of rooms and a common space for 12 to 30 women. 

"A physical space that is identified with a sorority allows the sorority to have more structure and literally a place to call their own," Panhellenic President Rae Miller, Trinity ‘00, said in 1999. "Space is important because it would help facilitate the organizing associated with the large group, as well as provide a place for sisters to hang out with one another."

It is not immediately clear from Chronicle archives how involved historically Black sororities were in conversations about sorority housing or shared meeting spaces prior to 1994, when they broke off from the Panhellenic Association. 

In 1993, the Panhellenic Association acquired five houses on Alexander Avenue for meeting space and storage. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. were invited to the shared space, and AKA President Sharon Morgan noted that the sorority was interested but was contacted too late in the semester to discuss funding. 

'A pivotal time': The breakthrough for sorority housing

It wouldn’t be until the 2010s that sorority housing became a reality.

Although sororities had been discussing housing for a long time, there was an unwritten rule that they would only approach administration if the desire for housing was unanimous. 

“It was a matter of getting all of the Panhellenic sororities to agree that they wanted housing, and then they would approach administration in a unified way to say ‘we now wish to have housing that is comparable to what the fraternities have,’” Wasiolek said.

Rebecca Feinglos, Trinity ‘11 and former president of Delta Gamma, said that “a pivotal time for women’s leadership on campus” occurred between 2009 and 2011, in which female students confronted systemic sexism, racism and general inequities in the Greek system. She said that the lack of sorority housing created an unequal power dynamic with fraternities, as sorority members were required to go to men’s spaces to socialize.

“Men were facilitating women’s access to alcohol because they had the physical space to host parties, which I’m sure you can imagine created a ton of awful, awful dynamics,” Feinglos said.

Feinglos pointed to a dissertation written by David Mallen, former assistant director of the Student Wellness Center. The dissertation examines Greek life at Duke, particularly the existence of “progressives,” events hosted by fraternities in which women consumed greater quantities of alcohol and drugs or performed sexual acts throughout the night.

Mallen said that he first learned of progressives in a meeting with Wellness Center director Tom Szigethy, and that they had already faded out of existence by the time Mallen arrived at the University in 2015.

“When he talked about it, my eyes just shot open,” Mallen said. “There was a lot of history that fed into the climate where progressives could thrive.”

Before progressives became a “Greek model,” Mallen said, they originated as events hosted by smaller living groups, in which upperclassmen invited younger women over and gave them alcohol in the hopes that they’d be more pliable to sexual activity. One person quoted in Mallen’s dissertation said that these events became more outrageous over time just to see how far they could go. Additionally, the physical structure of West Campus quads “lent themselves to closed access,” putting students at greater risk.

“There was one stairwell and one entry or exit,” Mallen said. “Once you were in, it was hard to get out.”

Predominantly white fraternities were afforded more power on West Campus, Mallen said, and many students in Greek life tied their self-identity to their social lives, leading them to engage in activities they may not have necessarily enjoyed to maintain social capital. 

Progressives and other on campus occurrences “eroded the power women had on campus,” which “opened a window for cultural change,” Mallen said. 

Feinglos and Kelsey Woodford, Trinity ‘13 and former Panhellenic Association president, were both founding members of the Greek Women’s Initiative, which aimed to improve the safety and wellbeing of sorority members. Housing was not the primary goal of the initiative, Woodford said, but it was one part of a larger fight to shift the dynamic between fraternities and sororities. 

That dynamic was exacerbated by women being used as “chips” in fraternity recruitment, Woodford said. Rush events would invite women to be “hostesses,” and current fraternity members would direct them on how to “recruit” pledges.

“The implication is that you need to show them they have access to you in this fraternity,” Woodford said. “They would take our phones and keys and say it was for safety, and say ‘go give this pledge a lap dance.’”

The main goal of the housing fight was to give Panhel women access to space where they could be in communities outside of fraternities, Woodford said.

“I think it was special when this group of women came together and said ‘screw it,’” Mallen said.

Fraternities may have also participated in the effort to end progressives. Mallen spoke with a fraternity president who claimed to have directed his fraternity to end the events after the national organization intervened, and that the frat’s social standing influenced others to do the same. That president later declined to be interviewed for the dissertation believing it would be biased against fraternities, Mallen said.

In September 2011, The Chronicle reported that the Panhellenic Association would apply for nine houses under a new housing model to begin in fall 2012. Then-Panhellenic Association President Jenny Ngo, Trinity ‘12, said that the positives of the plan included equitable housing, an increase in unity among sororities and greater gender equity.

Woodford said that Ngo oversaw the process of securing housing and that she “got people to care.”

According to Wasiolek, the University was concerned about taking real estate away from other students to house sorority members and devised an effort to distribute fraternities, sororities and SLGs equally across East, West and Central Campuses. However, Panhellenic Association wanted all nine sororities to be placed together on one campus, leading them to be placed on Central.

From 2012 onward, Panhellenic sororities maintained campus housing until selective living was suspended in the 2020-21 academic year.

Feinglos and Mallen both expressed concerns about Greek life moving off campus. Feinglos said that fraternities and sororities disaffiliating from the University could once again facilitate unsafe situations and unequal dynamics between groups.

Mallen noted that “it was only a matter of time” before Greek organizations decided to move off campus because they felt unsupported by the University. However, he expressed a similar sentiment to Feinglos, saying that off campus events where the hosts maintain all the control over the environment increase high risk behaviors.

“Where are those events happening? What's happening there? Why is there a desire to have events that are so far off campus?” Mallen asked. “Why is there the feeling that these events need to continue?”

Mallen also questioned how Duke sororities today feel about the climate in Greek life.

“Do they feel like equals?” he asked.

If you have additional information on the history of selective housing at Duke, contact Nadia Bey at 

Nadia Bey profile
Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey, Trinity '23, was managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume and digital strategy director for Volume 118.


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