The Future of Frats Is Female
The heavy wooden door opens onto a scene familiar to any college student or consumer of pop culture about collegiate life: high ceilings, a dusty common room, a ping-pong table, a lone plastic cup emblazoned with the words “Bud Light.” On the walls are yellowed photographs of fraternity brothers past, the mostly white faces barely discernible even a few feet away. But as you ascend the stairs to the rooms of the fraternity-house residents, you see a more recent photo composite, from 2017, situated directly across the stairwell from an older one. You also see that the newer one, if you look closely, includes female faces.
“We do that on purpose,” says Wei-Ling Carrigan, class of 2020, gesturing at the wall where the framed pictures face each other.
The house is quiet as Carrigan and I pause on the stairwell to consider the juxtaposition. It is fall break, and as far as I can tell, no one else is home. We are standing inside the residence of Wesleyan University’s chapter of Psi Upsilon, or Psi U. The fraternity had existed at Wesleyan for about 170 years as an all-male institution, one of a handful of Greek organizations on the campus of the 3,000-person liberal arts college in Connecticut. Now, however, Psi U is in its fourth year as a coed frat with 75 members, 23 of whom actually live in the house.
Involvement in Greek life at American colleges has grown substantially in recent years; according to John Hechinger, author of the 2017 book True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities, nearly 400,000 men belong to fraternities, an increase of 50 percent in the past decade. And though Psi U members, the Psi U president, and Psi U’s national organization leader all insist that the fraternity has not been altered on a foundational level by the inclusion of women, a lot is at stake with the disruption of frat convention. Over the past decade, efforts by students and administrators to integrate single-sex frats at places like Harvard and Yale have been met with lawsuits and outcry. These are fraternities, after all, a word—from the Latin frater, which means “brother”—associated with all-male brotherhood. Not only might the presence of women mitigate the toxic atmospheres that foment hideously high rates of sexual assault, or injuries and deaths related to macho hazing rituals, but more coed frats might open up access to the stairwells and, later, corridors of power for women.
A widely publicized 2017 study, first published in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy, reported that frat brothers can expect to make 36 percent more money per year than their non-Greek brethren, even though the same study found that grades drop after a student enters a fraternity. (Scores of American leaders—presidents, senators, governors among them—belonged to frats.) "These results suggest that fraternity membership causally produces large gains in social capital, which more than outweigh its negative effects on human capital,” wrote the researchers.
An April 2018 New York Times opinion piece underscores this point. In it, Kiley Roache, an undergrad at Stanford University, argues that “Greek life needs to change,” noting that the current system upholds and enforces traditional gender roles and that the lack of women in such spaces “result[s] in a disproportionate amount of social capital concentrated in all-male spaces.”
“It is quite possible to preserve what is good about the organizations…while dispelling the bad,” she continues. "Fraternities and sororities should go coed. It is not just about keeping up with the times. It is about resolving a division that disservices all students.”
Even before Esme Lytle, 20, left her hometown of London to head to college in the United States, frats were on her mind. Specifically, how to avoid them. “That was the one biggest deterrent when I was looking at universities—how many frats were there,” says Lytle, class of ’21, sipping coffee at a Brooklyn café this past fall. “If there were more than a couple of frats or I felt that there was a heavy frat culture, I automatically crossed it off of my list.”
Lytle is the house manager at Psi U, helping to organize maintenance of the building around the various social events held there over the course of the school year. Her revulsion toward frats, she says, was mitigated by her actual experiences with the people involved in them. As at many schools, the frats at Wesleyan have an outsize social presence relative to their actual size, thanks to their frequent and well-attended parties. “They were all leaders, but they were all doing different things,” she remembers. "I met a drama kid, and I met a neuroscience [person], and I met an athlete.” (It also didn’t hurt that Psi U’s house is “massive” and Lytle’s dorm room was decidedly not.)
No one goes to Wesleyan University thinking they’ll join a frat—particularly if they’re not male—until they do. Lytle’s is the sort of story I heard over and over when talking to six or so current members of Psi U. These frat brothers (both men and women refer to themselves as “brothers”) have never experienced their organization as anything but gender inclusive. And though some young women have misgivings about joining an organization that refers to them as “brothers”—a term Lytle and others say may be on the chopping block—their skepticism is actually one of the recruitment tools. “One of our biggest selling points coming into the space of Psi U is being able to change it,” says Jacob Snyder, 22, who served as Psi U chapter president in 2018. Given that Wesleyan is a progressive place “attuned to social policies,” he says, “there is not a place anymore for white male organizations—any solely white male organizations.”
Founded in 1831, Wesleyan University has had frats on campus since basically the beginning. The school officially became coeducational in 1968 (it admitted women between 1872 to 1912 before returning to single-sex status). In the 1970s, prompted by the women’s movement, a few frats, like Alpha Delta Phi, began welcoming women (more on that later), but by the early 2000s, the frats at Wesleyan, which never had a huge Greek population to begin with, had been reduced to a handful of active Greek organizations, including Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), Psi U, Beta Theta Pi (Beta), and a few smaller groups, including one sorority, which lacked dedicated housing.
Wesleyan is in an unusual position of influence when it comes to regulating frats, because administrators have the power to approve student housing, which means that the school can effectively ban residential houses even when it doesn’t actually own the properties. As early as 2004, the administration had been threatening to withhold permission for students to live in fraternity houses, citing violations of the university's rules about gender nondiscrimination. (One frat member griped to the New York Times in 2004 that “what the university is saying is, ‘We'll just be prejudiced against white middle-class men who play sports.’ ”) Campus tensions came to a head in 2010 following a reported rape at a Beta Theta Pi Halloween party. More assault allegations and other drinking- and drug-induced incidents at Wesleyan followed, and in the summer of 2014 a group of university trustees and administrators who convened to decide the fate of the school’s frat houses came up with a new rule: admit women to fraternities or lose your house.
Wesleyan gave campus Greek organizations three years to make good on the new rule, but the controversy arrived much sooner. Around the same time as the administrators’ decree, Wesleyan announced that Beta’s house would be closed to students after repeated rule violations (the Wesleyan chapter had already been suspended from the national organization after a student fell out of a third-floor window in 2014 and was seriously injured). That left DKE and Psi U as the only frats with houses on campus.
The two organizations had vastly different reactions to the new policy. In the spring of 2015, DKE’s national organization announced that it was suing Wesleyan to keep its house open and filled with young men. (In June 2017, a six-member jury awarded the organization $386,000 in damages, claiming that the school had violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act in closing the house, and in December 2017 a judge ordered Wesleyan to pay another $411,000 in lawyers’ fees and reopen the house. Wesleyan appealed. The house sits empty while the legal actions continue.)
Psi U took a different approach. In the spring of 2015, the frat announced in the Wesleyan student newspaper that it would be accepting rushes (the term for a prospective frat brother) of any gender. In fact, the Wesleyan chapter, writing under the collective name “The Xi Chapter of Psi Upsilon,” announced that it was “excited” to expand its membership. By the fall of 2016, Psi U had female members living in its house for the first time ever, making it currently one of seven Psi U chapters nationwide that admit women, out of 27 total. This academic year, more than half of Psi U’s members at Wesleyan are women, 15 of whom live in the house, meaning that in 2018, for the first time, more women occupy the residence than men.
“By the late 19th century, when women started going to college, fraternities wouldn't welcome women in the same way they wouldn't welcome Jews and often Catholics.”
One of the reasons behind Psi U’s relatively smooth transition from single-sex to coed is that gender was not addressed in its original constitution, written 175 years ago. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the first frats were being formed on American campuses, the majority of college students were upper-class white men, so it was simply assumed that fraternity members would be male.
And though many other American frats did explicitly deny membership to women, it wasn’t only women, of course, who were excluded. “By the late 19th century, when women started going to college, they wouldn't welcome women in the same way they wouldn't welcome Jews and often Catholics,” says Hechinger. “Their traditions don't require that, it's just the way they developed.”
Around the time that coeducation was sweeping elite college campuses in the ’60 and ’70s, the burgeoning second-wave-feminist movement was prompting students to question their institutions’ single-sex Greek clubs. Some chose to dispense with tradition and admit women, a decision that was often at odds with alumni wishes. In 1972, much to its parent organization’s consternation, the Alpha Delta Phi (Alpha Delt) chapter at Wesleyan voted to allow women, echoing the decision of another residential frat, Phi Nu Theta, which had itself broken with tradition in allowing women (and drug use) in 1970. (Phi Nu Theta renamed itself “Eclectic,” and according to campus lore, angry alumni sold the house back to the university for a dollar.) The 20-year fight that ensued between Wesleyan’s Alpha Delt chapter and the national leadership finally ended, more or less, in 1992, when the chapter (and the handful of other chapters that admitted women) became part of Alpha Delta Phi Society, a legally separate entity from the fraternity.
“We always quote a really funny reaction from one of the brothers, in ’73 or ’74,” says Dimitri Fulconis, 20, who until recently was president of Wesleyan’s chapter of Alpha Delt. “‘My God, no, that would end us. Did our founder work and die for this? No, this proposal is suicide.’”
When asked what Wesleyan’s coed Psi U chapter means to the national organization, its president, Thomas J. Fox, in effect shrugs. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with women in fraternities,” he wrote in an email. “It’s not any better or any worse than single-sex organizations, just different.”
Though the potential professional rewards of having females within a frat seem fairly clear-cut, it’s more difficult to determine the interpersonal effects—both on members and on the university as a whole—with any specificity. Psi U works hard to avoid reinforcing stereotypes around frat life—“We're not Animal House, that's for sure,” says Snyder—and follows Wesleyan’s ban on serving alcohol at parties. (Researchers have found that traditional frat houses are places where binge drinking, which is associated with higher rates of assault, is more prevalent than at other university spaces.)
Implicit in Wesleyan’s decision to force residential frats to admit women is the notion that their presence will mitigate sexual misdeeds. Though the school administration declined to speak to Topic for this story, it cites university president Michael Roth’s previous statements on Greek life on the college campus. In a series of essays written on the school’s website in 2014, Roth laid out some of his thinking, drawing clear links between assault and all-male spaces. “And although it is obvious that not all sexual assaults happen in fraternities, there are strong questions raised about fraternity culture and what researchers call ‘proclivity’ to discrimination and violence,” he wrote. “While the fraternities have made it clear that they wish to be part of the solution, it’s also clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences.”
Psi U members, perhaps not surprisingly, have a lot to say about how their organization tries to prevent sexual violence within its walls. As at other residential houses at Wesleyan, members have undergone training with a campus group called Project No Red Zone. (The “red zone” refers to the first six weeks of college, a time when sexual assault is statistically much more likely to occur.) When a party is thrown at Psi U, pairs of students are assigned to walk around and make sure that everyone is behaving well and no one is too drunk. And standing at the frat-house door is a Psi U member holding a “perp list,” an internally generated document listing the names of people who are not welcome at Psi U parties because they made someone uncomfortable.
Though Snyder admits that such efforts can be “complicated”—“We are a social organization, not judge, jury, and executioner,” he says—the Psi U policy is one that Fulconis, the president of Alpha Delt, says her organization plans to try out in the future. (Lytle, the Psi U house manager, admits that they’ve been “struggling” with getting more organizations unified on the perp list.) Snyder explains that taking action on reported misbehavior becomes the work of Psi U’s internal judicial board, composed of five students who serve year-long stints. If they hear of a complaint of sexual assault or anything else, they do not immediately bring it to the university’s attention. “It's not our place to voice a complaint on behalf of a survivor. We don't think that is the right thing to do,” he says, noting that Psi U’s policy is in compliance with Title IX.
Of course, bringing women into a frat isn’t just about preventing crimes. It’s about leveling the playing field, changing the power dynamic referenced by the Stanford undergrad, Kiley Roache, a dynamic that, as Roth puts it, confers a “different status” upon women in the first place.
How this status plays out in reality, however, is potentially more fraught than students may realize, starting with the roles given to women within the frat houses. Though Lytle, for example, describes her work as house manager as “mother-slash-maid of the house,” she also strongly disputes the suggestion that her duties are related to her gender, noting that the previous house manager was a lacrosse-playing man. “I didn't really see it as a male or female role,” she says. “I just saw it as a role that needed a lot of, you needed to be authoritative, you needed to be self-driven, take responsibility, all these things.”
“In an ideal world, these men would have fixed their shit by themselves.”
Other female Psi U members are similarly sanguine about the frat’s gender politics. "This house feels really like my home. I spend more time here than in France,” says Carrigan, who grew up abroad. But for Eliza McKenna, 21, the excitement about being a member of Psi U shifted after she became a full-time resident and spent a year living in the basement.
At first, McKenna was drawn to the promise of a tight, diverse community of students. “They emphasize how fun pledging is, the events we have in the house, dance parties, the artists that come in,” she says. “The biggest thing they sold was the camaraderie and brotherhood. How they found their best friends.” Then came the experience of moving in and the Greek bureaucracy. There was room draw, where “literally you yell at each other for an hour” as a point system dictates who gets to live where in the house. And in frat meetings, McKenna says, female voices would often get drowned out. “I felt inconsequential…like I'm there to fill a quota,” she says.
One person who joined explicitly to open up the former frat house to more marginalized communities on campus is Stella Jiler, 19, part of the class of 2021. She is forthright about the organization’s need for improvement. Like many others, Jiler had no intention of joining a frat when she got to Wesleyan, feeling that “exclusive organizations are always harmful.” Still, when Psi U asked her to join, she was ultimately moved by the idea of changing the space from within. One of her goals is to rewrite the group’s rules around acceptable behavior to spark a faster response when a member does report a rule violation—sexual or otherwise. "We want more from our code of conduct,” she says.
McKenna is less interested in making that kind of change. She doesn’t live in the house anymore and does not go to meetings, although she hasn’t formally separated herself from Psi U. “In an ideal world, these men would have fixed their shit by themselves,” McKenna says. “It’s not our obligation to teach men.”
For most frats, at most schools, the administration’s forcing of change would be not only legally tricky but also economically unwise. Greek organization alumni make more money after graduation than other former students (conventional wisdom is that they give at higher rates, too), and according to the Atlantic, frat- and sorority-owned property is valued at over $3 billion. That’s a lot of student housing that colleges don’t have to build or maintain. But every few decades, the problem of historically white, all-male dens of binge drinking does provoke change. In 1962, Williams College banned frats (a former Williams president called the all-white organizations “essentially a caste system”), and in 1990 Vermont’s Middlebury College forced coeducation onto its organizations. Other Northeast liberal arts schools like Colby College and Bowdoin got rid of the Greek system entirely, and Trinity College in Connecticut adopted a coed policy for social clubs (though, three years later, the school reversed this mandate).
More recently, Harvard University made headlines when, in 2016, it told its single-sex organizations that they had to go coed or face a number of negative outcomes (including members not being eligible for campus leadership positions). This past month, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a group of frats, sororities, and three students has filed a federal lawsuit asking the school for unspecified damages and requesting an injunction against the 2016 rule. The suit alleges, essentially, that Harvard is being sexist in its attempt to undo historical sexism. After all, it says, “no objective evidence has ever shown that the single-sex nature of all-male organizations increases sexual assaults at Harvard.”
But college is only four years long, and a frat’s identity is not fixed in time but subject to the whims of an ever-changing student body, meaning that it is perhaps students, not schools, who will be at the forefront of change when it comes to frats. At Yale, a student effort to disrupt tradition has emerged. Katherine Hong, 21, is the president of Fence Club, the formerly all-male chapter of a Greek frat at Yale that is the only coed club of its kind on campus. It got its name from the house’s previous location, where the “old boys” used to hang out near a fence in the front yard. (These were very old boys; the fence was taken down in 1870.) After years of financial distress, Fence Club officially closed its doors in 1979. It got revived in 2007 as a coed group independent of the original organization, and last winter more than 100 students vied for 20 spots in the club, making it one of the most sought-after frats on campus. At the same time, a Yale group called Engender, which was founded to advocate for inclusion at Yale and whose first mission was to encourage single-sex organizations to go coed, worked to try to persuade other Greek organizations at the 5,500-undergraduate-student university to admit women. According to the Yale Daily News, Engender helped ten nonbinary people and women submit bids to single-sex organizations this past winter (only one organization, SigEp, opened its rush process to non-male students).
In a phone interview, Hong says that she has been buoyed by her peers’ attempts to make change. But Hong has no interest in forcing any organization to change against its will. “I think that eventually people will see that coed spaces are more fun,” says the cognitive-science major, remembering that when she was rushing, Fence Club’s “music was better and no one was hitting on me really grossly.” Her experience tells her that a coed organization has power in today’s student bodies. “In my grand vision, if there were more coed organizations, people would lose interest in frats and sororities,” she says.
We are far from coeducational frats being the norm nationwide. Currently, most of the country’s collegiate administrative energy is being spent trying to wrangle the bad frat actors through punishments like banning or suspending a specific group from campus. This past May, after a number of high-profile incidents of hazing and assault at fraternities across the country, a group of 31 university leaders gathered in Illinois to discuss how to manage the mushrooming public outcry over Greek misbehavior. No press account mentioned admitting women as one of their remedies.
But with the right combination of administrative nudging and—most importantly—student will, more chapters of national frats might try to buck convention. “If it works at Wesleyan, students might see this as a model,” says Hechinger.
After all, it’s young people—armed with an increasing arsenal of language like “toxic masculinity” and “affirmative consent” that does not favor the binge-drinking boys of fraternity row—who are at the forefront of agitating for changes in the societal status quo, recognizing that the power accorded to white men over decades and centuries needs to be interrogated and redistributed.
This isn’t to say that the transition is easy or that adding women to a nearly two-centuries-old bastion of masculinity is a perfect fix. Exclusionary professional practices and the protection of old-boys’ networks will still exist. Crimes will still happen. Even at Alpha Delt, an organization that has not only admitted women for decades but also recently struck gendered language from its charter completely, a member had to be kicked out in spring 2017 after sexually assaulting another member, according to Fulconis. Like Psi U, Alpha Delt hangs framed photos of the mostly white, all-male members of yore around the building. “You can't just erase your past,” she says. “You’ll always retain a part of it.”