Dear Berkeley women: It’s time to lead the next revolution

This past spring, my youngest son finished his freshman year at Berkeley. Toward the end of the semester, he asked me to proofread his final anthropology paper. The professor had assigned a paper that required the students to conduct a mini ethnographic study of some aspect of college life. My son chose to examine fraternity parties.

Despite my strong objections, he had pledged a fraternity during his second semester. As an insider, he was perfectly positioned to make observations and ask questions about fraternity life. As I was reading his paper, I became more and more outraged by and frustrated with what he had written, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. The fact that it was written in a “matter-of-fact” voice made it all the more shocking.

Here is an excerpt that particularly disturbed me: “The first priority in planning a party is determining the theme of the party. When choosing the party theme, members of the fraternity often opt for a theme that will encourage sexual promiscuity. For example, a fraternity will choose a theme that forces women to dress promiscuously. In one instance I witnessed the theme, ‘Hunt or Be Hunted,’ in which men dressed as hunters and women dressed as animals to be hunted.”

Later in the paper, he described the “bidding” process, which is the vernacular for selecting the sororities that would be honored with invitations to their parties. He wrote, “When I asked another brother how the fraternity decides which sororities to give these bids to he simply responded, ‘The most rich, white, and attractive’.” This was particularly surprising and disturbing. The demographics at Berkeley reveal that about 40% of the student body is Asian, while only about 29% is white. I unfortunately wasn’t surprised that looks were part of the equation.

My son observed that “the bid system allows the frats to objectify women and make judgments based solely on the beauty of the women. This has two effects; it leads many in the fraternities to look at sororities simply as a supply of attractive women. It also forces women into a gendered role, which is primarily supplying entertainment for male fraternity members. One woman that is a member of a sorority told me that when her sorority is invited to a fraternity she feels pressured to be sexually promiscuous so that her sorority would continue to receive bids.”

“Running security,” also referred to as “working the door,” requires “maintaining the ratio” — ensuring that there are always two women to every man at the party. My son writes that this “allows the males to pick and choose females for their personal sexual interests.” He noted, “I personally witnessed a fraternity member deny a group of girls from entry into his house’s party because the girls ‘were not attractive enough.’”

My son is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. He joined his fraternity because his friends had joined the fraternity. He made many good friends and worked on charitable projects with this fraternity. He has never been physically hazed. Furthermore, he tells me the examples in his paper are a composite of what he has seen, and they did not all occur at any one fraternity. In fact, in his paper he wrote, “This does not necessarily mean that the fraternity members personally wish to encourage this promiscuous behavior, but rather, as I was told by the social chair of a fraternity, ‘The theme of a party is selected in order to cater to the audience, rather than cater to the fraternity.’”

When my son chose Berkeley, he thought he was selecting a liberal, cutting-edge, West Coast school that would be totally different from his East Coast home-state options. Berkeley, after all, is well known for being a place where social movements begin. He unfortunately found that not only is Berkeley not leading the charge in social change but that it has, at least where women are concerned, fallen into the age-old social stereotyping and devaluation of women. I have to wonder why young college women anywhere subject themselves to this kind of objectification, but I am particularly surprised by the women of Berkeley.

Why would super smart women voluntarily subject themselves to visual inspections at the doors of fraternities just to get into a party where they outnumber men two to one? My son doesn’t think he can have much impact on this system, and he’s probably right — but young college women certainly have it within their collective power to change it.

Here’s what Berkeley women need to do:

Step 1: Stage a long term boycott by: 1) never accepting “bids” to fraternity parties, 2) never attending a party that maintains a two-to-one, female-to-male ratio, 3) never attending a sexually themed party and 4) never attending a fraternity party that conducts a door inspection.

Step 2: Spread your social movement to other campuses by: 1) reaching out to other sororities and enlisting their participation in your boycott and 2) reaching out to women on all college campuses and inviting them to join your revolution.

Step 3: Lead by setting the example and broadcasting your efforts and the results of your efforts far and wide!

Women in the U.S. today earn about 57% of all undergraduate degrees. The women of Berkeley have it within their collective power to change a social custom that is bad both for women and for men. It’s time for this generation of Berkeley students to do what Berkeley is known for: leading social change. Step up, Berkeley!

Ellen Haring is a Senior Fellow at Women in International Security (wiisglobal.org) and a concerned mother.

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  • disgruntled

    THIS IS AMAZING! I understand your guys’ points about the author and her son failing to take responsibility for their own participation in the perpetuation of the system but her general point is spot on. Back in my day as an unthinking, scantily-clad freshman, I never had trouble getting into frat parties but when a couple of friends and I tried to get in the other night to meet up with others, we were denied entry. Pretty sure this was because I was wearing modest clothing and holding my boyfriend’s hand. I don’t think there is anything inherently misogynistic about fraternities, but sadly the more popular ones on campus tend to throw parties with extremely offensive themes. I am looking forward to the day where I no longer see hoards of half-naked 18 year olds stumbling along Piedmont hoping to use their sexuality to gain entrance to a “CEOs and Office Hoes” party (wish I was making that theme up). While it is up to the men of the frat system to change the culture from the inside out, female students choosing to abstain from the parties would be great incentive for them to do so.

  • xultaif

    How very sexist. Why can’t women enjoy their sexuality just as much as men? Is it being objectifying if you are a willing participant? How about we let women make their own choices rather than shaming them into being virginal and putting them constantly in the victim role.

  • Monica Hay

    Why expect the women of Berkeley to change their behavior? Why not ask them men (such as your son) to “step up”? I agree that fraternity culture can be problematic, but it’s typical for someone to say, “women, do something about this, change this, change your behavior,” rather than asking the men to change, learn to respect women, not to objectify them, etc.

    • Mel Content

      There’s a very easy way to get young men to change their behavior, which is to stop rewarding them with your company if they behave poorly. If there is really a behavior problem with male college students at fraternity parties or any other events, all the young ladies have to do is to articulate their objections and leave. The brighter ones will certainly get the clue…

  • jack31961

    Thank You for perpetuating negative stereotypes about the Greek system. Why don’t you visit a fraternity or sorority and find out the truth?

  • Brent Vickers

    Since when did the Sexual Revolution mean that we simply shift genders from one set of social expectations directly into another set of social expectations? Since when were “socially progressive” students expected to follow fixed sets of expectations that have been prescribed by their mothers? Since when is it acceptable to devalue students because some of their decisions don’t fit cleanly into a box of assumptions produced by “socially progressive” stereotypes. Cal students, even the most intellectual and “progressive”, are entitled to join the Greek system, to attend raucous parties, and to dress however they please without the threat of being judged and devalued by those with “socially progressive” agendas.

  • Guest

    Helicopter.

  • anonymous

    I’m very curious to see the paper written by the author’s son. Is there any way I can read it?

    • xultaif

      I don’t think mommy lets him come out and play.

  • Anon

    “I have to wonder why young college women anywhere subject themselves to this kind of objectification” — And yet they still do, ironic eh? Perhaps feminism isn’t so relevant after all.

    The true irony here is that when men are allowed to be choosy with women, they’re suddenly hounded and bashed by feminists. Yet, these are the same feminists who flaunt their selectivity surrounding which men can and can’t approach them.

  • cal.bear

    Lily-
    Thanks for trashing the co ops. “Or if you want out of the Greek system but the parties and living together-ness, there’s the co-op system.” Yeah, all they do at the co-ops is live together and party. Beside being a less expensive living option, the co-ops have traditionally been the most progressive political/social living options in Berkeley. The co-op system currently has both African American and LGBT themed houses.

    • anonymous

      FYI – there’s a LGBT sorority as well: Gamma Rho Lambda.

  • http://cassiniflies.wordpress.com/ Lily

    It is true that there are frats and sororities who are very engaged in the bid process (both in the initial and in the subsequent parties). There are also plenty of fraternities and sororities who do not choose to engage in that system. The reason I know is because I have know people who specifically left or chose not to bid certain ones because they knew this in advance. As a women of Berkeley, I would like to address the steps.

    Step 1: Without banning the girls who want to have the frat party experiences from attending Berkeley, many people do boycott sexually themed parties. I have been in groups that upon finding out there was a ratio or particular theme, respectfully left for another party. However door inspections are a necessity to prevent potentially violent or underage people from entering.

    Step 2: Berkeley has been a leader in the creation of fraternities and sororities that exist outside of the normal party bid system, such as professional sororities and co-ed fraternities. Our Greek society has also been very active in creating fair rules within Berkeley and in spreading those at more nationally based conferences.

    Step 3: Broadcast. I have voiced my disapproval of certain practices in the Greek system while respecting that some people wish to have it be a part of their college experience. I am friends with many such folks.

    I seem to be doing everything you are saying to do in your steps. Not attending demeaning parties, reaching out to people with alternatives or a revolution as you might say, and responding to accusatory remarks such as these and yet, you might say I am not doing enough.

    There seems to be a paradox in your desires. You wish Berkeley women to ban their interactions with these sororities and fraternities, yet you wish for them to set an example via their boycott. Yet you say they should be in a sorority so they can broadcast a revolution. However it seems contradictory to maintain a boycott and vocalize revolutionary complaints as a participant.

    I prefer associations such as the co-ops (who simply ask you to contribute to the party pool if you chose not to wear a costume), professional associations, and the multitudes of other academic and social communities within Berkeley. I maintain that there are people who want to experience a more traditional Greek college life and they should be allowed to do so. The revolution that you so desire, already exists elsewhere as its own separate entities. We leave the Greek system alone out of respect.

    I am sorry that your son went against your desires and chose the traditional Greek society life, however the whole of the Berkeley women should not be held responsible for preventing him from making that decision or committing to a group that engages in their desired behaviors.

  • bgal4

    Typical bashing the messenger “knee jerk” reaction. What’s wrong with the simple suggestion that women have power to change many of the ugly aspects of the frat party scene? Nothing, except that you all would have to fairly examine the dynamics and think more deeply about how things have gotten to this situation. Neither her son or the mom condone any of the party traditions they are learning about.

    • http://cassiniflies.wordpress.com/ Lily

      Well, as a woman of Berkeley, I do not condone being blamed for something I never did. The title is not “Certain sororities of Berkeley who still engage in the party bid system: Step up” it is “Dear Berkeley Women:…”

      What she is condoning is blaming the all women who are currently or have attended Berkeley for not already creating an environment where her son would not have to condone the party traditions he is learning about. What I find rude is that I have known plenty of women and men who choose not to bid at all or not to bid a fraternity or sorority who engages in the party bid system. There are plenty of sororities and fraternities at Berkeley who hold parties without any of these constraints or even go as far as being co-ed themselves. Or if you want out of the Greek system but the parties and living together-ness, there’s the co-op system. There is so much that has started and has already been revolutionized at Berkeley and so many groups working so hard to create other places for both genders, it is difficult to read this and not feel wrongfully accused.

      • bgal4

        again, an overreaction, NO one blamed women or you for the idiotic party scene in southside. wrongfully accused???? take a deep breath Lily.

        • http://cassiniflies.wordpress.com/ Lily

          And I quote: “It’s time for this generation of Berkeley students to do what Berkeley is known for: leading social change. Step up, Berkeley!”

          I believe the accusation here (unless I am misunderstanding the English language), is that we, Berkeley women, are not doing enough. We need to thus step up. I never thought she was blaming me for that specific southside Hunt or Be Hunted party. I said she was blaming us for her son feeling that, and I quote again, “doesn’t think he can have much impact on this system.”

          Why is this an overreaction? The mere fact that I disagree and have feelings? Is her reaction to her son’s not being able to have impact a respectable opinion or an overreaction? That while I agree that women have power to change their situations, I feel wrongfully accused that I know many wonderful men and women doing exactly that at Berkeley and that this undoubtably caring mother believes otherwise or at the very least, by her words, that they should step it up?

          I did not say that women should not have power. I did say that I felt wrongfully accused because this article states that Berkeley is not doing enough without seemingly aware that there is much being done that is considered revolutionary. Now if the original writer had said that despite all of the ASUC’s efforts, the Greek society, the many campus organizations and societies, despite all of their accumulated efforts to make Greek life safe and more inclusive, it is still not enough that Berkeley women are still not revolutionary and progressive enough. Sure, I would agree with you that my feelings of wrongful accusation is an overreaction and instead she made a perfectly fair simple suggestion.

          With regards to that specific party, I know many who thought it was sexually demeaning, however the party never explicitly said which gender had to play which role, according to the event details I saw. I thought it was a funny idea. It lead to a good deal of extremely creative costume designs.

          • bgal4

            All one has to do is review the details of the rape crisis campaign to realize how unprogressive Berkeley feminist activist are thinking.

          • http://cassiniflies.wordpress.com/ Lily

            Please inform me, what are they thinking?

          • Mel Content

            The “rape crisis” activists have NO shred of evidence to prove that the incidence of rape on college campuses, or by male college students, is any higher than in the mainstream population, but they are whipping up hysteria to try to give the campuses more control over prosecution and punishment of alleged rapists.

            If we have learned ANYTHING from the Duke Lacrosse debacle, it should be that not only are college administrators incompetent when investigating alleged criminal acts, but are incapable of remaining objective and easily cave in to political pressure. Rape is a serious crime, and to claim rape is a serious accusations. Such crimes should be investigated by competent, trained and accredited law enforcement personnel, with decisions to prosecute made by the local District Attorney’s office based on the evidence provided by LE investigations, NOT by a bunch of college administrators cowed by whoever screams the loudest…

          • xultaif

            It’s a completely invented phenomenon. Rape isn’t up in this country. Victimization is up dramatically in this country. Women are now taught that any time they get drunk and have sex with someone they normally wouldn’t have, they’ve been raped. But only the women’s alcohol intake matters in these situations.

          • Mel Content

            Agreed – the usual suspects are not happy unless they can play the role of the aggrieved victim.

          • xultaif

            You mean the people who ask women “have you ever regretted having sex with someone” and chalk that up as a rape?

      • cal.bear

        Lily
        Thanks for trashing the co ops. “Or if you want out of the Greek system but the parties and living together-ness, there’s the co-op system.” Yeah, all they do at the co-ops is live together and party. Beside being a less expensive living option, the co-ops have traditionally been the most progressive political/social living options in Berkeley. The co-op system currently has both African American and LGBT themed houses.

    • xultaif

      Who is stopping them from changing anything? I guarantee you if women stopped going to these parties the themes would change. Or did I miss the part where the frat kidnap women, dress them slutily, and force liquor down their throats?

  • Dan

    While I agree it’s problematic to generalize too much (as this article does), I find it brave that both this student and his mother are speaking out about some of the more unsavory aspects of the Greek system. Many of the comments here that attack the author also elide her criticism: that frats are places where misogyny is openly espoused and are part of a system that reproduces gender inequalities… and that we should expect more from the Greek system. While this statement would benefit from more nuance, it’s largely uncontroversial, and we should support those who remind us of these facts. The ad-hominem attacks on the author and how she raised her son are completely irrelevant and frankly suspicious in that they also ignore addressing the author’s main claims.

    • Hayley C.

      Dan,

      You misidentify Ellen Haring’s main claim, which is this: Berkeley women aren’t doing enough to save my son and me from our own guilty consciences. Thus, the comments about she and her son are neither attacks nor ad hominem. They are incisive remedies to her personal problem.

      Explicitly elided and implicitly broadcast is Haring’s own ostentatious parading of an utter lack of a sense of personal responsibility, accountability and intellectual honesty, coupled with the rampant blame-shifting inherent in her claims, which make them largely controversial at the outset, whether or not the reader is a target of her criticism (thus rendering your suspicions unfounded). It makes her call to action not merely problematic, but patently absurd and self-righteous, considering the most obvious revolution would begin in the individual lives of she and her son.

      • Dan

        Hayley,

        On second pass, I agree with you, and agree that I failed to identify the issue here. She’s really putting the onus on women to fix this problem. She should take more time to wonder who her son and his friends are, and how they got that way. While I’m glad her son would choose to shed light on the problem, it’s distressing that the author would turn the tables and make this the responsibility of female students to fix. Though I don’t want to discount the agency of women in making change, they are not the ones ultimately responsible for the system, nor the ones who should be chided for not doing enough.

        Thanks for your response.

  • Prosper

    Thanks for this public display of bad parenting

    • Mel Content

      Best comment yet…

  • 1776

    Omg dudes doing w/e it takes to get laid…why is this surprising??

  • cal.bear

    I don’t recall members of Berkeley frats or sororities being at the forefront of any political or social protests ever. (I am sure there are a few exceptions) Maybe you are confusing the frats with the coops!

  • disqus_6YcQLVlAyH

    This article must be so embarrassing for your son

  • Bruce_Mc

    “When my son chose Berkeley, he thought he was selecting a liberal, cutting-edge, West Coast school that would be totally different from his East Coast home-state options. Berkeley, after all, is well known for being a place where social movements begin.”

    The frats in Berkeley have never been known for any of that. Somebody didn’t do their research.

    “My son doesn’t think he can have much impact on this system, and he’s probably right “

    He shouldn’t try to change the system, because he might not succeed? Imagine what Berkeley’s reputation would be like if previous generations of students took that advice.

    To start with, he can have an impact on his life – by walking away from the system. Not every male student in Berkeley is in a fraternity.

    “Here’s what Berkeley women need to do:”

    So the women have to save your son from the guys he associates with?

    “It’s time for this generation of Berkeley students …” The men apparently don’t have to do anything.

    How about this – have your son communicate his experiences to high school students and their mothers. If freshman do not join fraternities, they disappear.

  • Reina Peterson

    As a feminist who is not in the Greek system but has enjoyed attending the occasional frat party during my time at Cal, I have to say that the author’s generalizations are misinformed and highly problematic. Every student group contains examples of positive and negative extremes. The norm is not what your son has described to you. When with a co-ed group, I have been turned away at the door in the interest of maintaining “ratio”. I have also felt intellectually respected and have had many wonderful experiences at frat parties. There will always be an example of someone who’s doing it wrong. Perhaps the author might consider investigating her concerns more thouroughly before challenging the intellect and feminism of women who attend these parties.

    • thompson_richard

      Jackie Goldberg the Delta Phi Epsilon pledge mother was an FSM spokeswoman long before she served in the California Legislature.
      ‘Brother’ Mike Smith: “The Thursday night when the fraternity guys threw eggs, it was just their reaction to something they didn’t understand. Most of them don’t realize the significance of what the Free Speech Movement was to the people involved. To them it was just another chance to party and throw eggs and play around. Most of them weren’t even acting out of conservative conviction. They were just harassing the dirty beatniks. The Phee Gees and SAEs were well represented and when I took the petition around I didn’t even go to houses like that, because all they would do was throw food at you and insult you.”
      Eight hundred and fifty members of fraternities and sororities signed the petition supporting FSM.

  • Holly Marston

    Ellen Haring criticizes everyone but the most culpable: herself and her son, then asks for an invented class of victims to revolt against her. Brilliant.

  • Katie Shilberg

    Dear Moms (pssst: Ellen Haring), stop raising and enabling your boys to grow up and participate in racist, sexist organizations and then pretending you and your son are innocent and asking other people to start a revolution so you won’t have to self-monitor or self-reflect.