Contextualizing Conversation on Fraternities

I am not a member of a fraternity. Nor do I think that frats are an absolutely essential component to our conversations about sexual respect at the College. I am, however, a student worker in the Archives and Special Collections within Frost Library, which gives me familiarity with something of which many Amherst students are ignorant: institutional memory.

I did not know about the Archives until the summer after my sophomore year, when a friend stumbled upon a job there. I proceeded to have the reaction I’ve found to be typical among students introduced to this resource: “Whoa, we have what!?” Yes, there is interesting stuff here — seven centuries of books (yes, seven); materials, including manuscripts, from major poets like Wordsworth, Dickinson and Frost; and much, much more besides. But the collections in Archives are neither novelties nor irrelevant to students like you or me. Believe me, I wouldn’t be able to write my thesis without them. In light of recent events and recent articles, I took it upon myself to do a little digging into what actually happened to fraternities at the College.

By now I’m sure you’re all familiar with the notorious and despicable TDX shirt that helped bring sexual respect to the fore of campus attention. It sparked a debate on fraternities’ shadowy place in Amherst life and, frankly, some uninformed explanations of their abolition in 1984. Let me be clear that, first of all, I have not done any research on recent frat life (the most recent source I looked at was a 1993 thesis on the abolition of frats) and so I am not looking to make any contentions about its current place at the College. Second, I am anything but an expert on this subject. My goal is merely to show that anyone — with only a few hours’ research — can put forth facts rather than rumor and thus inform any conversation.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves. There are a number of themes in Amherst history, and principal among them is Greek life. Misogyny, unfortunately, is another theme, and it would be irresponsible to say the two are unrelated. But the picture is cloudier than cause-and-effect. Frats have been around a long, long time, and changing views on women in the 1960s and 1970s actually had disgusting counter-effects as the “Animal House”-style frats that dominate our stereotypes today gained prominence and began exploiting sexually-liberated women.

Amherst frats date back to 1830, and it’s hard for current students to understand the extent to which they defined the school. Looking at class lists around the turn of the century, one sees Greek letters next to nearly every name. Future president Calvin Coolidge was one of the rare “independent” students, and it appears that “Silent Cal” was a misfit, even appearing as the subject of a mocking poem in the Olio from his sophomore year. In 1952 the College became the first school in the country to mandate 100 percent rushing, requiring that every student be a member of a fraternity (including the Lord Jeffrey Amherst Club, created in 1935 as a residential alternative). In fact, until the 1960s, frat houses were the only places for upperclassmen to live at the College (besides the rare student listed as inhabiting the chemistry lab…some things never change). In some ways they still are, oh residents of the Triangle and Hamilton. In 1961 the school bought the houses from the fraternities in exchange for their maintenance. The frats stayed there until abolition, when the houses became dorms.

However, just because frats were so deeply ingrained in Amherst tradition doesn’t mean they went unquestioned. Administrators in the 1850s required them to open their files to the school, and as a result the College President, Edward Hitchcock, was himself initiated into Alpha Delta Phi for oversight purposes. More murmurs questioning the use of frats appeared in the early 20th century, and the decision to build Valentine in 1940 was aimed at bringing students together for meals, rather than secluded in their fraternity houses. More serious questioning came after World War II, as alumni and faculty committees both recommended abolition in 1945. The Trustees decided merely on reform, resulting eventually in 100 percent rushing in 1952 and regulations requiring frats to accept members regardless of race or creed in 1948. In 1956, the senior honor society (yes, the College had multiple honor societies) also recommended the abolition of frats, though that would not happen for nearly 30 years.

As an old, boys’ school, as well as an “Old Boy’s school,” neighbored for much of its existence by two women’s colleges, Amherst is a historically masculine, chauvinistic institution. It’s no accident that Tim Matheson’s character in the aforementioned “Animal House” introduces himself as an Amherst student when visiting Mount Holyoke. Recent stories about horrifying conduct by Amherst men towards Five-College women are sadly nothing new. Try, for example, the shocking (and purportedly satirical) Student article, “Sleazing: The Games Amherst Men Play” from the Nov. 8, 1973 issue, which explains how to seduce and dump Mount Holyoke women, or reminiscences in the 1980 commencement edition’s “Year in Review” from four of the first women admitted as first-year about their male classmates’ understanding of the Five Colleges’ advantages for Amherst men and how these, erm, traditional arrangements marginalized and sickened Amherst’s new women. In fact, a quick jaunt through late-1970s issues of The Student will effortlessly uncover sexism, including a 1979 anonymous letter to the editor applauding the Dean of Admissions for an extremely good-looking first-year class — and worse, a response the next week from a female student thanking the writers for recognizing that smart Amherst girls can be as attractive as Five-College co-eds.
The question, of course, is how much of this culture was the fault of frats. The record is hazy, implying much but stating little.

Within a few years of women’s admittance in 1976, fraternities became a problem. In November 1979, two female students filed a complaint with the Federal Office of Civil Rights over the unequal housing opportunities caused by all-male fraternities. Within two years, and accompanied by much student debate, the school ordered the eight frats on campus to admit women, in the process causing them to lose their national association. In early 1983 the Dean’s Office further tightened the rules, requiring frats to be no more than two-thirds one gender or the other. Frats were able to skirt these rules to some extent by exploiting the distinction between residential and social bids, allowing them to still keep women out of their houses.

Things came to a head in the fall semester of 1983, with the circulation of a White Paper from Acting-President Craig that called for the abolition of the frats. Students rose up in protest, ultimately making The New York Times (sound familiar?) with a sit-in in the President’s office. A student’s December poll, via forms on Val tables, found that 85 percent of respondents (77 percent of the school) wanted to keep fraternities, though the vast majority also wanted a new social center or a similar alternative to frat social life. Ten female students, frat members all, wrote in to The Student in support of fraternities, saying co-ed frats hadn’t been given enough time and that this first chance at co-ed habitation was an important education in dealing with the opposite sex — something Amherst men sorely needed. The article notes as well the way fraternities brought together all four class years, an argument against their allegedly divisive nature.

In February 1984, the Board of Trustees voted to abolish frats, effective June 30 of that year. Strangely, their decision made not a single mention of women, just a passing condemnation of “gross social behavior.” In fact, they explicitly stated frats were not the cause of social problems on campus, nor would their abolition solve such problems. Instead they questioned “whether [frats] can reasonably be expected to play a constructive and affirmative role in attaining a better integration of the educational goals of the college.” The ad hoc committee that put together the report was composed entirely of former Amherst frat members.

However, it seems clear that the trustees’ report is misleading. Frats were indeed abolished over issues with women, but the mores of the day did not let the most shocking cases come to light, and the institutionalized misogyny refused to tar Amherst frat men and rather led public opinion in different directions. According to Helen Shepherd ’88’s senior thesis, women’s expected calming influence in frats often backfired as women took to the rowdy lifestyle. “What for males had been the ‘sowing of wild oats’ became intolerable behavior when engaged in by women.” Yet Shepherd concludes that the “abuse of women by fraternity members” was the real reason behind the trustees’ decision, despite the hopes of at least some female frat members that things were getting better.

Tellingly, the class of 1986 had the fewest female members since women were first accepted as first-years, probably a response to college guidebooks saying Amherst wasn’t a good place for women. Whatever other issues were tied up with fraternities at Amherst — housing, obstruction of education goals, the anti-intellectualism worried about in the 1950s — their interactions with Amherst women played the dominant role in their abolition. While this is, I believe, the idea held by most current Amherst students, I think it’s important to understand the controversy at the time, and the fact that many, if not most, students wanted to keep fraternities.

Gender relations have been a problem at the College for many years. We are lucky now to be able to talk about them relatively openly, a striking contrast to the materials surrounding the abolition of frats, which contain the merest hints and whispers of the true problems and why so many female “brothers” left the frats. So let’s educate ourselves, and let’s make sure that our current discussions are documented so that future Amherst students can understand the precedents we’re setting today. As the trustees predicted, abolishing frats did not end social issues on campus, regardless of the reasons for abolition. That part is up to us.

For those who are interested: the sources for this story include Box 1 of the Fraternities Collection (including the “Final Report of the Ad Hoc Trustee Committee on Campus Life”), Box 1 of the Coeducation Collection (including materials from a 2002 WAGS course on women at the College), The Student and senior honors theses by Helen Shepherd ’88 and Carey Lifschultz ’93. I also recommend Nicholas Syrett’s book, The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, which was largely researched in our Archives.