Sisterhood is Powerful
One of the most important decisions in a girl’s life may be made in her first week of college—at sorority rush.
September 1976 - By Prudence Mackintosh
Of all the trappings of my four years at the
, only one followed me
to University of Texas and appears destined
to be with me the rest of my life: my sorority. Maligned and revered, the butt
of jokes and jibes and the goal of countless anxious mothers for their
daughters, sororities have kept their place in the rites of passage of a whole
segment of Texas society that
moves from summer camp to sorority to Junior League, with the same basic
rituals serving at each level to strengthen the bond of women together. When I
returned to Dallas last fall to witness
sorority rush, I had expected that the intervening years of the late sixties
and the seventies would have changed things utterly. Instead, I found my
memories going back to my own rush. Austin
It was the fall of 1962, and I had just hobbled in
ill-fitting stiletto-heeled shoes from the Chi Omega house on
to the Tri Delt house
on Wichita 27th Street in . Word had not reached Austin that during rush week,
regardless of the University policy which forbade freshmen to have cars, it was
unseemly to walk from sorority house to sorority house. Socially astute and
ambitious mothers from Houston and Dallas had willingly stranded themselves at
the Villa Capri motel near campus, so that their daughters could drive the
family car and arrive poised and oblivious to the beastly Texarkana September sun in their
de rigueur dark cottons. Austin
My dark cottons were severely circled under the armpits and the humidity made me regret the tight permanent wave that my mother had felt was necessary to keep my already naturally curly hair out of my eyes. The lengthy walk had made me late, and I half hoped that I could sit this one out. But before I could blot the sweat from my upper lip, a vivacious girl costumed like Judy Garland’s dog Toto pinned a huge name tag on me and led me down a cardboard yellow brick road into the cool interior of her sorority house.
Like young Jay Gatsby, I had seldom been in such beautiful houses before. Although F. Scott Fitzgerald never mentioned Daisy’s sorority affiliation, these houses—particularly the Tri Delt and Pi Phi houses—could have been hers. Like Gatsby, I suspected that these houses held “ripe mystery . . . a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors.” I was much too naive to recognize voices “full of money,” but I did marvel at the inexhaustible charm of these breathless beauties. I wrote to my parents after that first day of parties with Pi Phis, Tri Delts, Zetas, Chi Omegas, Kappas, and Thetas that I had never seen such a gathering of beautiful girls in my life. “High in a white palace, the king’s daughters, the golden girls”—in Pappagallo shoes.
Sororities at the
in 1962 were large by
national standards. If all pledges remained active, a UT sorority could usually
boast close to 350 active members. Even if only half of them were really
beauties, the effect was overwhelming when you saw them—exquisitely groomed—in
one large room. University of Texas
After what seemed interminable non-conversation and punch which never really quenched one’s thirst, the lights dimmed at the Tri Delt house, and Toto gave me a quick squeeze, “You just sit right here on the front row. I’ll be back when the skit is over.” My naiveté once again kept me from being impressed by this privileged front-row position. Being squired around by a costumed sorority personality, I would later learn, also might indicate favoritism. The skits blur a little in my mind, but they were nothing less than major musical productions, often with professional lighting and costumes. We were the tail end of a generation raised on Broadway musicals and consequently were prime suckers for lyrics lifted from Carousel, Showboat, or South Pacific and altered for sorority purposes. I distinctly remember a green-eyed Tri Delt named Kay dressed as the carnival barker from Carousel sending shivers down my spine with “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high . . .” It was that unflinching eye contact that got me every time, and by the end of the week, if you were a desirable rushee, someone might be squeezing your elbow by the time Kay’s voice reached the final “You’ll never walk aaalone.” Although the songs varied, that was the pitch at most of the houses. The girls locked arms around the room and swayed gently as they sang, all to remind you that it was a big University and that joining these self-confident beauties meant not having to face it alone.
As I watched these sorority girls flash their perfect teeth
and sing and dance, I surmised that they possessed secrets that they might
share if I managed to get out of the foyer and into those upstairs rooms. They
not only knew their way to class on the 150 acres that then composed the
University, but they also knew appropriate retorts when drunk Kappa Sigs pulled
their skirts up at parties and howled, “Look at the wheels on this woman!” I
knew they could hold their beer and their cool when someone “dropped trou” or
toga at a
party. I was sure that
they did not worry—as I did—about where one slept when one accepted an OU-Texas
date to Fiji Island or when one made the
bacchanalian pilgrimage to Dallas for George
Washington’s Birthday. Laredo
But the week was not all costumed escorts, squeezes, and front-row seats. Sometimes the carefully concealed rushing machinery broke down and the party lost its air of graciousness. A survivor recalls that in the grand finale of the Carousel skit, performers tossed bags of popcorn to prize rushees on the front row. One player overshot the front row, but remedied her error by wrenching the popcorn bag from the second-row innocent’s hand and restoring it to its intended mark. More often the embarrassing moments were brought on by a provincial rushee. It’s probably apocryphal, but the story floated around for years that, on being passed a silver tray of cigarettes, a rushee at the Zeta house looked puzzled for a moment, then reached furtively into her purse, emptied her cigarette pack on the tray, and quickly passed it on.
At the Pi Phi house I once held four “floaters” (sorority members who moved in and out of many circles at each party to get an overall picture of the rushees) captive with a fifteen-minute maudlin tale about the day my dog died when I was eleven. They feigned intense interest, their eyes brimming at appropriate times, but doubtless they collapsed in spasms of laughter and goose calls when I made my exit. The next day, to my horror, I was repeatedly introduced at the Pi Phi house with, “This is Prudence. Get her to tell you that neat story about her dog.”
But despite our faux pas, my roommates and I had an easy time of it. We were under no parental pressure to pledge at all. Totally ignorant of the machinations of rush, we innocently perceived the whole rush week scene as one exhausting and bewildering but happy experience in which we were to decide whom we liked best. We had only the vaguest notions about sorority rankings on campus. Although there were twenty sororities on the UT campus in 1962, for many girls, accepting a bid from other than the “big six” was apparently unthinkable. We were aware of tears down the hall as first- and second-period “cuts” were made by the sororities, but we could not appreciate the pain of the “legacy” (the daughter of a sorority alum) whose mother responded to her daughter’s rejection with, “Pack your bags, honey, SMU has deferred rush.” Or the one who declared, “See, I told you you should have gone to Tech first”—where it was easier to make it into an elite sorority and then transfer to UT.
The third period of rush week consisted of two Saturday evening parties. It was tense, and girls on both sides were exhausted, Members had culled their rushee lists to approximately 100. Too many rushees at a final period party could scare top rushees away. (“There were ten Houston girls at that party; they won’t take us all.”) In 1962 rushees were required to wear “after-five” dresses to these parties. Members usually dressed in white or, in the case of the Kappas, in sepulchral black. Sidewalks were lined with hurricane lamps and the houses were candlelit. This was the party for sentimental tearjerkers. The Thetas were renowned for leaving no dry eyes. The Tri Delts put a string of pearls around your neck and instructed you to toss a wishing pearl in a shell fountain while an alumna with a haunting voice sang mysteriously from an upstairs window. The Kappas still croon in four-part harmony.
And when we tell you
How wonderful you are,
You’ll never believe it.
You’ll never believe it.
That girls so fine could ever be
united in fraternity
And they all wear the little golden key.
And when you wear one,
And you’re certainly going to wear one.
[This is when the not so subtle elbow squeeze came.]
The proudest girl in this wide world you’ll be
You’ll never believe it.
You’ll never believe it.
That from this great wide world
We’ve chosen YOU.
[Really look ’em in the eye.]
After two such parties (a first and second preference), the rushees departed for Hogg Auditorium to sign preference cards, which would be sorted by computer. Needless to say, no one folded, spindled, or mutilated her card. Sorority members would be up in all-night final hash sessions to determine their top 50 choices. On Sunday afternoon, the computer would print out the results. Panhellenic representatives sat with boxes of alphabetized envelopes. For appearances’ sake, there was an envelope for every girl who had attended a final party, but some contained cards with the message, “You have received no sorority bid at this time. Please feel free to come by the Panhellenic office to register for open rush.” Amid the squealing and squeezing that went on as envelopes were ripped open, perhaps it was possible to run unnoticed from the room with such an envelope and back to a lonely dorm room for a bitter cry. We were among the shriekers and squeezers and we did not notice. My three roommates and I had received bids to the same sorority, and our course was set.
Although we were to become somewhat aberrant sorority members, we had unwittingly chosen our bridesmaids, the godmothers for our future children, and access to certain social circles. Others in our pledge class already had this social entree by virtue of their birth; numerous legacies recall hearing Kappa songs as lullabies. I remember being fascinated by a framed family tree that hung in the study hall of the Kappa house. The genealogy was illustrated by linking Kappa keys (the sorority symbol) indicating that all of the women in this family had been Kappas for four generations. I distinctly remember feeling sorry for these girls whose choices were made inevitable by long family tradition.
Still others had simply been born in the right
neighborhoods and had distinguished themselves in the privileged big-city high
schools—which then were Lamar (
), Houston ( Alamo Heights ), San Antonio ( Highland Park ), and Dallas Arlington Heights ( ). Small-town sorority
members might have already joined these elite circles at expensive summer
camps. Only one of my new Kappa roommates had done any of these things. She was
a product of Fort Worth , had attended a
boarding school, recognized prestige clothing labels, and generally knew her
way around the social scene into which the other three of us had stumbled. She
was appalled at our ignorance. We had blindly selected our sorority because we
liked each other and because we agreed that the Kappas’ whole rush setup was
pleasantly amateurish and not at all intimidating. Quite frankly, we felt like
we might be able to help them out. In a small-town high school, where rivalry
was not particularly fierce, one tended to get an inflated idea of one’s
abilities and talents. In a competitive big-city high school, one might be a
cheerleader or serve on the student council, but in a smaller pond like ours,
it was entirely possible to be cheerleader, star in the senior play, editor of
the school paper, and a member, and probably an officer, in every school
organization and still do well scholastically. Camp Mystic
When we expressed these reasons for pledging later in a rush evaluation questionnaire, our active “sisters,” knowing that our egos could obviously take it, were quick to inform us that our pledge class had been a tremendous disappointment.
There were other illusions destroyed that freshman year. Girls who had chastely sung of truth, beauty, and honor during rush and had even lectured our pledge class on ladylike behavior befitting a sorority member would be seen holding forth with sloshing beer cup atop the toilet seat in the powder room during a Sigma Chi match party, “Furthermore, remember, you can drink like a lady.”
But the scales would not really drop from our eyes until
rush the following year. We had spent many summer hours rewriting and casting
skits and painting new scenery, and though exhausted we looked forward to rush
with the enthusiasm that only one who has not already endured it can possess.
The business of UT rush was mind boggling. Every member was required to attend
unless she was out of the country. On arrival in
the week before rush
week, members were handed a schedule of workshop activities and a list of at
least 300 names containing pertinent information about each rushee. Hours and
hours were spent in the basement with a slide projector flashing pictures of rushees
on a screen while we shouted names, hometowns, and other key information. I
was totally unprepared for the power blocs from the big cities. Austin might send twenty
highly recommended girls through our rush, but the actives from Houston already knew which
ones were to be eliminated before the end of the week. Gradually, as the
pictures became more familiar on the screen during workshop, someone would
shout out in the darkened room, “Gotta get that girl!” or “Key to Houston —get her, we get ’em all”
or “Theta legacy-Theta pledge, forget her.” As the sessions got longer, girls
became giddy and pictures of less than beautiful girls would be greeted with
uncharitable mooing. I learned to become exceedingly wary of those air-brushed
Gittings portraits of girls in their Hockaday graduation gowns. Houston
Besides giving us some sight recognition of the rushees, I
think “the flicks,” as we called the grueling picture sessions in the
basement, served another purpose. When combined with song memorizing, skit
practices, loss of sleep, and evangelical exhortations to “fire up!” they
produced a certain single-mindedness that would enable almost-grown women to
revert to what in retrospect seems incredibly childish behavior. Happenings in
the outside world had no bearing on our lives that week. What really mattered
’s adorable Jo Frances
Tyng away from the Pi Phis. By the end of rush week, when all but the die-hards
had conceded loss, we dubbed her “Ring-ching-Tyng” (as in “Ring-Ching Pi Beta
Phi,” a song sung to the jingle of gold charm bracelets at the Pi Phi house). Houston
“Silence rules” prescribed by Panhellenic to prevent undue
pressure on any rushee only contributed to the unreality of the whole
experience. From the time they arrived in
until the end of rush
week, rushees could associate only with other rushees. They could not have
dates or talk to their parents. Sorority members were isolated in their
respective houses with all telephones disconnected except one. Such isolation
on both sides set the scene for considerable emotional buildup, hence the tears
by third-period party, which were variously interpreted as “she loves us—we’ve
got her” or “she loves us, but her mother was a Zeta and called her, crying.”
In retrospect, I think all the tears were small nervous breakdowns. Austin
When rush week began that year, we poured through the front door clapping and yelling, “I’m a Kappa Gamma, awful glad I amma, a rootin-tootin’ K-K-G.” I remember being slightly embarrassed by the peculiar stares we received from nonparticipants passing by, but nevertheless I sought out my assigned rushee and did my best to “give her a good rush” (introduce her to as many people as I could). By the third party of the day, our mouths were so dry that we sometimes had trouble getting our lips down over our teeth when the perpetual rush smile was no longer required. I was chastised more than once by a rush captain who saw me monopolize a rushee by having some “meaningful conversation” with her away from the babbling crowds, thus spoiling her chances for maximum recognition in the cut session that night.
The language of rush week almost requires a special lexicon. After the first round of parties, I was bewildered by the basement voting sessions. The rush captain had to keep things moving and be sure that sufficient people were dropped from our list each night to keep subsequent parties from being overcrowded. Certain signals developed for expedience. Members in agreement with a favorable comment being made on a rushee would begin to snap their fingers. Widespread finger snapping meant the rushee had sufficient support and that discussion could be curtailed. I also encountered that wonderful euphemism, “the courtesy cut.” The rush captain carefully explained that we owed it to legacies to cut them after first-period parties if we did not intend to pledge them. “That way they can go another direction,” she reasoned with us. We never allowed ourselves to consider that other houses were cutting the girl that night because she was our legacy—leaving her no “direction” to go. To avoid gossipy invasions of a rushee’s past indiscretions, any doubts about a girl’s reputation were phrased, “I don’t believe she is Kappa material.” From a reasonably credible source, this phrase could utterly destroy the rushee’s chance—no further discussion needed. Another shorthand signal that either cut a rushee from the list or initiated a lengthy debate was, “Y’all, I just think she’d be happier elsewhere.” I remember one particularly stormy evening when this phrase was used on an active member’s sister.