Wed, 01/23/2013 - 12:32pm
Jewish Women’s Salon Live invites all women in the Jewish community to Who’s Your Esther?, a facilitated discussion about the women who’ve inspired us, moved us, and helped make us the people we are today. Farideh Goldin, Director of Jewish Studies at Old Dominion University will lead an interactive presentation on Sunday, February 17 from 10 - 11:30 AM at the Sandler Family Campus of the Tidewater Jewish Community, 5000 Corporate Woods Dr, Virginia Beach
For inspiration in thinking about your own Esther, read the below (originally published in 614 HBI ezine) about a woman who refused to accept limits for herself and her fellow women.
A Sorority from Scratch
A college student fights exclusion by creating a sorority that honors differences.
by Lois Greene Stone
When I went to college in the mid-1950s, there were an overwhelming number of regulations women were expected to follow. Co-eds were required to adhere to dress codes, such as wearing skirts six days a week (pants were permitted only on Saturday afternoons). There were social 'teas,' for which white gloves actually had to be carried. Curfew was enforced, 10:30 p.m. on weeknights, midnight on Saturday, and each girl had to sign out (in a ledger) the time she was leaving a dorm, where she could be located, and then sign in upon return.
Many parents, and large numbers of students, considered Rush Week essential to one's social life and prestige. I discovered there were instructions given by each sorority regarding which men a sister could date from a specific fraternity and whether "independent" men would even be permitted to act as escort. At the university I attended, there were two national sororities open to Jewish women. The members in one were expected to generally appear in conservative sweater sets and a strand of pearls with a straight or pleated skirt; the other emphasized fitted feminine bodices above billowing skirts lined with crinolines. More clothing compliance. I'd assumed college life included freedom to grow, then realized I'd had more power to be my own person during summer camp! I also could not accept religion-identification by Greek letters that denoted who was Jewish, who was Protestant, and so forth. I didn't pledge.
With approximately 30 girls—Christian and Jewish, Caucasian and Negro—who expressed similar strong feelings, we formed one of the first interracial, non-sectarian, no-blackball, no-hazing, no-pledge sororities in the country. We objected to the process that governed invitation-only organizations based on skin color and religious affiliation that also demeaned pledges.
We opted for a sisterhood open to any female willing to live together as people who would agree to the principles of human dignity. We were outcasts from the system of exclusion, yet the university decided to approve our inclusion as "Greeks." Most of our members were living in a freshman dorm, #3D, also called the "German House" (as the housemother spoke German, and any German exchange students were housed there). The housemother was kind to everyone, but I felt uncomfortable with the name "German House" and left if off the address. All fraternal organizations in the university at that time were housed in buildings the school owned, and none looked different from the independent housing. We were given a dorm!
We few founders of something different didn't feel courageous or frightened or even enlightened. We just wanted to live the ideals we'd been raised with: that neither religion nor skin color made one individual better than another. Sure, I could study sociology and anthropology and even the philosophy of religion, but these would be textbook words; in order to understand what I had in common with another person, I chose to live and share with her. I knew we'd have more similarities than differences.
To display our sisterhood, I cut out three felt letters of our Greek symbols—Delta Epsilon Phi—and sewed them on to one of my mother's bright red tablecloths. From my fourth-floor window, I suspended the cloth so it showed on the outside of the building. Our policy was to open our society to any female who believed in living among others of different races and religions. Just swearing to follow those beliefs meant automatic sisterhood. Even our pin, which we founding sisters designed, was the symbol of an open door. How odd, in retrospect, that we were considered rebels rather than Greeks among the homogenous social clubs.
I handwrote letters to universities across the country to join us so we could become a recognized national group; many responses were quite horrible. (Being naive, I included Southern schools, as well as several WASP-only, all-girls, Eastern schools.) My outrage at many of the hateful responses about living in a heterogeneous atmosphere furthered my desire to proclaim people should be circled-in and not circled-out. We founders were clear with our beliefs and innocent enough to assume equality among people was part of the education process. Of course, it wasn't.
My next step was to contact an amazing person who preached and lived fairness and understanding of all humans: Eleanor Roosevelt. My maternal grandfather was a political photographer who traveled with Presidents Taft through Truman; he also had a studio in Brooklyn. And when Eleanor Roosevelt gave presentations to women's guilds, my grandpa was right there with his massive camera. When FDR had a motorcade around New York in an open convertible, he deliberately had the parade go right by my grandpa's Brooklyn studio, where he acknowledged my grandpa and his family. That's how I had her private phone number, and I invited Mrs. Roosevelt to come to our sorority to validate our unique organization. She took the train alone from New York to Hartford, and our housemother picked her up and drove her to Storrs, Connecticut. I greeted her with a corsage of her favorite flower (Camellia), and she had dinner with us in our dorm's dining hall. She then gave a speech to the student body before heading home. Our numbers grew ... slowly. We participated and actually won prizes for homecoming floats contests and original skits presented for competition, but remained "different" in the eyes of many co-eds.
During those three years, I truly lived by my values: I dated a person and not a "brother of a fraternity that had social prestige"; befriended the loner; brushed my teeth beside a non-Caucasian (and only saw her as a sister and friend); and discussed how similar our various religions really were in concept and some practices. I knew I was stronger by refusing to compromise for social acceptance. This non-conformity has continued all of my adult life. I have never been a joiner for peer approval.
My published writings have been a source of speaking out. My op-eds, even for the New York Times, have been objections about ordinary things. During my years as adjunct faculty at a private, local college, I refused to have office hours in a partitioned room, insisting on the privacy of a noisy cafeteria. When the temperature in my classroom was frigid, I conducted my teaching in disruptive places (the library, the lounge) until a heated classroom was promptly provided. As calendars flip years, I've continued to reject "the group mentality." I'm still the "me" I was as a young girl. The loudest voice I still make is to simply be myself and not join in.
Have your own inspiring heroine? Tell us about it at Who’s Your Esther. February 17, 2013. Learn more and RSVP here.