Absence of houses for women’s fraternities has historic roots

Georgia Lyon

The sexism of the past reaches into the present through the housing options available to Greek Life at Whitman College.

Throughout most of Whitman’s history and even to this very day, women’s fraternities have been housed on-campus under the supervision of residence life while the men’s fraternities have controlled their own houses on the edges of campus. A common rumor holds that this is because of a so-called “brothel law” that Walla Walla supposedly had, where a house containing more than a certain number of women was considered to be a house of prostitution. However, this law has never actually existed; rather, the disparity in educational and economic opportunities between the sexes in the early half of the twentieth century is responsible for the fact that women’s fraternities do not have houses whereas men’s fraternities do. Whitman felt a duty to protect the young women under its jurisdiction and foster a community on campus.

According to Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell, the urban myth of the brothel law is clearly false because if such a law existed no group of women would be able to live off of Whitman’s campus.

“If more than X number of women live together, it’s a brothel, and it’s illegal. Which is obviously not true because every off-campus home that had X number of women would actually be in violation of city code, and they would all be arrested, which they are obviously not,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell added that historic disparities in  education and the gender pay gap go a longer way towards explaining why women’s fraternities were unable to acquire houses like fraternities.

“Not as many women were going to college in 1912, 1913, 1915 and even with their college educations, going out and getting a job,” Maxwell said. “Very frequently, they were never earning the wages that their male counterparts were. So the sororities just didn’t have the same well of resources to draw from.”

Early twentieth century ideas about the different positions occupied by men and women also made Whitman College administrators feel as if they had to protect female students more than male ones. Whitman was expected to act in loco parentis (in place of the parent) and instill good values in the young women at the college too.

“[Whitman College was] very Christian and patriotism-oriented…What they would teach at Whitman College, specifically, was that you had to use martyred missionaries as your role models. So the women were to use Narcissa Whitman as their role model,” said senior Tommy Breeze, who works at the Whitman College and Northwest Archives in Penrose Library.

Additionally, former President of Whitman College Stephen Penrose expressed the desire to make a community where all young women would feel welcome, which he felt could be more easily done if women’s fraternities were housed on-campus.

“If the unifying effect of the dormitories were not felt, and if Whitman girls were allowed to live apart in separate groups in sorority houses, I feel that a very inferior condition of life would be reached. My solution for the problem of sororities in the co-educational college is dormitory life, obligatory for all non-resident girls, but with dormitories so divided and arranged so that sorority spirit can be recognized and properly cared for,” wrote Penrose in “The President’s Report” of 1922.

Though women’s fraternities were originally housed on-campus to create feelings of safety and unity, today women’s fraternities sometimes must occupy spaces that some members are not comfortable with. The national law that women’s fraternities cannot host parties in their residencies couples with Whitman’s housing policy in a way that creates tense dynamics as women’s fraternities must hold functions and events at fraternities or off-campus locations.

“All of our safety issues do have to be taken care of by the frats, and that can be super shady sometimes. Like last year, we just had a problems with a bunch of girls feeling very unsafe in some frat basements. This year, I know we have a big problem with [people from town] getting in…They know the environment; we don’t totally know it,” said Erin Minus, a sophomore in Theta.

Furthermore, Minus said that an off-campus house is considered an unofficial women’s fraternity house if only one of the people living there is in a sorority.

“There’s this weird rule where if there is even one sorority member in a house of indies, it’s still technically considered a sorority house, and so that can also be a little bit funky. We don’t host any sorority or frat functions in the sorority houses, but we’ll have our own little pre-game for formal or cute little sorority events at houses off-campus,” Minus said.

While the dynamics around women’s fraternities housing are deeply-entrenched, change may be possible. Until the year 1970 women were not allowed to live off campus, when the college began to feel pressure to match its values to the times.

“I think that Whitman went along with that tide and decided to be more on the right side of history,” Breeze said.