Academic journal article College English

Sorority Rhetorics as Everyday Epideictic

Academic journal article College English

Sorority Rhetorics as Everyday Epideictic

Article excerpt

Instead of just the rhetorical tradition, we need to study the rhetoric of traditions-the ways that political parties, ethnic groups, social movements, and other discourse communities constitute and maintain the shared values and assumptions that authorize discourse.

-Thomas P. Miller, "Reinventing Rhetorical Traditions"

few years ago, I was conducting archival research at the headquarters of Alpha Delta Pi, a national historically white sorority that is part of the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC). The archivist and I were chatting when I recalled aloud there being some controversy as to which was the first national sorority. The distinctions are fine: Alpha Delta Pi, founded in 1851 as The Adelphean Society, was the first secret society for women; Pi Beta Phi, founded as I. C. Sorosis in 1867, was the first secret society for women modeled after Greek fraternities; Kappa Alpha Theta was the first begun with Greek letters in 1870; and Gamma Phi Beta was the first to use the term "sorority" in 1882 (women's fraternity was used before then). As a member of Alpha Delta Pi myself, this was not news: our tagline "First, Finest, Forever" was constantly and consistently reinforced. These claims of origin were serious to many members, as conveyed by lore shared by the archivist: apparently the game show Jeopardy! once gave an answer clue about the first sorority, and "What is Alpha Delta Pi?" was not the question. An alum contacted the show, as it was important to clarify and maintain the status as first.1

Such discordance among origin stories is more than a game show trivia question, however. Indeed, I argue that it is just one example of the impact of ubiquitous rhetorical practices used to promote and sustain belonging within sororities. Julie A. Bokser contends that a rhetoric of belonging describes a form of epideictic rhetoric that "more specifically foregrounds the building of community and the role of multimodal (not exclusively verbal) persuasion in such construction" (148). She also notes that belonging is "inherent" to rhetoric, drawing upon Kenneth Burke's theories of identification:

[We] are clearly in the region of rhetoric when considering the identifications whereby a specialized activity makes one a participant in some social or economic class. "Belonging" in this sense is rhetorical. (Rhetoric of Motives 27-8)

Bokser argues that belonging extends identification in that it "foregrounds how rhetoric is about human relationships" (148). A shared experience "gathers [individuals] together with others" in ways that can work "rhetorically to constitute collective identity" (Clark 144). A focus on belonging, among other things, emphasizes how social participation can be a significant element of rhetorical work, as ultimately, "rhetoric is the process through which belonging to and power within a particular community are negotiated" (Bokser 148). Such rhetorics are foundational to national historically white sororities, which are growing on campuses and for whom present and past members number over four million.2 Despite these numbers, rhetoric and composition scholars have paid little mind to this Greek system, likely because, as a whole, the system exists as enclaves of privilege and exclusivity, particularly in terms of class and race.3 But in a climate when bridging cultural divides feels particularly challenging, gaining greater insights into groups that sustain and forward dominant ideologies is necessary to our work. In studying "the rhetoric of traditions," as the epigraph by Thomas P. Miller describes, we can better learn the rhetorical practices and processes that foster, perpetuate, and hold sway (26).

With their histories, traditions, and rituals, sororities are entrenched in belonging. For historically white sororities, new sorority members are literally embraced by their sisters just after recruitment on Bid Day, when an applicant finds out which sorority has extended a bid for her membership and the process of moving toward full, initiated membership begins. …

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