A Woman of Honor

By Julie Fei-Fan Balzer '98 / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
A letter in the July 1997 Brown Alumni Monthly caught my eye: in it, an alumnus from the mid-1970s gently criticized a new Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, for its lack of diversity. As the letter writer reminisced about his days as a brother in a very diverse Zeta Psi, I couldn't help but smile. Oh, how fraternities have changed! I am a brother of Brown's revamped Zeta Psi, now called Zeta Delta Xi - a more diverse group than Zeta Psi ever imagined. I am half Asian and half Jewish. But more important, I am a woman.

Of the nine fraternities at Brown, only two admit women as official members. One, Alpha Delta Phi, is a nationally recognized literary fraternity. Zeta Delta Xi is more of a renegade. During the 1980s, a declining interest among men in joining fraternities led the Brown chapter of Zeta Psi to seek out women as brothers. Yet in accordance with national Zete bylaws, female pledges were only welcome at local ceremonies, while male pledges participated in both local and national ones. The University's chapter and national headquarters were clearly on a collision path. Sure enough, in 1986, after Brown's female Zete president was not allowed to attend the fraternity's national convention, the Brown chapter was kicked out of the national organization. On January 24, 1987, Zeta Psi became Zeta Delta Xi.

For me, Zeta Delta Xi has put the "fraternity" back into frat. Perhaps that's because its members have truly worked together after that 1987 split - after officials from the national Zeta Psi organization arrived in Providence with a moving van and took away pledge manuals, alumni records, and even the pool table. Over the past ten years we've re-created the pledging process from memory and imagination; we have slowly restored the house with our own money and labor. Everything from bar stools to porch swings has been built by pledge classes. And while a young fraternity has few alumni who can contribute a lot of cash, we've saved enough money to purchase a pool table and a dart board and have still managed to put some in the bank.

The decision to join Zeta Delta Xi was not easy one. On this politically correct campus, the only people who can be openly bashed are those beer-swilling frat boys on Wriston Quad: they're idiots, racists, rapists, and obnoxious jocks. Our mothers tell us to stay away, and our resident counselors bad-mouth them. Like most first-year students, I had only been to frats to meet and greet and bump and grind on the dance floor. I had never considered joining.

But my roommate, who was dating a Zete brother, dragged me to a rush, and everything changed when I walked through the door. I'd expected lots of large, grunting men and petite, perfumed women. What I saw was every kind of person from a cappella singers to athletes, vegetarians to rabid carnivores, homosexuals to homophobes. Sure, the bar was - and still is, on most nights - full of people playing drinking games in a cloud of smoke. The difference was that at Zete, half of the people were clutching cans of Mountain Dew instead of beer.

People might think it strange that someone who considers herself a feminist, as I do, would join a fraternity. But it makes sense. I tend to get along better with men than with women; I feel more at ease and less competitive in their company. Besides, college is a time for exploring. I figure I've got the rest of my life to hang out with people who are just like me.

Today, Zeta Delta Xi has thirty-nine members: seventeen women and twenty-two men. We are Jews, Christians, Hispanics, Caucasians, and Asians. We come from rural Washington state and Paris, France; from boarding schools and public schools. This diversity - which began years ago with the admission of members of racial and religious minorities but which leapt forward with the admission of women - is what makes Zete strong and will carry it into the next century.

The author of that letter in the July BAM wrote that "One of the attractions of fraternity life was living, working, and studying with gentlemen of honor of very different backgrounds and learning from them." It still is. Only now, it's people of honor.

Julie Fei-Fan Balzer is a theater concentrator from Watertown, Massachusetts.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 1998