|"μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος"|
"The fraternity system is as old as America. The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in 1776 at William and Mary. That society, which still awards membership based on academic performance, strove to promote fellowship, intellect, and moral conduct. By the 1820s, Phi Beta Kappa had transformed into a purely academic society as fraternities started to spread across American colleges. These organizations, which were literary and social societies, were founded very much in the same spirit as Phi Beta Kappa. They fashioned themselves with the model of ancient Greece in mind. They were named after Greek letters during a period in American history when “Greece eclipsed Rome as the model for virtuous citizenship in the American imagination and at colleges particularly,” as the historian Nicholas L. Syrett writes in The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. “To be Greek,” he goes on, “was to hearken back to the ancients, to the ideals of the founding of Western civilization; it was also to subscribe to notions of self-improvement through literature and oratory.”
Like the band of friends in Plato’s Symposium, fraternity members came together around two common interests: fellowship and intellectual cultivation. To discipline one’s mind, as Syrett notes, was part of living a virtuous life, which is what the fraternity brothers aspired to do. Meeting minutes from the mid-1800s show brothers at schools like Amherst, Yale, and the University of Michigan gathering to discuss Shakespeare, the benefits and drawbacks of the United States admitting New Mexico into the Union, and “the character of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham.” Manliness was defined in terms of being intelligent, socially graceful, handsome, and morally upright—that is, being a gentleman. In 1836, a fraternity at Williams College determined whether to admit men into their brotherhood by asking: “Would you want your sister to marry him?”
By the 1920s, the ideal of masculinity changed from the more genteel manliness of the antebellum period to one grounded in physical prowess, athleticism, sexual virility, and aggression. Drinking had occurred previously in fraternities, but the fraternity brothers tried to drink “gentlemanly” quantities—that is, in moderation. But by the post-World War I period, excessive drinking—not self-control—became a mark of masculinity. The more manliness and drinking became intertwined, the more college men drank themselves to the point of oblivion.
Part of the reason ideals of manliness changed, Syrett points out, is women. As women started attending colleges that were traditionally all-male, men not only responded with hostility, but they felt compelled to assert their manliness in new ways. Women, after all, were now equal to men in the eyes of the college. They could engage in the same intellectual exercises as the fraternity men of the antebellum period. But what women could not do was rival men in their physicality, which included their drinking prowess. Another dividing line between men and women was the act of sex itself. For men, sexual prowess became a signature of manhood. “It was in the twenties,” writes Syrett, “that it became popular—indeed, commonplace—for young, middle-class men, fraternity brothers among them, to discuss their sexual exploits with each other.”