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Getting Out the Vote

Molly Yard Garrett '33

My greatest experience at Swarthmore was organizing and leading the campaign to abolish sororities in the early 1930s. I did not know at the time that this was just the first of many political battles for me. 

I got into the campaign because the sororities were unfair and discriminatory. In my class, there was a Jewish student from Chicago, Babette Schiller, who was extremely clever and talented. She wrote and produced playlets that greatly aided my sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, in its "rushing"-persuading freshman students to join. So appealing was her work that I and several of my classmates wanted Kappa Alpha Theta to invite her to become a member. But our sorority leaders would not consider her. Was it because she was Jewish? They refused to say why.

Several other similar events occurred in the sororities. My sister Elizabeth's sorority, Chi Omega, refused to pledge her classmate Eleanor Flexner, whose father, Abraham Flexner, was an eminent fund-raiser for Johns Hopkins, and whose mother was a successful playwright. Eleanor herself became a historian who achieved stunning success as the author of A Century of Progress, the story of the struggle to win for women the right to vote in the United States.

With these incidents in mind, some of us decided we should eliminate the source of such unfairness, and we organized the abolition campaign, making sure that we had representation from each sorority, as well as from women students who were left out of the system. We educated all women students on the unfairness of the sorority system and gradually got more and more of them to agree with us. The vote among women students, when it finally occurred, was overwhelmingly against women's sororities.

Several important lessons were learned from the campaign. First, we had to deal with the question of what we should have in place of the sororities, which were the lifeblood of social activities at the College. We put our heads together and decided to establish a committee of the Women's Student Government Association to plan social life for the coming year. It was a most successful decision-the WSGA did an excellent job. All students were included in the program; there was no discrimination of any kind. And we learned that we didn't need the sorority system to have a social life at college and a good time.

We also learned that the triumph that so pleased us was upsetting to some women students, who personally considered the decision a disaster. This taught us the hard lesson that one's own triumph may bring sorrow to others. So began our knowledge of the necessity of underpinning our success with compassion for the feelings of others.

One final lesson was learned from Frank Aydelotte, who was president of the College at that time. When the vote to abolish sororities was announced, many alumnae were furious. They descended on Swarthmore and demanded that the College not accept the vote. To placate them, President Aydelotte decreed that no sorority edict could take effect for a year. Now I was the one who was furious. We had won fair and square. Who was he to change the vote?

I rushed to the president's house, banged on the door, and demanded of him what he thought he was doing. "What's the matter, Molly?" he said. "Are you afraid to take another vote at the end of next year? Such a vote is guaranteed by my agreement with the alums." I said of course I was not afraid to take another vote. And that is what we did.

We entered into another year of hard work-educating and persuading the new students of the correctness of our position. When the vote was held, we won again, overwhelmingly.

The whole campaign was very educational for me. I devoted many years after college to social activism and political campaigns, employing many of the techniques we had learned in the campaign to abolish sororities. I worked in Philadelphia mayoral campaigns and also those for the U.S. Senate. And I was active in the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and George McGovern. Eventually, I ran my own campaign to become a member of the Pennsylvania legislature-unsuccessfully. I had learned in college what had to be done to get voters involved, but apparently I did not learn well enough for myself.

Molly Yard Garrett, a lifelong social and political activist, was the president of the National Organization for Women.