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Professor speaks on history of fraternities

Professor speaks on history of fraternities

As part of the Gund Gallery’s ongoing lecture series on fraternities and masculinity, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Laurie Finke gave a talk this Tuesday entitled “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: History of Fraternities in Europe and Transmission to America”.

The talk provided a broad historical perspective on fraternities, from the founding of the Freemasons in 1717 to the Kavanaugh hearings. Finke focused on the Golden Age of Fraternalism, which spanned the Civil War era to World War I. During this time period, one in five men belonged to at least one fraternal society.

“One of the things that … political theorists argue is that, in fact, we don’t live in a patriarchy. We live in a fratriarchy,” Finke said. “We don’t live under the rule of fathers; we live in the regime of the brother.”

Finke argued that fraternities support a structure of masculinity and listed reasons that men chose to join these groups during their Golden Age. Among them were economic benefits, networking opportunities and an opportunity to escape from polite society.

While the Gund Gallery’s current exhibition, “The American Fraternity,” has inspired criticism of fraternal organizations, Finke did not offer a judgement. “One of the things I’m not ready to do is make a distinction between good fraternities, like the religious Knights of Columbus … and what we might say are bad fraternities,” she said. Finke’s father and grandfather were both fourth-degree members of the Knights of Columbus.

Finke chose to contextualize the exhibition by identifying characteristics that fraternities have in common, from hazing to the use of symbolic goats. To illustrate her point that many fraternities share an element of open secrecy, Finke drew from Kenyon’s history.

“Kenyon fraternities — and most fraternities that organized between 1825 and 1950 — were secret because they were banned on campuses … until the first group of professors were hired who had themselves been in fraternities when they were students,” she said. Despite officially being banned, Finke said, the presence of fraternities at Kenyon was still widely known.

Finke has spent her time on sabbatical researching the trope of knighthood in American fraternalism with Professor of English Language and Literature Martin Shichtman at Eastern Michigan University, with whom she has collaborated for nearly forty years. Their work is the basis for an upcoming book about fraternal culture, masculinity and medievalism at the turn of the 20th century.

In the next installment of the Gund Gallery’s lecture series on fraternities and masculinity, Assistant Professor and Director of Visual Studies at Cornell University Andrew Moisey will discuss his photography exhibition. Nicholas Syrett, Professor and Chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas will share his research on the history of white college fraternities. Their talk will take place on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Community Foundation Theater.


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