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Monday, August 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:24 A.M.
Gubernatorial candidate Gregoire faced racial dilemma in college
By Ralph Thomas
One of a series of articles exploring the lives and political careers of the candidates for governor.
When 19-year-old Christine O'Grady joined Kappa Delta at the University of Washington in 1966, the Southern-based sorority still barred its doors to women who were not white and Christian.
O'Grady now 57 and known by her married name, Christine Gregoire says she and her fellow Kappa Delta recruits were not told about the whites-only policy until just before their initiation.
"We all felt lied to, because no one told us anything," said Gregoire, Washington's attorney general since 1993. "We were angry and we were offended."
Gregoire says she considered walking away, but as much as she disagreed with the policy, she decided she couldn't do anything about it by quitting.
Instead, she dived into sorority life, became Kappa Delta president at UW, and after graduation tried to persuade the sorority's national conference to drop the rule.
She went to school in the late 1960s, when America's colleges were aflame over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. But while other students were clashing with authority, Gregoire took the work-within-the-system approach that has since characterized her career.
"That was always her motto: 'If you see something wrong with the system, change it from within because you can always do more good that way,' " said Annette (Faber) Slaybaugh, a sorority sister who remains a close friend.
Stay and bring change
As sorority president, Gregoire had to tell new recruits about the whites-only policy. When some were outraged, she urged them to stay so they could change it.
Kappa Delta, like other white-only campus organizations, did eventually rewrite its membership policy. Sorority officials won't say when that happened, except that it was many years after Gregoire left UW.
While she may have helped raise awareness, "Christine didn't change the membership policy," said Julie Johnson, Kappa Delta's current national president.
Gregoire, however, is convinced that she and other outspoken members from the Northwest were responsible for getting the national organization to change. "It was because of us," she said. "No question about it."
King County Councilman Larry Gossett, who was president of UW's Black Student Union at the same time Gregoire was president of Kappa Delta, says Gregoire's brand of activism was a toothless response to racism.
Gossett said Gregoire would have had more impact if she had shunned Kappa Delta and publicly exposed the sorority's discriminatory policy. He acknowledges it would have been hard for Gregoire to take such a stand, especially on an overwhelmingly white campus.
"But that would have been something she could really be talking about now in her campaign for governor," said Gossett, who backs Gregoire's primary-election opponent, King County Executive Ron Sims, also an African American.
Gregoire joined Kappa Delta during her sophomore year. She was eager to get away from rowdy dorms and liked Kappa Delta's emphasis on academics and leadership and its tightly controlled environment.
The sorority had a strict curfew, a drinking ban and a "beau room" downstairs, the only place in the house where boys were allowed. At the time, members had to wear skirts or dresses on campus.
Gregoire served as "standards chairwoman," helping enforce the house rules, moved up to secretary/treasurer, then president her senior year.
As president, she oversaw day-to-day operations and had to play the dual role of personal counselor and chief enforcer to the sorority's 100 or so members.
"She had a real interesting ability to be sort of hard on people but still maintain their friendship," said Patricia Nieman of Friday Harbor, who was Gregoire's alumnae adviser at the time and later became Kappa Delta's national president. "She always followed the rules, and believed they were there for a reason."
Gregoire dabbled in student government, but "she was not a political activist in any way," said Slaybaugh.
Gregoire says she took part in only one demonstration, organized by sorority and fraternity leaders, who believed anti-war protests waged by other students were "sending the wrong message to the president."
The sororities and fraternities aimed to send a slightly different message: calling on the U.S. to leave Vietnam but also urging support for American troops. The event flopped, as sorority and fraternity members wound up outnumbered by students protesting against them.
"No one understood the message," said Gregoire, who later married a Vietnam vet. "It translated into we were for the war."
Gregoire became sorority president in 1968, the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. That fall, like presidents before her, Gregoire told new pledges about the membership policy.
Gallant says Gregoire told them their outrage was justified, that she had faced the same moral dilemma when she pledged two years earlier. "If you leave, you won't change it," she told them.
No one left. "It was just classic Chris," Gallant said. "She was very empowering."
Gregoire says the issue was so emotional that some parents would have pulled their daughter out of the sorority if it allowed non-whites to join.
"You've got to remember the time," Gregoire says today. "You've got to remember the context."
Even though discrimination was banned by UW policy, segregation by race and religion was a fact of Greek life. At the time, the house next to Kappa Delta was an all-Jewish sorority. And Gregoire says it was not as though Kappa Delta was having to enforce its rule; she says no nonwhites were trying to get in.
Gregoire says she and some friends at one point considered challenging the sorority's national rule by recruiting an African-American student to pledge but decided it would not be fair to ask anyone to take on that "sacrificial lamb" role.
Kappa Delta holds its national conventions every two years. There was no convention when Gregoire was chapter president, so she says she had to wait until after graduation to act.
In 1971, after graduating and becoming a sorority adviser, she traveled to Hot Springs, Ark., for the convention. She says she was uncomfortable from the start.
"We sit down to dinner that (first) night and they burst into these Southern songs 'Dixie,' " she said. "I had to buck the South."
She says she couldn't get a resolution on the convention agenda for discussion, so she went again in 1973, this time to Roanoke, Va.
National sorority leaders were angry. Nieman said the UW chapter was ostracized for Gregoire's activism. Gregoire said there were even veiled threats that it could be stripped of its charter.
With several hundred sorority students and alumnae on hand at the 1973 convention, Gregoire says she was shaking when she stood to speak out against Kappa Delta's whites-only rule.
She recalls telling them, "I understand how strongly you feel about this issue, but you need to understand we cannot abide discrimination, and you will lose every member if you do not open up your eyes and realize you cannot continue to have this policy."
Gregoire says her motion didn't receive enough support to come up for a vote, and the rule remained in place.
Alexandra Robbins, author of "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities," says she knows first-hand how hostile sororities are to criticism, especially from within.
"I can only imagine what it was like back then," she said. "For this woman to stand up to her sorority took guts and gumption."
The issue was coming to a head at other colleges. In the spring of 1968, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., required all student groups to have nondiscrimination clauses in their bylaws. Instead of complying, Kappa Delta left campus.
Robbins, the author, says Kappa Delta's history is far from unusual among sororities and fraternities. Many are still highly segregated, she said. "You still find white women who will not allow black women into their sorority," she said. "It still happens."
Today, Kappa Delta hands a booklet to new members saying, "We welcome women of every color and creed."
Nieman and Johnson, Kappa Delta's national president, say they don't know when the new language was adopted. The sorority's "policies have been evolving and changing ever since our founding over 100 years ago," Johnson said. "So there isn't a real actual date when things changed."
Nieman, Gregoire's former adviser, said the policy didn't get fixed until "many years" after her graduation.
"I would like to say that Chris made the changes, but she didn't at that time," said Nieman, Kappa Delta's national president from 1989 to 1995. "It was coming already. It was just going to take some time to get there."
Gossett, the former president of the Black Student Union, said it would have taken less time had people like Gregoire been more bold in challenging the system. He doesn't buy her view that she made more of a difference by working within the sorority.
"It's a rationalization that's often used by otherwise good people to justify why they did not want to make a significant sacrifice themselves to change something that was long overdue to be changed," said Gossett.
Gregoire says she has no regrets. If she had quit or been kicked out of Kappa Delta, "they win." If she and her sisters had defied the national sorority, the UW chapter would have been closed, and the sorority would have continued discriminating elsewhere.
"At the end of the day," she said, "I feel passionately that I did the right thing."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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