120 Years of Sororities at Illinois

Around this time of year, 120 years ago, the first sororities (womens fraternities as they were known as at the time) were initiated at the University of Illinois. There is some controversy over which organization was the very first, based on charter approvals and initiation dates. In any event, Pi Beta Phi initiated nine charter members in the Zeta chapter at the university of Illinois. Kappa Alpha Theta, whose charter dates October 24, 1895, initiated thirteen members on November 9, 1895. Both of these chapters have formally written histories housed here in our archives.

Found in Record Series 41/8/805

Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women, 1896

Amelia Alpiner Stern, a charter member of Pi Beta Phi, is the author of their history. In the paper, she wrote:

Soon after the university opened in the fall of ‘94 a buzz was heard wherever groups of girls gathered and the air became charged with the idea of organizing purely social local groups which could later petition for membership in some national sorority…By the spring of 1895 the two groups had definitely outlined their purposes and one petitioned Pi Beta Phi and the other Kappa Alpha Theta.[1]

Found in Record Seieres 41/72/38

Petition for Illinois Zeta Chapter of Pi Beta Phi 1895-1938

The original charter members of the Zeta chapter of Pi Beta Phi were Amelia Alpiner (Stern) herself, Blanch Lindsay (Woods), Laura Busey (Fulton), Ann Montgomery (Bahnsen), Leila White, Nellie Besore (Sears), Edith Yeomans, Edith Weaver (Gihuley), and Vivian Monier (Morrissey).  These women met at the houses of faculty wives for gatherings until formal housing was established later on. Faculty wives served as “sponsors” to the sorority women, and other established chapters within the National Organization also aided the charter members. Amelia notes that there were “no scholastic requirements: complete registration and good family background being the only prerequisites for membership.”[2] At the time, there was no Dean of Women and no one had jurisdiction over the sorority members. When the number of women enrolled on campus exceeded 1000 in 1897, the university decided regulation was needed. Violet DeLille Jayne was added to the Faculty as the first Dean of Women.[3] Amelia went on to be the first president of the University of Illinois Mothers Association in 1923.

Found in Record Series 41/8/805

Kappa Alpha Theta, c. 1895, from the 1897 Illio

In another history, Sabra S. Reece compiled stories from the charter members of Kappa Alpha Theta in 1966. In this history, she writes a similar story as Amelia Alpiner Stern, noting that there was a desire for an organized women’s social group and one of the two groups petitioned Kappa Alpha Theta to be chartered at Illinois. The charter, dated October 24, 1895, was the first to be granted at the University of Illinois but the initiation did not occur until November 9, 1895, to accommodate women traveling to carry out the ceremony. Sabra Reece quotes one of the charter members on this matter in the history:

Having somehow learned of these plans, another group of girls hastened with a petition to Pi Beta Phi, secured a prompt and favorable reply just after the date of the Theta charter, and held their initiation at once. Much has been made through the years of the fact that Pi Beta Phi was the first sorority at the University of Illinois. [Reba Wharton] said “The Pi Phis needn’t be so cocky about being the oldest chapter on campus. Our group was organized, but not initiated first. As I remember they were initiated only a few days before our initiation, but a little rivalry is good for all for us.[4]

Found in Record Series 39/2/20

Fire at the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority house, November 19, 1914

There were thirteen charter members of the Delta chapter in total initiated in the home of Marion Wright on that November day: Marion Wright herself, Bertha Pillsbury, Isobel and Mary Nobel (the four initial petitioners) and Louise Jones, Blanche Herrick, Ruth Raymond, Mary Greene, Ida Conn, Mabel Zilly, Marion Thompson, Georgia Bennett, and Reba Wharton. Kappa Alpha Theta itself was the first Greek letter fraternity known among women, organized in the 1870s.[5]

Kappa Kappa Gamma was chartered in the Spring of 1898 and Alpha Chi Omega and Chi Omega followed suit in the fall of 1899.[6] Today, the sorority community at the University of Illinois has grown to include 19 National Panhellenic Conference chapters and several associate chapters. If you are interested in learning more about the history of fraternities and sororities at the University of Illinois, please let us know!

 

[1] Pi Beta Phi Records, 1895-2009, Record Series 41/6/840 University of Illinois Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Filbey Family Papers, 1900-13, 1920-61, 1969, Record Series 41/20/38, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] Kappa Alpha Theta History, 1895-1925, 1991, Record Series 41/72/27, University of Illinois Archives.

[5] Pi Beta Phi Records, 1895-2009, Record Series 41/6/840 University of Illinois Archives.

[6] Kappa Alpha Theta History, 1895-1925, 1991, Record Series 41/72/27, University of Illinois Archives.

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